The only actor besides Tom Cruise who has been in all five of the Mission: Impossible movies since the first film debuted in 1996 is Ving Rhames. But according to the 56-year-old actor, his stylish and formidable computer hacker character Luther Stickell was initially only supposed to last for the first 15 minutes of the first movie — until he made a pointed comment to that film’s director, Brian De Palma.
"I remember saying to him, 'Look, why is it that the black man dies 15 pages into the [script]?'" Rhames recently told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "I said that kind of jokingly, but it was the truth in many films. As a matter of fact, saying it nicely, [in] all these action movies, you are fortunate if there is one African-American or one woman. You know what I'm saying? So then they changed the script, and I lived."
Rhames has continued to be a part of the multibillion-dollar franchise for the past 19 years, with the fifth film, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, opening worldwide this weekend. That would be a rare achievement for any actor, and Rhames is clear that it is pretty much unprecedented for a black man in Hollywood. "I feel very blessed and very fortunate," he said. "I don't know if an actor of African-American descent has been a part of a franchise as long as I have. Well, maybe [Lethal Weapon star] Danny Glover, but I don't think they did it over a 20-year period."
During his conversation with BuzzFeed News, Rhames looked back on his experience with the Mission: Impossible movies, including how it all started with a chance encounter with Cruise in a bathroom.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Rhames, who graduated from Juilliard, had worked steadily as a character actor since since the 1980s, but his first breakout role was as gangster Marcellus Wallace in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. And that role is what led him to Mission: Impossible.
"In New York City, in Central Park, at the premiere of Pulp Fiction, I'm in the bathroom, and either Tom Cruise walked in, or he was in the bathroom, and I walked in," he said. "Of course, I know who he is; he doesn't really know who I am. He says something. And then I say, ‘Well, you know, I'm in this film.’ And then he says to me [that] he'll tell me what he thinks about the film after the film. Now I'm thinking, There's hundreds of people there. But after the film, he runs up and jumps on me and gives me a big hug, like he knows me."
He laughed before adding, "Anyway. Tom and I have a good chemistry. We're on a similar level, on a spiritual level, as far as how we talk and how we think about life and what have you.”
Rhames joined a cast that included Emmanuelle Béart (as the love interest), Henry Czerny (as the boss), and Jon Voight (as the villain). And he immediately stood out, in part because, in the '90s, there was a clear stereotype for what a computer hacker character was supposed to look like, and as Rhames said with a laugh, “It wasn’t me.” But that has never stopped him from taking roles that challenged expectations.
"First of all, I don't allow myself to be stereotyped, and I don't give the industry or anyone the power to stereotype me," he said. "You can feel I am whatever you want to feel I am. God knows who I am, and I know who I am. In this industry, very few actors can control their career. So when a black man gets offered a role of a computer geek or what have you, I look at that as something beyond my control, and god, the universe, whatever, was working in a certain way for this to happen."
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
This sequel, directed by John Woo, cleared out all of the first film's cast except for Cruise and Rhames. The largely Australia-set movie instead co-starred Thandie Newton (as the love interest), Anthony Hopkins (as the boss), and Dougray Scott (as the villain).
Rhames spent most of his time in the film parked in front of a laptop, frantically tapping in commands to support Cruise’s dashing secret agent Ethan Hunt. In order to keep that interesting, Rhames basically had to keep it real.
“What I try to do is replicate what I would do at my computer," he said. "I try to make it as natural as possible. I always try to give whatever the situation of that scene is. It's 6 a.m. in the morning. Ethan has one hour before he has to leave this location. If I don't do this, they would murder Ethan. So then I use that.”
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Yet again, every element of the cast for the film changed save for Cruise and Rhames, with Michelle Monaghan (as the love interest), Laurence Fishburne (as the boss), and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the villain) joining the cast — along with Simon Pegg, who had a small role as an excitable tech geek.
Cruise also made headlines when, as the franchise's main producer, he gave the director's chair to J.J. Abrams. The onetime actor (in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation) was already famous for creating beloved TV series like Felicity, Alias, and Lost, but he had not yet directed a feature film.
“For me, that is my favorite one [of the Mission: Impossible movies]. J.J., I don't know if he's still acting, but he has a very good rapport with actors. I think it really helps the director if they have acted before," Rhames said. "I think it will help actors if they've directed before with working with directors. So J.J., there was something very calm and peaceful about him. Every [Mission: Impossible] cast I've ever been a part of, the chemistry was always very good. And god bless Philip Seymour Hoffman. Helluva actor, man. Larry Fishburne I think was in that one. We've always been able to attract very good actors, and in general, they were all trained actors. So J.J. was a good conductor of this orchestra that they put together."
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
In keeping with tradition, all of the cast from the previous film were scuttled for the fourth M:I film, directed by Brad Bird, save for Cruise…and Pegg, who largely took on the role of the computer expert that Rhames had played in the previous three films. Instead, Rhames showed up for only a single scene at the very end of the film that required just two days of work. But the sudden demotion scarcely bothered Rhames.
“Honestly, I look at it this way, brother: Things I really have no control over, I don't give it much energy. So I don't think about, Well, why am I not in this more?" he said. "Basically, I just say, 'Look, I've been very blessed.' I graduated college in 1983, so that's 32 years, and all I've done for a living is act or commercials or voiceovers. So I have nothing to complain about. I've never had another job since I graduated the Juilliard School. It's all good. It's all gravy, [whether] I worked two days on it or six months."
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Breaking with M:I movie tradition, not only has Rhames returned for a full supporting role in the fifth Mission: Impossible movie — directed by Christopher McQuarrie — but so have Pegg and Jeremy Renner, who first joined the franchise as a by-the-book agent in M:I4. And instead of a full-fledged love interest, Rebecca Ferguson plays a highly capable character who is many ways a platonic equal to Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. (Alec Baldwin, meanwhile, plays the boss, and Sean Harris plays the villain.)
With almost nine years between making M:I3 and M:I5, Rhames said he’s noticed another marked change in the franchise. "Tom's really grown as a producer," he said. "I was really shocked. Because I didn't work much on 4. But on 5, he really took the reins. What Tom really brings to this is a certain humanity. For instance, 5 is more about friendship, honestly, and what are you willing to do for your friends? That's a universal issue, but it's cloaked in action. It brings a little more emotion to the film. For me, seeing how Tom’s grown as an artist, a producer, as a man, as a quote-unquote writer — that's been kind of special to me."
Making Mission: Impossible movies over the past two decades has undoubtedly made a mark on Rhames' career — and will likely continue to well into the future. "Any actor will tell you if you're on a film that makes hundreds of millions of dollars, it does increase your Q [score], especially internationally," he said. "You see there are things you can do now internationally, especially for an African-American actor, that maybe they didn't look at you before for. I'm the spokesman for ADT, and ADT, brother, pays better than most actors make on film."
Rhames chuckled. "And also, tomorrow is not promised," he added. "My mother, she's 87. She just went through a mild stroke. Thank god, she's pretty much OK now. But my thing is really that I look at life a bit differently. With me, being a part of this for a 20-year period, that's something special. Before I leave this planet, that's part of my legacy. We'll see how this one does at the box office. But I would not be surprised in the least if there's another."