Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living with the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the darkness just before the limelight.
Michael Rapaport is a veteran actor, director and comedian. His feature film credits include The Heat, Hitch, Cop Land, Metro and True Romance. On television, he is best known for his roles in Boston Public, Prison Break, Friends and The War at Home. He can next be seen starring in season five of the critically acclaimed FX drama Justified.
What made you want to be an actor?
Eddie Murphy. He was a huge star and a huge influence on me. I was in the 6th, 7th, 8th grade. He was like Elvis. I just gravitated towards him. His comedy and his whole style: this sort of swagger that he had. As a kid, I was walking around with leather jackets and no shirts. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be like Eddie Murphy in the Delirious days.
I really only wanted to be a basketball player, but I really loved Eddie Murphy. And I loved the movies. I was inspired by movies at an early age, but I didn’t ever want to act. I wanted to be the characters of the movies. I saw Rocky numerous times in the theater. And Saturday Night Fever. My sister, who was an actress and is a writer now, she would take me to movies. She took me to Raging Bull when it came out in the theater. Those movies ignited something in me. I started doing standup comedy after my basketball career came to a dead halt. When I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Chris Mullin, I started doing standup comedy. Through standup, I got called into auditions. After the first time I actually acted, I realized that that’s what I wanted to do: the thing that came the most natural to me in my whole life.
What was your biggest fear?
When I started doing comedy, my biggest fear was that no one was gonna laugh. That things I thought would be funny, no one would respond to. And then when I started acting, I think my biggest fear has always been, the fear that most actors will tell you, is that you won’t work. You won’t get another job. I was really lucky to start working right away. The second thing that I ever did, I got a small part on a TV show called China Beach, and then after that, a starring role in this movie Zebrahead, which turned out to be a hugely successful independent film in 1993. After that, I was just concerned that I would never work again. I’m always concerned about that. I’m always concerned that I’ll never work again.
What was your lowest point?
It was before I was in show business. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be in the NBA. I wanted to be a basketball player, so that really kept me with a real clear focus. You had to practice, you didn’t drink, you didn’t smoke. It’s not like the basketball players in New York City were nerds, but they weren’t doing what the other kids were doing. I guess when I was about fifteen or sixteen I started getting involved with girls, but that wasn’t my main focus. My main focus was always basketball.
But then, when I realized I wasn’t going to play college basketball, there was about a year and a half where I was just hanging around real criminals, some of who are still in jail. Some of who are dead. Some of who died in jail. And just doing things that I shouldn’t have been doing in places that I shouldn’t have been, getting myself in real trouble. And my lowest point was probably getting into this fight on the street. It was very violent. My father just expressed to me how concerned he was. That really kind of snapped me out of that haze that I was in. That was probably my lowest point, and that really inspired me. I just wanted to become a standup comedian in the smallest sense of the word, and that really snapped me out of that part of my life.
What was it that kept you from walking away?
I never thought about walking away. Once I committed, I committed. And I remember thinking, “Well you know, maybe I should go to college as a backup plan.” Then I also remember thinking, “I’m doing this. There is no backup plan.” I felt like I had a voice. I felt like I had some talent that was specific to me and I just had a real belief in myself. I never really thought of walking away. Once I tasted it, I made somebody laugh as a standup comedian, and once I auditioned for the first time and acted, there was no turning away. There was never any second thought about turning away.
Who has been your closest ally?
My mother and my father were always really supportive. I gained a lot of my bravado from my father, and my father was always somebody that I really took from and really looked up to. I have a friend named Gerald, who I grew up with. We’re like brothers. And then, just the quiet voice in myself was always the one that I really went to the most when I was tossing and turning on the pillow at night.
What were you doing on the morning before the audition that changed your life?
I probably was just pumping myself up and psyching myself up. I really treated it like a sport. It was very competitive to me. I still take that into this business, but at the time, when I was nineteen years old, that’s all I knew was sports and hip-hop. I treated it like, “I’m gonna kick ass, and I’m gonna do this and do that.” That was my mentality.
What were some words that kept you going?
Mine was, “F*** these guys.” That’s how I used to think. That’s just the way I was. I was just so competitive. I still have that, but there’s more rationale in it now at forty-three as opposed to twenty years old.
How do you feel like you’ve changed?
I’ve been making a living as an actor for twenty-three years, which is enormous success. I know how lucky I am. When I was younger, I was really more volatile. I was just young and dumb. Just because you turned twenty-one doesn’t mean you’re an adult. I was twenty-one, twenty-five and working with some of the strongest actors. Actors that I had grown up watching and admiring. And I always, always, always appreciated that.
There’s pros and cons to being an actor. In a way, you never are really forced to grow up because you travel a lot and other things. The everyday struggles of a mildly successful actor can’t be compared to the everyday stuff of a nine-to-five guy. It’s just a blessed, very fortunate life.
The biggest change in my life is that I have kids. You get a little bit more perspective on yourself and cool down enormously. I think I’ve been a little bit more patient with myself and other people, and patient with my career and appreciative of it. Of what I have now, what I’ve been able to accomplish and the fact that I’ve been able to create a lifestyle for myself.
In general, I’ve just gotten a little older, but I’ve had my bad days. I’m definitely not fully-grown in any way. But I think in many ways I’ve grown up and slowed down.
What words do you have to inspire others?
You gotta go hard or go home. When I’m asked, I always tell young actors my main point of advice about being an actor, writer, director or anything in show business: it has to be something you have to do. It can’t be something you’re on the fence about. This business is not for the meek. And it has to be something that you have to do.
A partner in Scene Magazine and the president of Louisiana Entertainment Publishers, AJ Buckley has starred for the last eight years on the hit CBS show CSI:NY. Originally from Dublin and raised in Vancouver, he has spent the last twelve years in Los Angeles acting, writing and directing. He recently finished producing and starring in North of Hell, and next stars in Justified’s fifth season, premiering January 13 on FX. Find out more on Twitter @AJohnBuckley and at www.ajbuckley.net.