role call

Mekhi Phifer Answers Every Question We Have About 8 Mile

“The first thing I remember when I think about 8 Mile is, Damn, I almost turned down my name in an Oscar-winning song.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Eli Reed/Universal

Mekhi Phifer’s name is forever etched into both music and cinema history. At just 20 years old, the actor broke out in Spike Lee’s 1995 film Clockers, and he’s been working nonstop ever since, memorably appearing in the likes of Paid in Full, Dawn of the Dead, and ER. But he might be best known for his role in Eminem’s 8 Mile and his name-drop in the rapper’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning song, “Lose Yourself,” in which Marshall Mathers declares, “And it’s no movie, there’s no Mekhi Phifer.”

Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), the Detroit-set 8 Mile, while not a biopic, pulls many elements from Eminem’s life, with the superstar musician starring as Jimmy, a.k.a. B-Rabbit, an aspiring rapper stuck in a blue-collar job and a small trailer that he shares with his young sister (Chloe Greenfield), alcoholic mom (Kim Basinger), and her abusive boyfriend (Michael Shannon). Even if he did recently choke during a rap battle at the Shelter, Jimmy’s talent is undeniable to his inner circle, the group known as the 313. His most loyal supporter is his best friend and the Shelter’s emcee, Future (Phifer), who pushes Jimmy to return to the stage. His support helps set in motion a final sequence so unforgettable that audiences continue to lose themselves in it — and that Phifer himself remembers fondly.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you reflect back on 8 Mile?
That I almost turned it down. Because I was due to start ER, and I was really excited about playing a doctor. And when they told me, “Look, there’s this movie that Eminem is doing,” I was like, “Come on, you gotta be joking.” Because the only thing I’ve ever seen him do before 8 Mile was that movie The Wash with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre — and it wasn’t anybody’s finest hour. So I thought it was just a joke. But then they told me that Curtis Hanson was directing. I was a huge fan, I thought he was a great storyteller, and he had just done L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. They wouldn’t release the script, so I had to go to Curtis’s office to read it, and I loved it. So that got me excited, and then they flew me to Detroit so that Eminem and I could hang, since we play best friends in the movie. So we hung out for a few days, and then producer John Wells at ER said, “Yeah, we’ll wait for Mekhi to finish this movie.” And so the first thing I remember when I think about 8 Mile is, Damn, I almost turned down my name in an Oscar-winning song. [Laughs.] That would’ve been a fool’s move.

Shoutout to John Wells then!
Much love to John Wells for giving me an extension. We started 8 Mile around September, and it wasn’t going to be done until February, and so ER waited for me. When I finished 8 Mile, like a week later, I started ER.

You mentioned seeing Eminem in The Wash, in which I think he only had one scene. But going into 8 Mile, what was your relationship to him and his music? 
I was a huge fan of his music. See, the thing is that I didn’t know how serious he was as far as being an actor. Back then, they were doing a lot of those rappers-in-movies movies — and they weren’t good. So when it initially came up, it was like, “Come on, you can’t be serious; I’m going to play a doctor!” But I loved the music. I always thought Eminem was a genius with his artistry and his wordplay. I had all his music, but I didn’t think it was going to translate into doing a good job in the film. And I was very wrong.

At what point did you realize that he was fully dedicating himself to this new craft?
From talking to him, I could tell that he was serious about it. And he was nervous. He was a fan of my work, and, obviously, this is what I do, and so he really sought advice. Just him asking questions and conversing, it felt like, “Yo, this guy really wants to do a good job.”

What was your process for diving into the script and fleshing out Future?
Once I accepted the role, I got to sit down with Proof — rest in peace — and other Detroit natives to talk about certain mannerisms, things like that. And what I loved about Curtis was that Curtis was easy. Curtis is not from the hip-hop world in any way, shape, or form, but he knew that me and certain people were, so he focused on telling the story and allowed you to do what you wanted to do, as long as it drove the story forward. So he allowed me to just be Future; he didn’t give me a lot of direction when it came to the choices that I made as an actor. He’d point the camera and say, “Okay, Mekhi, we want you to come around this side of the car,” and stuff like that, but he just let us be. And they were smart, because, to get Eminem dialed in, since he’s basically in every scene, we had a month of rehearsals before we started shooting. So, all of us, as the 313, we got to really bond, become real friends, trust each other, and know how to have banter.

