The actor: Since breaking through as the star of the 1992 interracial romance Zebrahead, Michael Rapaport has enjoyed a curious reign as what he grudgingly refers to as “king of dumb white guys.” He has played variations on that type in everything from Mighty Aphrodite and Small Time Crooks to Bamboozled to Chappelle’s Show. Although he continues to act, but he has recently broken into directing with the essential A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes And Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest. Rapaport can currently be seen alongside Parker Posey and pro wrestler Paul Levesque (a.k.a. Triple H) in Inside Out. The A.V. Club spoke to Rapaport earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Frank Zappa’s Civilization, Phaze III (1994)—voice in skits
The A.V. Club: You were on one of Frank Zappa’s last albums. How did that come about?
MR: Because I used to date Moon Zappa. She’s a good friend of mine still. He used to get a kick out of the way I used to speak, so he was like, “Yo, you wanna come down there and talk on this album?” We went down there and I talked on the album, and I felt like it was cool ’cause he was Frank Zappa, and I was Mike Rappa. That’s what we used to joke. I used to always get a kick out of him, and I think he used to get a kick out of me.
AVC: He also seems like a bit of an eccentric musical genius and a real perfectionist.
MR: And if you’re a musical genius, who better to put on your albums than me, right?
MR: Changed my life. Changed my life in every single way. Gave me the confidence and validation that I could be an actor. It took my virginity.
Poetic Justice (1993)—“Dockworker”
MR: The only reason I did that movie, because it was a small part: I was a huge fan of Boyz N The Hood, but I was an enormously big fan at the time of Tupac, and I knew how special he was. I have one scene that, if you blink you’ll miss me, but I wanted to meet him, and I wanted to work with John Singleton, who I worked with again on Higher Learning. And I have a Polaroid picture of me and Tupac.
Higher Learning (1995)—“Remy”
AVC: How was it playing a skinhead?
MR: Playing that part was very fulfilling, very challenging. I had my youthful character-actor aspirations. The craziest thing about playing the character of Remy is that I’ve been embraced more by the hip-hop community for that movie than for anything I’ve ever done. By far. I think because the character is so honest. I’m really proud of that performance. I felt it was a well-rounded performance, and it was obviously very different from anything I had done. It was more extreme than anything I had done. It was so by far the furthest away from me aesthetically. Emotionally I related to the character, the emotions of the character, which I think was why I was able to do it. But the nature, the disposition of the character was so far away. And I’m really proud of it. There’s not one day that goes by where someone doesn’t call me Remy from Higher Learning. Every day at least one person says that to me.
AVC: Busta Rhymes is in that.
MR: Busta Rhymes, Omar Epps, Ice Cube.
AVC: Everything comes together. Were you worried that people were going to have a hard time buying you as that character?
MR: I wasn’t worried that people were gonna have a hard time buying me. I thought people would have a hard time seeing me in the street. I knew I wasn’t gonna mess that up. I knew it was a great opportunity and I was coming in with guns blazing. I put my whole everything into it. I felt confident I wasn’t gonna mess that up. I was a little concerned that when I walked around town people would be thinking that I was really like that. But like I said, I’ve been embraced by all sorts of people who I never thought would… They love that character. Love him. I don’t know why.
True Romance (1993)—“Dick Ritchie”
MR: It’s the only movie I ever did that I knew was gonna be great. Everybody knew going into it, the script was so good, and you’d hear, “Oh Christopher Walken’s gonna be in it now! Oh shit! James Gandolfini’s gonna be in it!” Well James Gandolfini was a nobody. Me and him were nobodies. But like, “Gary Oldman’s gonna be in it! Oh shit! Val Kilmer’s gonna be in it! Oh shit!” The script was just so good, and there was such a buzz on it, and Quentin Tarantino was so hot and unique at the time, not that he’s not now. But it was like, this unraveling of this special guy. I knew it was gonna be a good movie. And creatively, Tony Scott embraced me and gave me the trust for me to go forward and bring things to the character. ’Cause I would ask him, “Hey can I try this?” And he’d be like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” “Can I do this?” “No that sucks.” But he would listen to everything that I asked, and he gave me a forum to try and create more than what was on the script.
