Russell Hornsby Takes on Don King in Hulu’s Mini-Series “Mike”
Actor Russell Hornsby portrays the larger-than-life character Don King, a ruthless ambitious boxing promotor who takes Tyson’s boxing career to the next level in Hulu’s Mike, a limited TV series that explores the tragic and controversial life and career of Mike Tyson, one of the most prominent figures in sports of all time. Hornsby, born on May 15, 1974, in San Francisco and best known for his work in The Hate U Give (2018) Fences (2016), and Meet the Parents (2000), gives a stellar performance and shows great chemistry with his fellow actor Trevante Rhodes, who takes on the role of Tyson.
The American actor truly becomes “The King,” a wild businessman who has his eyes on the price, who knows how to work everything in his favor while thinking of the bigger picture. Yet, as the series progresses it is revealed that the King’s arrogance might hide a deeper vulnerability. The following are excerpts from our interview via Zoom.
You portray quite a colorful character with a range of emotions. What are the key ingredients to bring when playing a real person, and what are the challenges?
I think when you are charged with the responsibility to play someone as colorful as Don King, the first thing you have to watch out for is to not fall into the traps of playing a caricature. For me as an actor, the one aspect I had to lean on was truth. As the saying goes: “There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only truth.” I like to think of myself as not just a storyteller but a truth teller. For me as an actor, first and foremost is find the truth, find the character’s center, find the character’s humanity, find all those things that undergird him, and build him from there.
How much does wardrobe, clothing and hair enhance your character? Do all those decorations aid to find the character?
Yes, they do! Obviously, for Don, it was the hair and the fat suit I was wearing, all the baubles and stuff. And of course, doing research trying to find his essence and persona. All things together become the whipped cream with the cherry on top, it’s what makes him come alive.
When you were on set preparing and acting, did you learn something from this story, or are there things you hope audiences might have absorbed?
I discovered that Mike Tyson and Don King are both men who were made by America. Not in America, but made by America. They are a byproduct of institutional racism. They are a byproduct of the slave trade and Jim Crow. I realized that America leans on Black men to entertain. Mike Tyson and Don King both understood that, and so pugilism becomes a way of entertaining. In order to sell such entertainment, Don King had to become that carnival barker, that ringmaster. The sight of him, the big hair and all that, was just a character, or as some would say, a caricature of Don. The boasting was also a form of entertainment, which at that time, was the only way Black men were accepted. It caused me to cry inside because I feel for both of them. I realized that Don’s big smile possesses the tears of a clown and covered his pain. I felt for this man after really understanding and unearthing what he had gone through, his upbringing, the way he was treated, all the misinformation, miseducation he received from being made by America.
That’s a powerful truth. Do you think that in the world we live in today, these two people would have a chance to choose a different path, be given more opportunities, perhaps get more acceptance, creating more diversity?
I do, that’s why I think the timing is propitious for the series Mike right now, because people in 2022, and since the pandemic, have a greater sense of understanding. Looking back at things that happened in the past, we’re learning how not to judge but to empathize; how not to judge but to understand. We’re not excusing anyone’s ill behavior per se, but asking ourselves, “What was the root cause?” and have a deeper, nuanced conversation about our perception of people, our perception of Black men, our perception of the athlete, our perception of the quote-unquote, “Mandingo.” Our perception of women. Our new understanding of misogyny; of how women were treated and why. How we are looking to evolve from that era to this time, asking different questions and really sitting down and listen to what happened.
America, the land of the free. Where do you think this country is going, or where do you hope it’s going for its people?
Our country is in trouble, the world is in trouble, really, because we’re regressing and not progressing. People don’t have regard or respect for anybody. I believe we’re all scattered to the four winds, begging to be heard. In that, it’s like Babylon again. Everybody is just crying to be heard, saying, “Something needs to change, become different,” yet nobody’s listening. Everybody’s beating on everybody’s chest, saying, “Hear me.” We’re at a high level of dysfunction in this country, a high level of disrespect. People want to go back to what they claim are the good old days, but what people don’t understand is that the good old days never existed. We have to reimagine a new world, a new land, where we’re not going to get everything we want, but will we get what we need? It’s painful. I’m raising young children, as many of my friends are, and I am asking myself, “What are they going to be left with?” There’s lawlessness. There’s homelessness. We’re supposed to be the richest country in the world, yet we lack integrity, we lack the heart with which to give, with which to serve.
On a lighter note, how passionate are you about boxing? Did you ever had a love for Mike Tyson’s career, do you yourself do any sports?
I grew up an athlete, I played soccer, ran track, played football, but I’m not a boxing fan, yet I do respect and appreciate the sweet science of boxing. Of course, like everybody else at the time, I was caught up in the rapture of Mike Tyson in the mid-to-late ’80s, early ’90s. I thought that he was a fascinating figure. Also, like every other kid my age, I was playing the Mike Tyson Punch Out video game on my Nintendo. It was a great time to be a kid, you went outside to play, made friends with the kids down the street, went to the park. We weren’t worried about “likes,” “dislikes,” making videos or stuff like that. I feel I was part of the last generation where you could really have a great time, be alive and be a kid.