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Cannes: A Q&A with Mike Tyson and James Toback

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Mike_tyson_lMovie stars aren’t the only celebrities who turn up in Cannes. Case in point: former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson (pictured) came this year in support of his friend James Toback’s documentary called, simply, Tyson. In essence, the movie is 90 minutes of Tyson speaking frankly about his life — from his impoverished upbringing and brushes with the law in Brooklyn, to his rise to fighting glory, to his public downfalls both in- and outside the ring. The film does not pretend to be objective about the controversial boxer, who served three years in an Indiana penitentiary after being convicted in 1992 of raping former beauty queen Desiree Washington. And for those who are put off by Tyson, there is plenty here that will reinforce those feelings — like scenes in which Tyson angrily refers to Washington in vulgar, disparaging terms; or when he compares his overall view of women to a tiger watching its prey. But at other times, the movie shows a surprisingly self-aware Mike Tyson and, at least according to Variety critic Todd McCarthy, it may convince some viewers to consider the explosive fighter in a different, perhaps even sympathetic, light. Since debuting in Cannes on May 16, the film has sparked heated, love it/hate it debates, which are sure to continue should it get picked up for TV or theatrical distribution. (As of press time, it remained unsold.) Fresh from the screening, Dave Karger and I met Toback and Tyson in a hotel room. Here’s what the verbose director and soft-spoken subject had to say.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: [To Tyson] How does it feel to have such a personal film show in such a public forum?
Mike Tyson: I don’t know. It’s difficult to say. I have to deal with people being pretty judgmental now. It’s pretty neat, but it’s pretty surreal. I’m a little incoherent right now.

When you found out the movie had been accepted here, did you hesitate or think, Oh I’m not gonna go?
MT
: Yeah, a billion times I told Jim that. I didn’t go to the screening. I stayed with my kids and hung out.
James Toback: But then he came after at the end, [during] the ovation, and [stood] on the stage. Mike was a little embarrassed because it went on so long. Were you embarrassed a little bit?
MT: Pretty much so. People made a big deal out of it.

At the same time, though, you knew that by agreeing to sit with James and do the movie, people would see it.
MT
: Yeah, but I thought it would be some kind of bootleg tape. A lot of movies come out and you get it the same day, released on bootleg. So I’m thinking it’s [going to be] a bootleg tape. I go and I’ll make some bootleg money.

At the movie’s after-party, was there a constant stream of people coming up to you congratulate you?
MT
: Congratulate me, yeah.

What did they say? “Oh, you did such a great job!”? Because it’s not like you were acting…
MT
: No, um… It was real corny: that I was really courageous. And I’m thinking, courageous? I’m with a friend and he just told me to talk and say something. I don’t see it as courageous. But then I can understand where they’re coming from, from being objective and looking at it. And I said, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t have said that I had gonorrhea.’ [In the film, Tyson talks about how he was suffering from gonorrhea during a pivotal fight. He says he was “burning like a Good Humor in July.”] I was saying it to somebody that understood [me]. It wasn’t like I was saying it to the whole world at that particular time.
JT: It didn’t feel like that when we were doing it. It wasn’t like a film set at all. It was just a few of us. We rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, and we shot at the beach north of Malibu at two locations. I felt that we were just talking like we would have done normally, except Mike did more of the talking. Normally, I’d be running off at the mouth!

addCredit(“Mike Tyson: George Pimentel/WireImage”)

You seem to have a lot of perspective in the movie, going back tothe roots of your childhood. Were those thoughts that you came up withat that moment?
MT
: No, those were things that were runningthrough my head periodically as I lived my life. I think, wow I wish Ididn’t do this, [or] I wish my mother was alive. Even though I was af—ed up kid, I wish she was alive to see that I did turn out to dosomething that was good. Even though I made mistakes, I did some thingsthat were good. I became a famous figure. We lived through hard timesand I did something. I made some money, ma! I’m not stealin’ androbbin’! I’m making money. At the time my mother was living, that moneywould have meant a lot. When I was 14 or 15, I entered in a localtournament. I won three fights. I had three knockouts in the fights.And I had a little picture in the paper. I brought it home and showedmy mother. I said, ‘Look, mom! I’m gonna be heavyweight champion of theworld!’ Cause I had my mind reeling. I started believing that s—. Isaid, ‘Nobody’s ever gonna beat me.’ She looked at me… with thispiece of paper, and she’s so used to me disappointing her, and shesaid: ‘I’ll read it one day. Just let me do the dishes.’ In hindsight,my mother probably thought I pasted this article, this fake article.She always thought I was crazy.

Which parts were the most difficult for you to watch?
MT
: Just when I’m talking about my trainer. [The movie shows Tyson getting choked up over his late trainer, Cus D’Amato]
JT:And that really set the tone when we were shooting. Mike wasinstinctively a little embarrassed, he said, I think I’m gonna cry. AndI said, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. And we just kept shooting.And by the way, anybody who has any kind of humanity left responds tothings like that.

How did you decide to pursue this project?
JT
: We hadtalked about doing something intermittently. I keep saying the realorigin of it was the conversation we had on the set of [Toback’s 1987film] The Pick-up Artist, when Mike was about to becomeheavyweight champion. He came to the set and… I felt this communion,this very innocent — believe it or not — wide-eyed, ambitious futureheavyweight champion. And I thought to myself, this conversation, whichwent on for two hours, could have been recorded and I would have lovedto hear it again 10 years from now, 15 years from now. So I called andI said, let’s do this thing now. I think Mike took it a little morelightly than I did. I looked at it as part of the future of westerncivilization. He looked at it as a bootleg on 125th Street! Different expectations.

[To Tyson] What was your reaction when he said let’s do this?
MT
: I have respect for Jim and I like Jim and I trust him, so Isaid, yeah, come on, let’s do this. I can get a few bucks. Maybe 50,000dollars. And I don’t know what’s going on. I was in rehab at the time,pretty desperate. I said yeah, let’s do something positive. I was inrehab. Try something positive to bring me up. Because I was pretty down.
JT: By the way, that’s an interesting point. I’ve always [castRobert] Downey [Jr.] right after he’s had some disaster. I think whenyou are close to somebody and you care about the person, the time youwant to use them is when they’re down and they need something to makethemselves feel good about themselves. And Mike on some level feels,well Jim wants to do something with me now when everybody else issaying, he’s in rehab.
MT: Not just that he’s in rehab: he’s over, he’s through. He’s finished, he’s dead, he’s written off.
JT: And I say, f— you! I’ll show you how fascinating and interesting this guy is.

Now that you’ve had the experience of last night, how do you feelabout going forward? Do you want as many people as possible to see themovie?
MT
: I’m already in it for the long haul. I can’t pull out now. I’mjust gonna start getting used to it. And when the audience first cameout [of the theater], I was talking to this young lady and I was askingher, I’m pretty f—ed up, huh? And she said, ‘No, well you’re prettyinteresting.’ And the first thing she started talking about was thegirls and stuff. I was like, aw no, I’m ruined.

So there you have it, Popwatchers. What do you think? Are you interested in Tyson? And do you think it could change whatever opinion you hold of the guy?