The Basketball Diaries (1995)—“Skinhead”
MR: That was when Leonardo DiCaprio would need me to do a favor for him. “Yo, can you do this cameo!” Not that I’m giving him shit. I’m friendly with him. I love him and respect him, and we’re buddies. He said, “Yo, there’s this one scene in the movie, can you do it?” I said, “Yeah I’ll do it.” So I got to smack him around a little bit. But now I’m waiting for him to put me in one of his new ones! Can you put me in Inception or something like that?
AVC: Sneak you into a Scorsese film?
MR: Yeah, why do I have to be in the only Leonardo DiCaprio movie with a $2 million budget?
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)—“Kevin”
MR: I worked with Woody Allen. It was everything you’d think it would be. I remember being in Central Park the first day of working, I had on this beautiful wardrobe and it was a great fall day, and I remember just thinking, “Holy shit!” I met Woody Allen for five minutes, I got a phone call three hours later, he cast me in the movie. I didn’t have to audition. I didn’t have to read, or jump through hoops, which made me feel good and set the bar high. Because you’ll meet directors who want you to do this, want you to do that. They’re not making you jump through hoops to prove yourself. It’s cause of their insecurities and what they don’t know. So working with him and coming back to work with him in Small Time Crooks again… it was just everything you would think it would be. He was just great. He was funny with me. He encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, say what I wanted to say, not say what I didn’t want to say. And this is from Woody Allen! He’d say, “If you don’t want to say that line, say something else, but it better be better!”
AVC: He’s daring you to improve on his words.
MR: He’d say, “If you don’t want to say that joke, say something else, but it’s got to be funny.” It was great.
AVC: He trusted that you knew the character.
MR: He trusted me and I would improv, and he would throw it right back at me. That’s the thing about Woody Allen: If you’re gonna go off the cuff and work with him, you better be ready. It’s not just gonna be hit back to you, it’s gonna be a volley at the net. It’s coming right back quick. Because it’s Woody Allen. It was beautiful.
AVC: You have to step up your game.
MR: Bring the best. It was great. I would love to work with him again. I think it’s only right that he comes back to New York. My dream would be to do a movie where I play his son, his 6-foot-3 son. But I just know what I can do with him, and I’m so comfortable working with him. That would be my dream. I want to see him do more movies in New York again so I can try and be in them. He’s casting all these British and Spanish actors—there’s no place for me. It’s my selfishness.
AVC: Was it surprising that you didn’t have to jump through more hoops? Because your role in Mighty Aphrodite is pretty central. It’s pretty much a lead.
MR: It’s par for the course that I still have to jump through hoops. That’s one thing that’s a drag. If I want to play a librarian from Texas, I’ll jump through hoops. I don’t think if you’re looking for a librarian from Texas, the first thing that comes to mind is Michael Rapaport… or for a skinhead. You know, you don’t think that. But certain things, it’s like, “Really?” I just read for this big movie from this first time director in the summer. It’s a New York City cop, blah blah. It was me and all these other great New York actors out there, and I’m like, “Just pick one of us! We don’t give a shit who. Why do we have to jump through hoops for you?” My whole mentality now is, “Who the fuck are you? Let me see you do 30 push-ups. Why am I jumping through hoops for you? Break down and give me 30 push-ups.” Because I was like, “This is a joke, man. You’re making us all read here. We’ve all done this. Just pick one.” That kind of shit is frustrating for me now because there are certain things I feel like you earn. Meeting, talking about where your head is at, that’s one thing. You want me to audition, and you’ve never made a movie before? Get the fuck outta here.
Cop Land (1997)—“Murray Babitch”
MR: I got to work with two of my idols at once: Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro. I was just overwhelmed to be a part of it and to be around those guys, and to actually be doing scenes with them and sometimes be doing scenes with the both of them. As a fan of theirs, to be actually in front of them reading lines on a set, I was in awe. But I also knew that I wasn’t there to be a fan, and they’d only respect me to bring it to them. And it was just great. I couldn’t help myself. Me and Sylvester, I would do Rocky lines all the time, and he would do them back to me, and James Mangold got to the point where he told me, “Do not speak to him.” Because I would do lines from Rocky and he’d be like, [in a Stallone accent] “You know what you’re talking about.” And I was like, “I know everything about Rocky. I could do every line.” But he could do them too. He would do them back to me. It was surreal.
AVC: That was supposed to be the film that would establish him as a dramatic actor. I feel like he did a really good job, but it didn’t seem like that happened.
MR: He did do a good job, but he’s so iconic, it’s hard to break out of that. Talk about being typecast.
