I interviewed Mark “Rhino” Smith about his role in the brilliant movie, Argo, for today’s Guardian Oscar special. Unfortunately, due to four pages being pulled at the last minute, the piece was slashed like a crisp packet that had just been in an argument with Wolverine. So here’s our chat in full, complete with footnotes. You can read the small but mighty newspaper version here.
London-born actor and stuntman Mark ‘Rhino’ Smith moved to Hollywood in 2008, after finding fame in the Nineties stadium muscle-fest that was ITV’s Gladiators. Thanks to his work on movie juggernauts such as Batman Begins and Pirates of the Caribbean 4, his days of smashing opponents around the head with a giant padded ear-bud are over. But it was his Rhino persona that caught Ben Affleck’s eye when he was casting the fake cast of Argo.
You’re in Argo, one of the hottest movies of this year’s awards season. How did that happen? My amazing manager, Melanie Greene, got a phone call from the Argo casting office, saying, “You’re not going to believe this but Ben Affleck has chosen you to play the Evil Villain in the film within the film. Your look will be based on Ming the Merciless.[Footnote 1]”
He literally picked you from a photo? He liked my heritage which is part Jamaican, Cherokee Indian, Ghanaian, White and Chinese. I’m the black guy with green eyes. I look different.
That’s an incredible mix by anyone’s standards. Thanks. Last year, I filmed The Frozen Ground with Nicolas Cage, in Anchorage. He gets a bad rap but he was a really nice guy. Even he said to me, “Where did you get your eyes?” I’ve been hearing this since I was four years old. So I told him, and he said, “Yeah man, they’re fascinating. Let’s make sure we get a close up.”
It’s like you have a real superpower! But back to Argo. You shot your scenes at the iconic Beverly Hilton Hotel, right? We were on location there for two days. It was so authentic, and Ben runs a very efficient, happy set. When I met him he said to me, “Thank you so much for doing this, I really appreciate it.” I was like, “What? It’s my pleasure. I would have done it for free.” Then they sent me to costume, which was designed whilst I was standing there, in terms of the beard, boots cape, eyebrows and moustache. The costume lady showed me a picture of how Ben wanted it, and then took a picture of me in it, and sent him the shot. He texted right back, and gave the go ahead. I loved that costume, I just wish I’d been able to wear it for longer.
So you’re at the fake read-through table with Alan Arkin and John Goodman, you must have felt like you’d won the lottery? Definitely, John Goodman was sitting next to me and he was joking around with me, so yeah it was great, but this is what I came out here to do. You go through all the struggles in life and when things like that happen, you look around and realise that it was worth it.
Were you surprised that Ben didn’t get a Best Director Oscar nomination? When the movie wrapped, it almost immediately started to get heat. We all thought he would get the Best Director nomination, so when he didn’t it was like a snub. Personally, after The Town, I thought it was his time but life’s funny because he’s cleaning up everywhere else.
You found fame as a Gladiator, after a very successful body-building career, neither of which are easily obtainable. What drives you? I was the under 18′s junior body-building champ [Footnote 2] but I’ve always been very focussed. I come from a single parent background. Mum and dad separated when I was two, and mum always suffered from depression so I was bought up by my grandad, who worked at a factory. He’d leave the house at 6am in the morning, so I always had to get myself ready for school. I used to do two newspaper rounds and get six quid for each one. Grandad used to leave a pound on the table and with that I’d buy nine bars of Dairy Milk chocolate for my breakfast!
That doesn’t sound like the diet of a body-builder. I stopped when I started training seriously when I was 17. A lot of my friends were getting into trouble and going to prison, and what saved me was body building. At first I did break-dancing and body-popping because that was the craze, but body-building gave me focus. I’m a grafter, and I channelled everything into it. I was committed. But that’s always been my mindset. If I could work every day I would.
Give me an example of your commitment. Back then I’d work out seven days a week and weighed around 280lbs. Now I’m 95lbs less and running marathons but back then it was all or nothing. I’d eat 140 egg whites a week, a whole chicken every day and a three tins of tuna. Then in 1995, the producers of Gladiators, Nigel Lythgoe [Footnote 3] and Kenny Warwick, called me in for an interview, then a fitness try out at the studios on the South Bank.
