Actor discusses his relationship with Tom, working with J.J. Abrams and the younger cast and why he "prefers" this new Mission: Impossible to the other two

Ving Rhames typifies the American actor. He has the ability by just appearing on screen to create many different thoughts and characterizations. He can be raging quietly in a film like Casualties of War, menacing in a movie such as Pulp Fiction or dangerous in a film like Undisputed.

It is his recurring role as Luther Stickell in the Mission: Impossible franchise that is also one of his most interesting. Stickell sees this highly versatile actor tackle the role of technical expert to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team. Mission: Impossible III, while being a stylistically charged action-fest, also delves more into the two characters relationship which is something Rhames relished in this new installment.

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At one point you said that Mission: Impossible was Tom Cruise's vehicle and you were just happy to sit in the van. Is that still the case?

Ving Rhames: Well, I think what we did with this one... first of all, I think it's closer to the television series. I quote J.J. Abrams he said, "Look, if we have Ving Rhames, use him." So I think this one is a little more team oriented, a little more ensemble oriented. Of course Tom is the lead but I really think we take full use of the skills of the other members of the team. I think this one is closer to the television series and I think what J.J. Abram's brought to it as... before this I think he's only done television, but I think he just brings a freshness and enthusiasm with it and also more of an ensemble feel.

I think some of that is with his television background with the series Lost and Alias, you know? Of course there's always a lead character but the lead character becomes, you get to know who the lead character is by the way the other characters react to them. I think we captured that with Mission: Impossible III.

Are you surprised that they kept your character through the whole series?

Ving Rhames: No, I'm quite not. I'm not surprised at all. I said that jokingly but I will say I think Tom and I have a very good natural chemistry. I think you can see more of that in this film. As a matter of fact, some of the conversations we have in this one it could be too friends at a bar having these conversations. We have them in the middle of a dangerous situation. I think this is more truer to how men and friends relate to one another. I think through that you learn more about who Ethan is, you learn more about his past, his present with the "love interest" storyline in this one, and I think the audience will now invest more in his character because you know more of his personal life.

As opposed to the other two it dealt more with Ethan as the Impossible Mission Force leader. Very rarely did you get to see him in a situation outside of the action hero.

Do you think your relationship with Tom has developed outside of your characters?

Ving Rhames: Yes, and I think, of course I've known Tom now ten years. I think sometimes what happens is you can have two "good" actors and there could not necessarily be the best chemistry between them; and the relationship on screen could not work. I think Tom and I have a very good chemistry off camera and I think we were able to utilize that on camera. I know from myself watching it and other reviewers watching it, they've said to me that him and I, we seem like we go back a long way. And that's true, we go back like ten years.

Do you feel that because J.J. added some humor to this film that that made it more human in some ways?

Ving Rhames: I think that and I think also J.J.'s a former actor. J.J.'s a writer and a director. J.J.'s also younger than the previous two directors. So I think his hand is a little closer to the pulse of mainstream America. Especially, I think J.J.'s in his mid-thirties, so I think he's a little more in touch, so I think the elements of humor, the love story line... I think this one is just a little fresher. I honestly think he put things in it that will appeal even more to women, having a whole love story. And I'm stressing love story vs. a sex story. I think in the other two there might have been a woman who was a sexual interest, moreso than love.

I think what J.J. brought to it, and the other two writers, was just something that was extremely fresh and more authentic that an audience will grasp.

Which was the most challenging location to film at?

Ving Rhames: Maybe Shanghai? When I filmed in Shanghai we were filming at like 5 am in the morning and it was cold, and Shanghai... there's a quite a bit of smog in Shanghai. And for me, I flew in and lets say I got in at 10 am at night then I had to be on the set at 4 or 5 am in the morning, so that was probably the most challenging for me.

As a director how did J.J. Abrams get the most out of you as an actor?

Ving Rhames: Well, I would say first of all the work that he did with the script, he decided to utilize the team more. Second of all, J.J. being an actor, he speaks an "actor's language" I would call it. So I think he connects with actors in a different way than many directors, who are not former actors, relate to actors.

How were stunts in this movie compared to the other ones?

Ving Rhames: I'll sum it up by saying this, I prefer this one, I hate using the word "best" but I think this one stands out above the other two. Due to, it's a human story with tons of action. The other ones, I think, the action might have come before the story.

You are definitely the comic relief in this film. Do you find it more difficult to do comedy than drama?

