Jul 05, 2011 12:00AM

Oyster #93: Michael Rapaport

You gotta be your biggest fan.

New Yorker Michael Rapaport is best known for his role as Phoebe's cop boyfriend on Friends and for his permanent role on Boston Public. But acting isn't his only talent - he is also the voice of Joey Leone in Grand Theft Auto III, has appeared in music videos for Ludacris and Jay-Z and has now made the move into directing. His new documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, recently premiered at Sundance Film Festival and follows the inner workings and behind the scenes drama of the legendary Queens NY rap collective. In Oyster issue #93 Michael Rapaport spoke to Jason Crombie about his multi-faceted career.

I don't normally fan-out on famous folks, but when I called Michael Rapaport for the interview you're about to read, my voice climbed an octave with every digit dialled. "Chill out, nerd," my girlfriend said from the kitchen; but I couldn't - I am Michael's biggest fan! Or at least I thought I was; as it turns out, Michael Rapaport is Michael Rapaport's biggest fan. Which isn't to say that he's immodest - quite the contrary; he's merely armed himself with the kind of single-minded determination needed to make it in Hollywood, and judging by his lengthy acting career, it's paid off in spades. In a high-pitched voice I spoke with him about his directorial debut, his love of hip-hop and what it was like growing up on the mean streets of New York City.

Jason Crombie: Mike, you've just directed the documentaryBeats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Questand it's been really well received. How good is itreally, though? What would you give it out of ten? 
Michael Rapaport: Man, I think it's really good! I'm really proud of it; I'm really happy with the response it's gotten, you know? The fans seem to like it and I feel good about it. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't feel good about it. It meant too much to me personally and it meant too much to the fans of the group.

Do you want to direct more now?
Yeah, I loved it. I would love to do another documentary and I want to do a feature film next.

What's the feature?
Well, I've been reading a couple of things that I like and I'm excited about.

Can't talk about it?

How scary was sitting at the Sundance premiere of a movie you directed, versus a movie you starred in?
That's a good question.

Thank you.
It was really, really, really nerve-wracking. The closest thing I could equate it to is birth. When you go to watch a movie that you're in, you already know what you've done, if it's good or not - you kind of have a sense of what it's going to be. And also there are excuses you can make, like, "Well, at least I was good" or "It was the crew that fucked it up" or "The other actors fucked it up". But when we were at Sundance and the movie was about to begin, I realised there were no excuses; there was no way out. It was all.

It was all on you.
Yeah. But then again, I could have blamed my editor; he was there.

You're a massive Tribe fan.
Yeah, I'm a big fan of theirs.

When did you meet them? I'm assuming it must have been a long time ago.

I've been a fan of the group since they came out in, like, 1988 and I've known Q-Tip for about 15 years. We're friends - not close friends, but we've been friends for a while. In 2006 we started talking about doing the documentary, and then in 2008 they went back on tour, so that's when we started filming.

Why Tribe and not Public Enemy or 3rd Bass or something?
Tribe has just always been my favourite group. I mean, I love those other groups, but the reason why I wanted to do a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest - the question that spawned the idea was, In 1998, when they broke up, I was very unsatisfied that they'd broken up. I felt like my parents were getting divorced, y'know?

In hip-hop, the lifespan of an artist can be very short. And I would always ask them - the group - when I'd see them around after 1998, "Can Tribe make more music? Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music? Will you guys make another album?" And that ideal - that's really what spawned the idea.

Wait, does that mean they are going to record a new album?
As of right now, I have no idea. But that was the question that initiated the whole thing.

Do you listen to a lot of contemporary hip-hop?
I honestly don't. I don't listen to that much contemporary music in general, partially because I'm just so out of the loop, and partially because it doesn't excite and affect me the way a lot of the older stuff does. And it's not just hip-hop; it's a lot of genres.

Have you ever rapped?
Never rapped, myself.

Did you ever give yourself, like, a rap name?
Nah, nah; never gave myself a rap name.

You've already got kind of a 'rappy' name, anyway.
Yeah! I've got the ultimate rap name: Rapaport. I don't even need to do anything! I could just be 'Mike Rap'. That's probably the best rap name you could come up with: Mike Rap.

Did you ever breakdance?
No, no, no. I don't do breakdancing and I don't do barely any other kind of dancing. I try to just keep up with the beat and stay on my feet.

You're rapping now.
I know.

So you're a nodder and a foot tapper.
Yeah, I lean back like Fat Joe. I just lean a little bit.

Did you do graffiti back in the day?
Nah, I didn't do graffiti; I didn't breakdance or rap. All that stuff was around me and I was inspired by it and excited by it - intrigued by it - but I didn't do it. I was just a fan of it.

Whilst growing up in New York in the seventies and eighties, did you ever get mugged?
I did, once. Well, I got robbed.
No shit?

In Harlem, at a train station on, like, 135th St - gun to the head.

By just the one dude?
That's all you need: one dude and one gun.

What'd he take?
Not much - a few bucks and my friend's ring; that was it. It was quick and to the point. When you have a gun to your head you cut through aaaaall the bullshit. There's no negotiating. There's nothing to chat about.

What were you going to be before you caught the acting bug?
I was going to be a basketball player; I was dead set on being in the NBA.

When did you realise that wasn't going to happen?

I realised I wasn't going to be a basketball player when I was about 15. I went to a basketball camp and saw guys my own age who were six foot nine and, you know, they were dunking and stuff. I saw, like, Shawn Kemp, Jay Edwards and all these other guys who were so much more advanced - skill- and size-wise - than I was, I mean it was just like, holy shit. It was a reality check.

Do people recognise you on the street much?

A lot?
Yeah. I mean, not like Brad Pitt or anything, but I get recognised all the time.

Does it bum you out?
No. I'm not bothered by it. If I didn't get recognised after doing what I've been doing for 20 years then? I've been doing it wrong, y'know?

Good answer.
Thank you.

Last question: are you one of those actors who won't watch the movies they're in?
No way, man!

No way. You gotta be your biggest fan.

Are you your biggest fan?
I gotta be.

Words: Jason Crombie

Photography: Mike Piscitelli