And suddenly you were Rhino, a household name. I was on Gladiators for six years. [Footnote 4] For my first gig, five of us were flown to Australia. We went to South Africa and America and it was a whirlwind. It was my first time on a plane. I’d never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d go to another country let alone live in one. Nigel took me on, and it’s so funny now because I see him here all the time, and we laugh about it. I train him, we box together.
“You go through all the struggles in life… and when things like that happen, you look around and realise that it was worth it.” Mark, on his role in Argo.
Did that first taste of fame get you hooked? I remember going shopping to my local Tesco and getting swarmed by people who’d just seen me on the telly. Everyone wanted my autograph and to be honest I loved it. It felt really nice to be needed or wanted. In the end I needed a body-guard. When I did some stuntwork on Pirates 4, on the first night of shooting – it was a night shoot at Universal – this big guy from up north comes up to me and says, “Fooking hell Rhino, I body-guarded you in ’96 at a store opening in Cricklewood. How you doing?” He was there body-guarding Johnny Depp. Johnny walks over and says, ‘You know this guy?’ and he went, ‘Yeah Johnny, it’s Rhino man!’ It was so funny.
Gladiators ended in 2001, and then you started acting (EastEnders, Trial & Retribution) and doing stuntwork. Was that an easy transition? It was natural. My biggest intro into stuntwork was when I went in for Robin Hood. I played a character called Karim, and they asked if I could ride horses, so of course I said yes, got the job and then had to go away and learn over a weekend. I found a teacher in Windsor, who taught me to ride in the rain. The kids were in the car watching me take this crash course.
You’ve also worked on some movie juggernauts such as Batman Begins and Pirates 4. Is it hard not be in awe of the scale of the movie? Batman was a massive movie, and obviously so was Pirates but Gladiators was huge introduction into the fame world. I was flying around the country in helicopters, doing two or three personal appearances a week, opening malls and cutting ribbons. I’ve been around a lot of people in terms of A listers and they just wanted to be treated as normal. I get on with everyone. I was in Badass last year and had to fight Danny Trejo. We filmed it in downtown LA and he ends up knocking me out. He looked at me and said, “Hey, don’t hit me by accident because you’ll knock me out. I was like ok, I won’t, don’t worry!”
You live with your wife Simone (they got married at Babbington House in 2006), and two children, Brodie, 8, and Stirling, 22 months, who was born in the States. Do you think you’ll stay in Hollywood? I have a baby who is more official than I am! He was born at Cedars in Bevely Hills. You know, I never intended to be here as long as I have, and I still fly between LA and London for work. I love getting back to London. But I came here for a week, I’m still here and things are going really well. I’ve just finished No Good Deed with Idris Elba and Taraji P Henson, and The Frozen Ground is out this year.
It’s a long way from two paper rounds for six quid. It’s all down to Simone really. When Gladiators finished in 2001, which is the year we met, she stuck with me while I clawed my way back up. I owe it all to her, she’s the strength of the family.
So will you be watching the Oscars on the TV, and cheering on Argo? Definitely. I’m throwing a little party at home for the kids and the missus. We’ll get some Indian take-away, some crisps and cup cakes. Binge meal! I really hope Ben wins Best Picture. I truly think he deserves it. And I’ll also be rooting for my friend, John Gatins who is up for best original screenplay, for Flight. He’s a really good guy, and amazing writer. I hope he wins too!
- Ming the Merciless, the emperor of Mingo City, is a fictional character from the Flash Gordon comic strip. In the 1980 movie of the same name, Ming was played by Max von Sydow.
- Rhino went on to win other many other titles including the London Men’s Heavyweight Championship and Northern Regional Championship. He also boxes – one of his most high profile fights was in June 2005, when he beat £9.7 million Lottery winner, Michael Carroll.
- Ex-hoofer Nigel Lythgoe is now an executive producer and director on American Idol, and also the executive producer/judge on So You Think You Can Dance, presented by Cat Deeley.
- He was the only Gladiator to arrive with his own name, which he was given after he won the Junior British title in 1989. People said he was built like a Rhino.