AVC: You look at his comeback, and it’s him playing these supermen. Rambo, Rocky, The Expendables. It seems like when the public embraces you as one thing.
MR: It’s hard to get out of it. Not the public—the world!
Beautiful Girls (1996)—“Paul Kirkwood”
MR: Great cast, Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman. Fun time. The late Ted Demme. We had a great time working with Matt Dillon, who I’ve respected for so long. It was just what you would think it would be.
AVC: It’s a lot of people’s favorite movie. It’s developed a cult following. What do you attribute that to?
MR: I think it’s a good movie, I think it’s funny, I think it has a lot of heart. It was disappointing that it didn’t do as well in theaters, but people talk to me about it all the time. And Natalie Portman. So it’s a lot of special things in that movie.
The Naked Man (1998)—“Dr. Edward Blis Jr.”
MR: It was written by Ethan Coen, of the Coen brothers—great, great, great script, not a great director. It was his storyboard artist. Just because it was written by the Coen brothers, doesn’t make it’s a Coen brothers film. That’s all I can say. I busted my ass on that movie. I would have loved to have seen it turn out a little better, but I went down swinging. I could tell you that much. I gave it everything I had. It just didn’t work.
Bamboozled (2000)—“Thomas Dunwitty”
MR: I love that movie. I love the message of the movie. I love working with Spike. I’ve been a big fan of his for years. He let me go off, really encouraged me to bring stuff to the character. He’s an iconic New York director. We have the same birthdate. Sometimes he would cut days short to go to Knicks games or Yankees game. I remember one day they were like, “Yo we got to get this done, Spike’s got to go to the game.” I was like, “What the fuck is going on here? At least take me to the game if you’re only gonna give me three takes!” But he was great. I would love to work with him again—similar directing style to Woody Allen. They don’t talk much, but they trust you if you’re bringing the goods.
AVC: They are both quintessential New York filmmakers.
MR: Yeah, but they actually are similar on the set with actors.
AVC: Obviously you have this love for black culture and hip-hop culture. Your character in Bamboozled also does in a very misguided way. How much could you identify with the character?
MR: I could totally identify with the character. I loved the character. I knew that it was important, that it was larger than life. Some of the characters that he makes in the movies are examples of something, not a stereotype—
AVC: Like archetypes.
MR: Archetypes, yeah. I was so happy they gave me the chance to do it. I had a lot of fun on that movie. I thought the character was so funny. I loved it. I love doing things that are titillating. I think race can be very funny, and I think I’m very comfortable discussing it and bringing it up. I think it’s important to. I think that’s why Spike let me play the part. Again, it wasn’t what you would think. It’s the opposite of my persona, if I have any persona, but that’s why I was so wanting to do the part. A lot of people in the movie were contradictions to who they were in person, so that was fun.
AVC: What would you say your persona is, if you have one?
MR: I’m a New York person. I’ve never gone out of the way to speak to the press to change my persona—I probably should have. It’s too late now. But when I first started I was like, “I’m gonna stay this way. I’m gonna be this way,” and I continued to. I probably should have sugarcoated it like, “This is not really the way I am—I’m an actor.” I see these other actors come up with this tough-guy personas and now when they’re on talk shows they’re all… But that’s not really the way they are. I probably could have used a little bit of that. At one point I was labeled “The King Of Dumb White Guys.” I was offended by that when I was younger, but I understand what that’s from, so I was like, “Only a genius can play a fool.” But I’m very aware of that, and I’ll play into it and use it however I need to use it. I have nothing to prove. I don’t want to misrepresent who I am personally. I don’t want my kids to see me on a talk show and say, “You’re talking different” or “You look different, dad.” I’m not gonna be an animal; I know how to conduct myself. But for me quietly, I never wanted to change—evolve and grow up, yes. If my son was an actor I would tell him, “Don’t let people know as much about you as I let people know about me.” Because I think professionally, it’s an easier road. That would be something I would tell a young actor. But it’s cool.
AVC: Do you think Beats, Rhymes And Life will change how people perceive you?
MR: Will it change how people see me? I hope it gives me an opportunity to direct more movies. I’m not going to try and change how people perceive me. I think it’s important to be a contradiction. People are contradictions; everyone has contradictions. So I don’t expect anyone to look at me differently. I don’t think anyone thinks twice about me, honestly. But I want to make more movies, I want to direct more movies, I want to continue as an actor. I know the few days that I’ve been here at Sundance so far people have looked at me and treated me differently, like, “Maybe you’re not the dumbest white guy in the audience.” So that’s cool. I hope it gives me more opportunities to do more things.
