Russell Hornsby is finally showcasing the depth of his acting skills in Mike.
Hornsby was cast in the Mike Tyson Hulu biographical series as Don King, a boxing promoter who was heavily involved in a portion of the former heavyweight champion’s career. King became a controversial figure in the sports world, and even his relationship with Tyson ended in a legal dispute. Mike explores Tyson’s relationship with King, who took on the role of managing the boxer’s career following his mentor Cus D’Amato’s death. Tyson later filed a lawsuit claiming that King stole around $100 million from him while promoting him after he was released from prison in 1995, and they eventually reached a $14 million settlement in 2004.
Prior to taking on this role in Mike, Hornsby has acted in films like Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Fences, Creed II, The Hate U Give, and recently on the 50 Cent-produced Starz series BMF. The actor feels like this part was his opportunity to show the world his acting range and that he too can play larger-than-life characters like King. “For so long in my career, I fought so hard telling people I can do characters. I can play the good guy, the bad guy, the funny guy,” Hornsby tells Complex. “So finally, people will feel confident in entrusting me with these kinds of roles.”
The chemistry between Hornsby and his costar Trevante Rhodes, who is playing Tyson, flows easily when they appear together onscreen in the Hulu show. King not only managed Tyson’s career for a while but he was also part of his team, and together they lived a lavish lifestyle thanks to the boxer’s success. Both Hornsby and Rhodes underwent a physical transformation to play these roles, with Hornsby donning King’s trademark hair, his suits, diamond chains, and his energy.
When asked about working with Rhodes, Hornsby said he quickly realized that he didn’t have to babysit the actor, and according to Hornsby, Rhodes delivered an “award-worthy” performance. And he’s right. Despite some obvious flaws in the show, like the lack of the heavyweight champ’s involvement and that it heavily relies on the 2013 TV special Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth directed by Spike Lee, the performances make the show worth watching.
Oftentimes biopics or miniseries like Mike are made after the subjects have already died, and if they are alive, they take part in the project. Both King and Tyson were not tapped in to help with (or paid for) the project, and Tyson recently shared a statement denouncing the show and Hulu.
Hornsby says he didn’t speak to the boxing promoter before taking on the role, but he’s at peace with the work he did on the limited series. “You do feel a great immense amount of pressure. But at the same time, the pressure was alleviated pretty quickly because I knew what was in my heart in terms of how Russell was going to approach Don, and I didn’t have any agenda or any kind of ulterior motive,” Hornsby says. “I’m looking to draw out the essence of who the man is. And I don’t look at him as a hero or a villain. I look at him as a man.”
Complex caught up with Hornsby ahead of the Hulu show’s premiere, and he talked all about becoming King, working with Rhodes, and what he thinks about Tyson opposing the show. Check out our full interview with the Mike star below.
Tyson opened up about not being involved in the series. As an actor, how did you feel about his reaction, but also do you feel like celebrities not being involved in their own biopics allows for more honest storytelling?
Well, first, with regards to sort of Tyson’s disapproval, I think he has every right to feel that way. But at the same time as the artist, as both speaking for both myself and Trevante, we are artists, but we are also feeling people. I don’t think that you could have cast two people, two artists, more right for their roles for this time because we’re empaths. We are leading with our hearts, so neither one of us is looking to exploit.
My hope is that it still won’t diminish his pain and his anger, but we hope that he’ll feel that we’ve honored him in a way if he does in fact choose to watch it, or that his family or close friends or what have you, who may watch, will say, “Hey man, I know how you feel, but they did all right. They tried to honor you.” A person has every right to feel how they feel. Now, I think that if you can get somebody to be a part of their biography or firsthand, great. If you can’t, that happens as well. This is part of the business. You can’t please everybody and everybody’s not going to be happy. We have to take the crooked with the straight, quite honestly. This is the world we’re in. It may change and it may not.
What did you learn about Tyson’s story and even about King that you didn’t know before you worked on this project?
Well, I kind of knew it because of the man that we’ve begun to know over the last five to 10 years. Sort of post-career, the one who has his own podcast. But what I’ve discovered is that the man has an immense heart, and he is still a child at heart. Not in a juvenile way, but he is a feeling person. I really got that sense in getting to know him over the years, about how he was raised, and how he grew up, but there was still always that child inside.
Because he was a boxer, because he was a fighter, he actually had to keep the child down and put the fighter on top. They had to develop that because he was so innocent and so loving, and that’s still in him. It’s been beautiful to learn more about that Mike Tyson then versus the things that I thought I knew about him. You realize the empath, the lover of people and birds and things, animals, that’s the purity that’s inside him, and that’s what I really appreciated and loved.
The first two episodes of Mike are now streaming on Hulu.