Ving Rhames: No. I basically try and play the truth of the moment, the truth of the situation. Nine times out of ten when you watch the film, I'm not trying to be funny. I'm trying to be as honest and, if anything, I look at it more as a straight man. I've been amused with the audience response to my character and my character's relationship to Ethan. I've always been taught to just play the truth of the situation. If comedy comes out of that or drama, whatever comes out of it, at least I'm playing the truth of the moment to moment reality. That's what I try to do as an actor.

How was it working with this new team in Mission: Impossible III?

Ving Rhames: I think having the new actors come along, I think they added something we didn't have in the first two. One is a couple of "women" who could do stunts very well and play action well, we didn't have that in the first one. I also think with Jonathan Rhys Meyers we got a very talented young actor, who has won a Golden Globe, and I think the first day of filming, we filmed on the Tiber River, we spent twelve hours of just Tom's character driving us on a speed boat up and down the river. So we got a chance to bond and for Tom and I, to get to know the other two actors. In this case that was Maggie (Maggie Q) and Jonathan.

So I really think we were very fortunate in this film that the new members that we brought on we all get along. I've known Laurence Fishburne for about twenty years. I just met Philip Seymour Hoffman but he's a fine actor. Sometimes you're in a film where all the pieces of the puzzle fit and I think we were blessed to have that on this one.

Were you a fan of the original TV show? And if so who was your favorite character?

Ving Rhames: I never really watched the original television show. I watched reruns of it when I found out I was doing Mission 1, but I never watched the TV series.

Mission: Impossible III had a long development process. Was there ever a point where you were worried that it wouldn't happen?

Ving Rhames: No, and actually the development of it, for discussion's sake, lets say it was six months or a year apart, but there was another director originally. Once they brought on board the new director, even locations changed and sometimes you have artistic or creative differences. So, for this one I can honestly say, no, I never really put much energy into things that I can't control. So I don't worry about it, I don't really think about it heavily. I was like, "You know look, the first two made quite a bit of money," so just from a business point of view I realized most likely number three would happen. But, there was no guarantee but I honestly felt in my heart and soul that it would happen.

Were you privy to any earlier versions of the script?

Ving Rhames: No, I wasn't. Literally even reading this one, you had to sign a legal document stating you couldn't talk about it, you couldn't make duplicates of the script, so no.

What is the most fun part about making a blockbuster for you?

Ving Rhames: On this one it was a lot of fun. Tom comes in, he sets a certain professional standard, this one I think the cast was a little younger... this was fun. The other two, some of them seemed a little more like work. This one really seemed like fun and I really applaud J.J. and Paula Wagner and Tom for... I can't explain it. I can just say, I honestly feel that sometimes, and I had this feeling on Pulp Fiction, where every piece of the puzzle just sort of works and fits. Coming to work was just a pleasure.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

Ving Rhames: I would probably say when Tom jumps off that "100 story" building. I was on the roof with him so seeing him do that, and he did it from anywhere between six to ten times, I was pretty amazed with him and he wanted to do it even more. That to me, just watching J.J. shoot that was probably the one that touched me the most. I think, really, the editing of the whole sequence in Rome, with the Vatican, is probably my favorite.

Were you really nervous for him when you watched that scene?

Ving Rhames: Tom jumping off the roof, I was a little more nervous than the others. Since I was there, it just brought up feelings of, people don't like to ever talk about this but what happens if a stunt goes wrong? The more you do a stunt the more you increase the risk of something happening. The great thing was the stunt guy, Vic Armstrong and his whole team, were excellent, but we were very fortunate that nothing went wrong. People don't realize there is that possibility, something could happen.

How would you like to see your character expanded in the future if there were more sequels?

Ving Rhames: There will be a sequel but I would probably say I think we're on the right path. I didn't give them any notes on how to expand my character in this one, but I think what the writers knew, and I really applaud J.J. for this, is that the more you see the main character interact with people around him the more you learn about him.

I think J.J. knew that as a writer. I think that's why we tapped into something that is a bit more human than the other two. I think we will continue to go down that path. I was talking to Tom last night and Tom realized in Mission 1 we had an element of that, my character and his, they decided after watching one and two that in two we were lacking that element. You really didn't see Tom interact with people that much except mainly the "bad guys." That people dealt with him on a personal level outside of him being an IMF agent.

Mission: Impossible III opens in theaters nationwide Friday May 5th, 2006.