While the late, great Proof has a small role in the film, he’s part of the inspiration for Future: a rapper, rap-battle host, and Eminem’s best friend. What were your conversations with him like?
Organic and easy. It wasn’t like he was going to tell me how to portray him … and mind you, I had a little bit of artistic license because it’s loosely based on Em and him and their relationship. Proof showed me pictures of him hosting the battles at the Shelter, and that’s part of the reason why I wore a dread wig, because our movie is circa 1995 and Proof had dreads in 1995. It wasn’t extensive conversations, just talking about how the process of hosting battles went, but it was meaningful. I picked up some of his mannerisms and the intimate relationship that he had with Em, and then just took it from there.

What was it like having to wear that wig? You had to be sweating during those scenes at the Shelter.
It was a pain in the ass. The only good thing is that we were in Detroit during the wintertime, so it was like wearing a big wool hat whenever we had to do exteriors. But, every morning, taking an hour to glue it down, and then when the day is over, after shooting for 14 hours, having to take the glue off, that’s another hour. The Shelter scenes, because we were inside and had like 300 or 400 extras, yes, it would get hot. But they would open up the doors and let air in.

Detroit is a unique place, and the city has such a specific character to it that it feels like this movie couldn’t have been set anywhere else. What was it like living and filming there for an extended period of time?
I loved it. Detroit has an energy, a realness, a history. Like you said, it has character. When we were there shooting, there were like 46,000 vacancies. So to go down entire blocks of burnt down and abandoned houses, I was like, “Wow, if I was a photographer, I would just start taking pictures,” because it’s crazy how the city changed once all of those factories packed up and left middle-class and upper-middle people without a way to pay their mortgages. But the people were just real. And we were in our 20s, Eminem was at the height of being Eminem, so we partied and had a great time.

You’re a born-and-bred New Yorker, and now that I’m putting the timeline together, you said that production started in September, which would be September 2001.
Yeah, that was another reason why I didn’t want to fly to Detroit. They wanted me to fly in to meet with Em literally right after 9/11. This was maybe, I don’t know, September 15, and I’ll never forget, I was on the phone with my agents and manager, like, “I’m not getting on the plane.” There was just too much uncertainty at the time. But they talked me into it, and thank God that they did, because, obviously, I got there safely, and the rest is history.

Like you said, Eminem was essentially a rookie actor, was in every single scene of the movie, and was also working on the soundtrack. Was he always locked indoors, or were you guys able to have some fun?
We spent five months together, Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and he was great. So Em had three trailers: his trailer, a trailer that was a studio, and then he had a workout trailer. Between takes, Em would go to the studio, and sometimes we’d go in there and fool around with him. But he’s very, very focused about his music and he had a lot to do with the soundtrack. I remember one day, we were all on the set shooting, it was two or three in the morning, and Em walks up, like, “Mekhi, I want you to come to the studio. I wrote this song and I put your name in it.” And I said, “Oh, word? Okay, let’s go.” So we all piled into the studio and he played it. It was raw, wasn’t mixed or anything, he had just written it and recorded it. And when he said my name, everybody busted up, like, “Yo, this is crazy!” But I didn’t know it was going to have that much impact and be the workout anthem of the world. For him to put me in that song, it’s a testament to how close we were. We hung out a lot; we played basketball at his house, we swam at his house. So it really made me feel good for him to think of me in that way.

No matter your musical taste, everyone knows the “Lose Yourself” lyrics. I’d argue that your name might be among the most sung names in the history of music. 
I’m quite sure. The movie did exceptionally well, and so when it first came out, whenever I would go into any bar, club, lounge and there was a DJ, soon as I walked through the door, it was like, [Starts recreating the “Lose Yourself” beat] “Okay, here we go again.” [Laughs.] It was awesome.

You also briefly rap during the film. Any extra pressure standing next to a rap GOAT? 
No, because I wrote it. We were getting ready to shoot that scene, and talking to Em about Proof’s rapping style and how he would rhyme. He said that Proof was an introspective rapper. So that’s why I said, “You’re forced to listen to the individual, the metaphysical, the Mac Mitten, rhyme ritual, heterosexual.” He rapped with those kinds of bigger words, if you will. So, the night before, I just sat down and started writing a rhyme. I knew it was going to be short, not a whole rap song, but I just wanted to reflect his style.

