Trevante Rhodes on Becoming Mike Tyson, His Most Complicated Character Yet

by Max Gao

A still from the show 'Mike' on Hulu
Courtesy of Hulu

Trevante Rhodes has spent a long time studying the spirit of Mike Tyson. Growing up without a father, the actor looked to the likes of Tyson and Michael Jordan to learn how to navigate the world as a young Black man. So when the time came to play Tyson in Mike, the controversial Hulu miniseries about the tumultuous life of the former heavyweight champion, the 32-year-old—who rose to fame as the adult version of Chiron in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight—felt like he was stepping into familiar territory.

“I try to really be intentional in my choices as an artist, and I try to reflect myself and my spirit in my work as best as I can,” Rhodes, who says he views Tyson as an “exceptional example of the Black male experience,” tells W over Zoom. “I want people to understand who I am, but I’m not big on talking about myself or doing a lot of extra stuff. I want to put it into my work.”

Courtesy of Hulu

And his latest project packs quite a punch. From writer Steven Rogers, director Craig Gillespie, and executive producer Margot Robbie (the same team behind the Oscar-winning biopic I, Tonya), the eight-part limited series—which premiered its first two episodes on August 25, with a new part airing every Thursday—attempts to re-examine the events of Tyson’s storied boxing career and his dark personal life, which included accusations of domestic violence from his first wife, Robin Givens, in 1988, and a rape conviction in 1992.

Rhodes’s “audition tape was one of the best I’ve ever seen,” showrunner Karin Gist told reporters during a Television Critics Association panel in August. “It was just a close-up on his face, reading that initial monologue from the opening episode—and that was so transformative. There was nothing else around, so it really was the spirit speaking through him.”

Courtesy of Hulu

Playing Tyson from his late teens into his early 50s, Rhodes completely transforms into the “Baddest Man on the Planet,” adopting his distinctive lisp and mannerisms, training with former world boxing champion Ann Wolfe to emulate his boxing style, wearing fake teeth to get his gap-toothed smile, and prosthetics to age him up and mimic the fighter’s signature face tattoo. By lifting more weights, eating more food, and cutting down on his cardio, Rhodes was immediately able to tap into Tyson’s signature bravado. But as he began to consume the countless hours of available material about Tyson, Rhodes says he was struck by the boxer’s “intelligence” and unabashed “connection to his inner little boy,” which remained long after he became known for being cold-hearted in the ring.

A former student athlete, Rhodes did not have to transform his body completely to play Tyson, but he credits Wolfe for helping him to deepen his understanding and appreciation of boxing. “Ann’s spirit, the energy that she represents—it’s of the same cloth as a Mike Tyson, as myself. It was like connecting with a family member,” Rhodes says.

The first two episodes attempt to show how Mike, from an early age, straddled two worlds—one with his single mother, Lorna Mae (Oluniké Adeliyi), and another with his trainer, Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel), who became Tyson’s first real father figure. Families, both the one you’re born into and the one you choose, are inherently unique and complex, explains Rhodes. “In Mike’s case, from [the time he was] a child, it seemed like he always didn’t feel like he was enough, he felt like he needed to please the people who he was looking up to, who he loved.

“So to have someone like Cus whose sole intention was to make him this ‘thing’ [to be feared] and then to have his mother, who didn’t give him the love he needed, he fully leaned into that and became a monster,” he continues. “But the fact that Cus passed away before he could finish teaching Mike, I think that made Mike Tyson [into the] Mike Tyson [we know].”

Courtesy of Hulu

Rhodes, according to Rogers, was the only actor who was ever in serious contention for the role. In fact, Rhodes recalls a day during pre-production when some people mistook him for Tyson due to his muscular physique: “Craig and I, and a couple of other people, we were outside taking pictures in front of an old Ferrari. I had the boxing shorts on and I didn’t have my shirt on, and we were in New York. So from a distance, a lot of New Yorkers were like, ‘Yo, champ! Yo, Mike!’ It was before we started the shoot, so it was like, ‘Alright, that’s confidence-boosting.’”

More than three decades after his professional heyday, Tyson remains a popular figure in pop culture, in spite of his legal issues. Having examined the role that the media has played on the boxer’s life, Rhodes thinks Tyson’s public persona is the thing that continues to fascinate spectators all these years later. “Imagine being somebody who is publicly hated as part of your job, and having to understand and develop a liking and an appreciation for it, because that’s how you get paid,” Rhodes says. “We have to understand how much [negativity] that is. And he’s a fighter, so the only way he knows how to respond to that is by fighting. We just went down this rabbit hole of thinking about how difficult that life is. And to be someone who possibly came from the bottom of existence and had to fight every inch of their life to get anywhere, what do you expect?”

“You learn so much from somebody like that because they’ve been through so much, they’ve experienced so much,” Rhodes later adds. “There are people who have a fighter’s spirit: ‘No matter how many times I get knocked down, I’ma get up.’ [Tyson] is the epitome of that spirit. There’s no way to dissociate that [from him].”

Courtesy of Hulu

After he was cast in the title role in the spring of 2021, Rhodes also boarded the project as a first-time executive producer, but was shocked to discover that he was the first Black man on the producing team. (He remembers asking himself, “How is that even possible for this story?”) The experience of working behind the camera was particularly satisfying for Rhodes, who understood the responsibility of setting a tone on set as the first name on the call sheet and shepherding the story through to the finish.

“There were certain moments, certain scenes, that I didn’t feel we needed to express the story we were trying to tell. I felt some things were grandiose in certain situations, and we were able to nip that,” he says. “Some things that we had initially just weren’t culturally correct.”

Courtesy of Hulu

The writers and executive producers have reiterated that they never wanted to say Tyson was a hero, nor a villain. Instead, they hoped to contextualize the events of his life to explore the intersections of race, class, and superstardom in America and allow audiences to form their own opinions about Tyson, who has repeatedly thrown jabs at Hulu for telling an unauthorized version of his story.

If Rhodes was given the opportunity, what would he like to say to Tyson? “I really just want to give him a hug and ask him how he’s doing, more than anything,” says Rhodes, who reached out to Tyson when his casting was first announced, but never heard back. “I know he’ll see my spirit if he takes the time to check it [out]—that’s all I want anyone to see. But [by] taking a look into who I am and what I am, I think he’ll develop a greater appreciation and understanding.”