Actor plays increasingly high-profile roles in ''Pulp Fiction,'' ''Striptease,'' and ''Mission: Impossible''

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated June 14, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

You expect a voice that sounds like it comes from the barrel of a cannon. You expect a man with the 203-pound frame of a fullback. You expect a shaved head. What you don’t expect, when Ving Rhames slowly opens the door, is a puppy.

Yes, the same guy whose character in Pulp Fiction uttered the most bone-chilling cinematic curse of the ’90s — ”I’m gonna git medieval on your ass” — is standing in the doorway of a rented house in Florida with a wiggly black-and-tan ball of fluff. The dog is a rottweiler, Rhames tells you, but the pooch looks way more squirmy than scary. ”Rottweilers are victims of a stereotype,” Rhames decrees in that diesel-powered basso profundo. ”They’re not that bad.”

It’s tempting to say the same for Rhames. Equipped with Falstaffian heft, that killer voice, and a stare as hard as brass, the 34-year-old actor has been landing the kinds of high-profile roles — from the stoic cyberspy in Mission: Impossible to the wisecracking bouncer in Demi Moore’s Striptease — that suggest he’s suddenly become Hollywood’s favorite heavy. But Rhames, born in New York, trained at Juilliard, and steeped in the plays of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Moliere, doesn’t show much interest in squeezing into Tinseltown’s tiny notions of what a big man can do. ”I don’t give Hollywood the power to limit me,” he rumbles, tossing a dog biscuit to the still-unnamed pup. ”Only God can limit me.”

So far, the Supreme Being hasn’t tried — and Hollywood hasn’t dared. Producer Paula Wagner says the Mission: Impossible team wanted to buck expectations by casting Rhames as a computer hacker, the kind of part that would normally fall to a scrawny, bespectacled geek. And the moment Striptease director Andrew Bergman saw Pulp Fiction, he decided that Rhames was born to play Shad, the bouncer, even though Shad was originally scripted as a Southern white guy. ”Ving is a real presence on screen,” Bergman raves. ”Your eye goes to him, which is, to me, what a movie star is.”

Add John Singleton to the chorus. The director of Boyz N the Hood bypassed big guns like Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, and Wesley Snipes to cast Rhames as the lead in Rosewood, a historical drama, set for release this November, about a mass lynching in 1923. After striking up a friendship on the Florida set — where the actor, who lives with his wife, Valerie, in Los Angeles, was shooting all spring — Singleton and Rhames now plan to pair up for a series of films, including a biography of Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight championship.

Singleton sees Rosewood as a turning point ”where Ving’s allowed to do different things than play the big bad dude,” but it’s the big bad dude that most people notice first. (Ask Rhames about his ice-cool first name. ”It’s short for my full name,” he says. Ask for his full name. ”I’m not telling you,” he replies. It’s Irving.) More specifically, they noticed Marsellus Wallace, the mysterious crime lord who presided over Pulp Fiction with a regal sense of doom, even when the audience could see little more than the Band-Aid on the back of his neck. Singleton still remembers watching Rhames, as Wallace, lecture Bruce Willis on the nature of pride. ”I said, ‘I’ve gotta meet this dude.’ A week later I called him and we had lunch and I was like, ‘Ving, you and I got to do something together. You’re bad news!”’ Bad news travels fast. Scripts poured in; fans began to recognize Rhames in public. By now, Rhames is used to Pulp cultists who want to know what’s behind that infamous adhesive strip. (His solemn answer? ”I’m not at liberty to say.”)