One of my favorite sequences is where Greg (Michael Shannon) is singing “Sweet Home Alabama,” and then Future and Jimmy start going back and forth with their own remix. What memories stand out from filming that with Eminem and Michael Shannon?
Michael Shannon, he’s such a great guy, but he’s a Method actor. He was wild, and, if I remember correctly, he would do things like be a vagrant. He’d have a backpack and just walk around Detroit like he was homeless or something, I guess getting into character or whatever. But Em wrote the rhyme, and then we just got to have fun with it. That scene wasn’t about him and his relationship with Michael Shannon; it was really about our connection with each other and how close we are, even more so than the rest of the 313 crew.

The final battles are so epic that I often pull up the clip to watch on YouTube. For you, what jumps out from that extended sequence?
I relate 8 Mile to Rocky, in the sense that you don’t really get to see Rocky fight until the end. You see him going through some of the motions, maybe doing a little bit of training, but then the crescendo is the big fight against Apollo Creed at the end. To me, 8 Mile was designed like Rocky. You get to see glimpses of Eminem rhyme throughout the movie, but nothing like that end sequence. He crushes it. And those other guys were good too, but he crushes them. It was almost like a dream come true to be right on the stage with Em and Proof and everybody else. Once again, Curtis just let me run with it, and I really embraced that. Everything that I say when I’m hosting the battles is ad-lib — none of that is in the script. And I do the same thing as you; if it’s on, I can watch the movie from any point, but that rap battle is iconic.

How genuine were the reactions to Eminem’s bars? Like, did you have any idea what was coming?
No, all of our reactions were real. Curtis was a genius and had maybe four or five cameras rolling at the same time. So when we first heard Em battle, and he started saying things like, “So I’m a German, eh? That’s okay, you look like a fucking worm with braids,” yo, we were crying. Because Curtis had cameras facing the crowd, facing our rival, Tha Free World, and facing us, we didn’t have to do that many takes for each rap. So you never really got bored with the rhymes, and you couldn’t wait to hear it again, because everybody’s going, “Oh!” and you’re like, “No, I missed something!” It was beautiful.

Outside of a few cameos, are you surprised that Eminem hasn’t taken on a significant acting role since 8 Mile?
I’m not surprised. If you know Em, just like B-Rabbit, he moves by the beat of his own drum. Em has an air of being introverted, so he’s not going to put himself out there like that. I think he had a great experience with 8 Mile, but collaborating with Curtis was tough for him, just creative differences when it came to the music and things like that. When you are a rapper, a writer, and a producer, you’re used to being in charge of your destiny, whereas film and television is too much of a collaborative effort. You have to deal with the writers, the directors, the producers, the other actors, locations, timelines. I’ve noticed that a lot of musicians who are really in control of their career will collaborate — but on their terms.

Earlier this year, you declared that there will never be an 8 Mile sequel. And then 50 Cent announced that he and Eminem are working on an 8 Mile TV show. When you saw that, were you like, “Wait, what? Didn’t you guys just hear what I said?”
Right?! Eminem may be a producer on it but I doubt he would be in it, and that wouldn’t really be a sequel. I damn sure wouldn’t do a sequel to 8 Mile, because it’s too iconic. How can you make that better? You can’t. And it’s 20 years later, I’m a grown man now, not a young kid trying to rap. I’m 48 years old — what the hell do you want from me? Too much time has passed. It would be a different type of movie, and you’d have to call it 9 Mile or something. But, if they want to try to make a series, hey, that’s fine. Hopefully they have a great production and get some intriguing actors that can carry the story. But to do an 8 Mile 2 movie? Yeah, that’s just not going to happen.

Any final words on 8 Mile?
I’ve been doing this almost 30 years, and it was one of the best experiences — and I almost fucked it up. I made lifelong friends, I’m in one of the most iconic hip-hop songs ever, it won an Oscar, it made over $100 million dollars at the box office, and it’s arguably one of the best hip-hop films ever made. And I almost turned it down. That would’ve been grim.

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Mekhi Phifer Answers Every Question We Have About 8 Mile