The Rumble in the Jungle, the famous fight in 1974 between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, took place nearly 50 years ago, and Foreman’s astonishing comeback to win the heavyweight championship again in his 40s, happened 20 years after that.
Now, finally, there’s a big-screen biopic of Foreman, which is titled Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World. We had a chance to sit down with Khris Davis, the actor who plays Foreman in the film, on his visit to Philadelphia in early April, where he discussed the film, his roots on the other side of the river in New Jersey, and his feelings on the Rocky mythology.
How much involvement did the real George Foreman have? Did you spend much time with him? Was he involved much with the production of the film?
Khris Davis: Well, he was one of the executive producers, and he showed up one day on set. And before that… before we even started, I spent a few days in Houston with him, just talking to him and getting to know him, and spending time at one of his ranches.
And when he showed up on set, it was the day we were filming the fight with Joe Frazier. Oh yeah, and I was like man, I walked in and was so focused, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t even go over to shake his hand, because I didn’t want to go over and start glad-handing, and then I get in there, and I’m trying to box and emulate him, and I look like a clown. And then he’s like ‘Oh man, this kids’ messing up my story.’
So I just was focusing on the fight, and he’s watching on the monitor. And when he left, one of the producers came over to me and said ‘Khris, he was watching you on the monitor, and he looked [up] and said ‘That boy can fight.'” So I knew then that we were on the right track.
I know you’re from South Jersey, and you spent some time in Philadelphia doing some stage acting. How did that shape you as an actor, both living in New Jersey and later in Philadelphia?
KD: I think my time here doing theater in Philadelphia was key for me. Because had I gone to LA or New York before doing theater here, I think I might have made some missteps, I think I might not have had the growth or achieved the kind of growth that I needed before going there. Because I was able to get together with a group of people, and we created a classical theater company, called Quintessence Theater Company in Mt. Airy, and I often say that being in Philadelphia was my grad school. And I learned so much here, and that carried me to New York to do theater, and that still carries me today. So it’s a part of my foundation, very foundational to me.
We’re here in Philadelphia, the home of Rocky, and the steps are – if you look outside the window, [they’re right there.] Being from the area, what have the Rocky movies and the Creed movies meant to you, and do they in any way inform your performance in a boxing movie?
KD: It’s funny, I’ve always imagined myself saying this in an interview. But, years ago, when you’re from Camden, in South Jersey, and in Philadelphia, doing theater, lots of times, being the lead of a studio film, you think about it, but it’s such an impossibility, that it’s like sure, whatever. You think about being on Broadway, and you’re like, yea sure, whatever. It’s there, but you know, you’re not ready to lead, and you can touch it, so I’m gonna run it.
So when I would go jogging, I would listen to a song from Rocky IV, “No Easy Way Out,” its says “There’s no easy way out, no shortcut home.” There’s no shortcut, you’ve gotta take the hard road. You’ve gotta put in the work. So when I would run, I would listen to that song, it was on my playlist, and I would imagine myself doing boxing montages. So it affected me tremendously, I love the Rocky movies.
One of the first things I think about with George Foreman is When We Were Kings, the documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle fight – it took them 20 years to finish it, it won at the Oscars, and they had Ali and Foreman come up and join them on stage. Did you study that film, while you were preparing for this?
KD: Well, no. That was just a part of, I guess, the larger packet of information that I had on him. Because in that moment, I think we didn’t get a chance to play that in the film, everything that he was going through in his life at that time, really affected his state of mind when he was there [in Zaire].
There are some parts of that that I wanted to heed in the film because I think it was key, it was key to his journey in the Ali fight, which really changed the course of his life, in a lot of different ways, like the footage in that film, you don’t get that much from him. I mean, he’s standing there and chewing gum, and giving you short answers, and he’s beating up a bag, and we see this.
You know, he didn’t do a lot of press. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be seen with Ali. Some of the things I found around that fight were a little more colorful when he was talking about it, and I thought those were more interesting. Because I didn’t want to get locked into just a brooding, menacing person, it’s a two-hour movie. If he’s in the movie, just brooding the whole time, it’s not that interesting. It was definitely important to watch.