Mike Tyson‘s acting career is beginning to blossom. James Toback’s documentary Tyson (2008) and his memorable cameo in the Hangover movies have gone a long way toward rehabilitating the former boxer’s image from puerile and pugnacious to gentle and jovial. With his Spike Lee-directed one-man show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, currently on a national tour, Tyson is staying in the fight.
EMMA BROWN: What made you decide to do a one-man show, and how did your wife end up writing it?
MIKE TYSON: We saw Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale on stage, and it surprised us so much. I wanted people to feel the way he made me feel; it was such an awesome feeling of entertainment. I just told her about my life and she put it together.
BROWN: How did you decide what events to address? You don’t talk about some of your big boxing victories.
TYSON: Everybody pretty much knows that I came back and won the title when I came out of prison. I really wanted the show to deal with the life on life situation and not how much money I had, how fancy I was, but why was I the person that I became. I became that way from a lot of traumatizing moments, a lot of deaths in my life—in the development period of my life—my mother, Cus [D’Amato, Tyson’s trainer], my sister. And my daughter. There’s a whole bunch of things that unbalanced me.
BROWN: How did the show change once Spike Lee became involved?
TYSON: Spike Lee made it more of a one on one, in-depth with Mike Tyson. More so than before, when it was like a rock band—I got a vocalist, I got a piano player, and I’m joking around and throwing weight on them. Right here I’m by myself, just reflecting off the audience.
BROWN: Is there anything that you really didn’t want to address?
TYSON: I didn’t want to talk about how my daughter died, at four years old. But this is who am. This is what happened. This is what we’re talking about.
BROWN: How do you feel onstage compared to in the ring?
TYSON: Same kind of fright, same kind of doubts of failure. Only difference is not having to go to the hospital every night. You have to stay in the fight; you want to make everyone happy. I learned [that] about myself—people look at me as some bruiser, but I want to entertain people. I want people to applaud. I want to be the cause of people being happy, their emotions changing, to tell me I did a good performance.
BROWN: Do you ever forget what you’re supposed to talk about next?
TYSON: Not much. I may choose a different word, but it’s my life. I have to always make sure I don’t stay in one place and spend too much time one subject. I have my wife tell me [through an earpiece], “Come back! You’re taking too long on that subject.” I need to be reeled in.
BROWN: What subjects do you tend to get caught up in?
TYSON: Sometimes when I’m talking about my ex-wife Robin [Givens] and Mitch Green. [But] if I didn’t add that to the show, people wouldn’t respect my show.
BROWN: Is there a moment at the beginning of the show when, if the audience laughs, you know it’s going to be a good night?
TYSON: Sometimes they laugh at things I don’t think are funny, but I believe if they’re laughing at me, it’s a good show.
BROWN: Have you ever had an audience that wasn’t very receptive?
TYSON: No, but those are the audiences that I really enjoy because I want them to absorb my story. On stage it’s just a wild setting—we have a big screen—hecklers, I’m fighting. It’s entertainment, but I want to pierce [the audience’s] souls and have them think about what I have to say.
BROWN: What do you hope people learn from Undisputed Truth?
TYSON: That something can happen even late in life. To never give up and to keep fighting as hard as you can and not lay down and die just because things are not going that well at the moment. That this is who I am. I’m trying to figure things out in the world. No one knows what this life thing is all about—there’s no manual. Just trying to figure it out. Some people are faster than others; I’m just figuring it out later, that’s all. I’m getting smart too late and old too soon.
BROWN: What’s the nicest thing someone has said to you after a show?
TYSON: That they really have so much in common with me—loss in their life that people never knew about that excelled them into the highest places in success. To do things they dreamed about, talked about for so many years, to watch it unfold when their mentor’s not with them, they understood that part.
BROWN: Do you consider yourself an actor?
TYSON: Absolutely. I’m doing what great artists before me did, like Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Eddie Cantor. I’m doing what they were doing, not at their level yet, but one day I will be. I’m just happy to be in their company.
BROWN: Would you ever want to be in another play?
TYSON: I want to, yeah. [I] take dancing lessons [and] singing lessons, so I’m contemplating that as well.
BROWN: A musical?
TYSON: Oh, absolutely.
BROWN: What’s your favorite musical?
TYSON: Porky and Bess.
BROWN: I heard that 50 Cent was in the front row when your show premiered on Broadway over the summer.
TYSON: Yes. I didn’t know it was 50, though. It was so dark, I couldn’t see his face. I was talking to him, but I didn’t know it was him. After I did that, Kanye West said—’cause Kanye West was there—why didn’t you say that to me? But I didn’t see him. I was just talking about the show and he happened to be the guy. I was talking about being shot at. I said, “Have you ever been shot at?” And I had no idea it was 50. He just laughed.
BROWN: Would you have been more nervous if you’d known Kanye and 50 were in the audience?
TYSON: No, no. I don’t see anybody. I’m just performing. I don’t mention nobody’s name. Only at the end of the show I mention Evander Holyfield; he came to a couple of the shows.
BROWN: If you could interview any living person, whom would you want to interview and why?
TYSON: I don’t know, maybe the president. Obama.
BROWN: Whom would you most like to interview you?
TYSON: I don’t want anyone to have to interview me. I wish I didn’t have to talk too much about myself. [But] the actual situation, even though it’s reluctantly, I love talking about myself.
BROWN: Did you always love it, or did something change?
TYSON: Well, I had really low self-esteem and Cus helped me with my low self-esteem. Sometimes he’d turn it into some megalomania ego. [laughs] So we had to balance it.
BROWN: How did you balance it?
TYSON: Just knowing that I’m here to serve God and be of service. I’m nothing; everything out here is a lot bigger than me.