AVC: Anything on the table in terms of directing?
MR: There is. There’s one script that I read that I really, really loved. It’s called Mr. Magnificent, that a writer, the writer of a movie that I did called Special, in 2006, he wrote it, Hal Haberman, and I would like to make that film next. It’s a really well-written comedy about a guy who has the world’s record for having the most world records. It’s got a lot of heart, and it’s very funny.
AVC: Would you be acting and directing?
MR: There’s a small part I’d want to play, just ’cause it’s funny. If I were just acting in it, I’d be interested in playing another part, but I’m not ready to do the Robert Duvall in The Apostle—that’s some other skill shit. That’s another level of talent that I wouldn’t even want to test myself to see if I had. So there’s a little part that I’d want to play, but I’d want to get some really good actors who could help me look good.
Death Of A Dynasty (2003)—uncredited
MR: Damon Dash, who I’ve known since I was a kid, called me and asked me to do the thing. This is when they started to become rich. So I was like, “Yeah I love Jay-Z. I’ll do it.” I was in a Jay-Z video, “The City Is Mine,” ’cause I’ve known Damon for a long time, so I met Jay-Z early on, and I have been a fan of his. I’m that kinda guy. If you ask me to be in your movie and I know you, and I’m around, I’ll be in your movie.
Big Fan (2009)— “Philadelphia Phil”
MR: [Writer/director Rob] Siegel’s from The Onion. It was a great script, funny script. They asked me to do it. I hadn’t even seen The Wrestler. I talked to him on the phone. “I’m doing this, I’m doing that. This person’s in it. That person’s in it. Did you read the script?” “I read the script. It’s a fucking great script. All right I’ll do it!” Went out to Staten Island for a few days, shot the movie. Very proud of it. Small movie, truly independent movie. And again, will continue to have a life of its own. My kids love football, so they got a kick out it. I know it’s kind of dark, but they like it and they like all the football stuff. I’d like to work with him again. He’s great.
AVC: Did you improvise a lot of your lines?
MR: I’m sure I improvised something. You could say “improvise” or you could say, “Didn’t know your lines and just started saying shit.” But he was very cool with me and took care of me. It was a really smooth, easy process making the movie.
AVC: What’s great about that role in particular is that you’re such a presence before you’re ever seen. You know this guy, and you hate this guy. And then when you actually see him for the climax, it has a lot of impact.
MR: That’s why I liked it, the voice there. I liked that idea of it. I’m proud of being in that movie. I love the idea you’re hearing, hearing, hearing, and then you see him. That kinda hook in a thing.
Chappelle’s Show (2003)—“Popcopy Employee”
MR: I used to be a stand-up comedian. I wasn’t anywhere as good as him.
AVC: Very few people are.
MR: I’ve known him for a long time. I saw him on the street. He had just had a baby. He was walking down the street with a baby stroller, I was walking down the street with either a baby on one hand and a baby in the stroller. I had two kids. “What’s up man? What are you doing?” “I’m getting ready to do this pilot for this show.” “What kinda show?” “The Dave Chappelle Show. It’s probably gonna end my career.” That’s what he said to me. “Oh shit, that’s cool.” “Yo, hey you wanna come down and do this cameo? This skit?” Like I said, if you ask me to be in a movie, if I’m around, I’ll be in the movie. I went down, banged it out. That’s probably something I get recognized for, people love that show and love that skit, as they probably love all the skits. But I never forgot: $50 million later it didn’t end your career. It was so successful. I was proud that I was in the pilot of Chappelle’s Show.
I think there are some things, “Why’d you do this? Why’d you do that?” For me, to wrap this whole thing up, being a part of independent-film world, the independent-film community, that’s what you do. You support each other. If someone’s doing a movie and you trust them, you roll the dice. Sometimes it’s gonna be good, sometimes it’s gonna be something that’s like, “Oh I don’t know what the hell that is.” But I’ve been more fortunate than not to have it work well. And when I’ve taken those risks, whether it’s the Dave Chappelle pilot or special or Big Fan before The Wrestler came out, or Zebrahead, or even putting my ass and my money on the line for the Tribe Called Quest movie, that’s what you do. And that’s the beauty of it. And when it comes together, that’s the most exciting thing.