Learning to Act

Thump, thump, thump.

My trainer checks the door. He turns around and he’s got this weird-ass look on his face. I’ve never seen him so shook up.

“The FBI wants to talk to you.”

Oh, shit.

I peek out the window. The gym is surrounded. Black cars are pulling up. Men in black jackets with the yellow lettering on the back. They have damn near a three-block radius closed off.

Thump, thump, thump.

More banging on the door.

Oh, shit. Oh, shit.

I was out late. Out at the club. Things got fuzzy. What did I do last night? What did I do wrong?

Two FBI guys in sunglasses tell me to sit down. Standing over me, they pull out a picture.

“Have you seen this man?”

I have. I’ve met him. It’s the boxing journalist who stopped by for an interview the day before. Nice guy, I thought.

“Listen fellas, if I offended him or scared him in any way, I’m truly sorry.”

They weren’t messing around.

“No, Mr. Tyson, he liked you. We’re here because of the other seven people he killed.”

Wow, that’s not cool. Then the other agent chimes in.

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

Oh, shit.

This is a true story. It’s one of the crazy things that has occurred in my life. That’s why I love doing Undisputed Truth, my one-man show in Las Vegas, because it allows me to share the madness of my life.

The reason I call it Undisputed Truth is because it’s my truth explored and dissected in the special way only my mind works. My life is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and sometimes telling my story scares the hell out of me — but it’s the same reason I keep doing it. My whole life, truth and deceit have been two sides of the same coin. Acting gives me the chance to express my crazy thoughts through a prism of creativity — and sometimes fantasy. That’s the same motivation for Undisputed Truth.

The single emotion that both fighters and actors share is fear — the fear of failure. I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of going to jail. Scared of the people I love dying. Scared of being a bad father or husband. Scared of losing my money. Scared of not being good enough.

But for many years, I never confronted it. The gym used to be both my lover and my enemy. But boxing is my past life. I’ve been reincarnated. Today, I face my fears by telling stories.

It’s like therapy.

If I’m working on a show, sometimes I’ll sit in a writers’ room. It’s one of the most beautiful, crazy, free places on earth. It’s just a room with some guys sitting around, exchanging ideas. Maybe there’s a table of snacks. If you’re lucky, they’ve got sandwiches. There’s coffee that you drink from styrofoam cups. But the room is so much more than that. I am drawn to these guys that sit in a room and are able to create stories that trigger us into various emotions. They are like wizards of words.

I do this in my own way, sitting in the bedroom or kitchen with my wife and we go back and forth with ideas. With her in this environment, I can totally be myself. And I can also become somebody completely different. I can create somebody completely different. I don’t have to be Mike Tyson. I can process the bizarre things in my head and turn them into something creative, weird — maybe even entertaining. It’s my addiction. It’s a sparring session for my mind.

And just like a sparring session, maybe you’re trying out new moves — but there’s no real opponent. No scorecard. No wrong answers. It’s terrifying and freeing and vulnerable, all at once. When you’re done, your mental muscles are sore. If you’re lucky, you’ve created something that’s never existed before.

It’s similar to the feeling of being on stage. But the stage is even more terrifying yet exhilarating.

Like in Miami in 2012. It was WrestleMania. The WWE was inducting me into the Hall of Fame, and I was nervous as hell because I had to deliver a speech. I knew what I wanted to say, but I hadn’t memorized it yet. So I’m pacing around backstage like a crazy person.

Of all people, Diddy walks by. He sees me backstage and comes up to me.

“Mike, man, you look nervous … Don’t forget your lines!”

Thanks, Puff.”

He walks away into a crowd of people.

About thirty minutes later, he comes by again. I’m still there, alone, pacing around, reciting my lines to myself.

“Remember your lines, Mike! Remember your lines!” He’s taunting me.

What the hell, Puff?

I’m already nervous. Now he’s making me double nervous. I don’t need this shit.

When I started boxing, people said, “He’s just a good athlete.” Then they said, “He’s just a fast puncher.” Then they finally said, “He’s a good all-around fighter.”

I may never be a great all-around actor, but I will die trying.

And sometimes the most important lessons come from the most unexpected places.

So right then and there, with Puffy’s, “Remember your lines, Mike,” still ringing in my ears, I made a decision: I was never going to be unprepared again. I thought I could ad-lib without preparing. Rookie-ass mistake. From that moment forward, any time I was on stage, I would know my lines. From front to back, inside out. I’d embrace the nerves, not run from them. I’d be prepared.

Thanks, Puff.

This time I meant it.

I’m not an acting expert. I’ll be the first one to tell you that. People said back in the day, “Mike? He’s a killer in the ring. He’s a natural.”

But I’m not a natural actor. I’m not a natural on stage at all. Everything I can do now on stage, I had to learn. I’ll be the first to tell you that. To get better, I’ve had to fail. A lot. On stage, your success and your failure is right there for everyone to see. You’re naked in front of total strangers. Failure is ever-present, hanging above you, staring at you.

The phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered it, thinking it was the bank or something.

“Mike, this is the best idea you’ve ever had.”

I recognized the voice right away. Man, it’s Ari Gold! You can’t mistake Ari Gold.

It was the first call I got when word first came out about my one-man show. This was back in 2011. It was actually Jeremy Piven. This was before I did Entourage, so I’d never met the guy. I don’t even know how he got my number. But I swear, it was the first call I got.

“I grew up on Broadway, Mike. I grew up on stage. Anything you need, just let me know.”

That was just a whoa moment for me. Jeremy Piven? He kicked me in the balls with that one. A heavy punch. I didn’t know what to say, it was just incredible. I was just thinking, That was beautiful.

Since then, we’ve talked a few times in person and over the phone. And we never talk boxing. Only acting. Our conversations are all over the place. One time I was telling him all about the stage play Porgy and Bess because I was watching a version of it on TV, and he was encouraging me to watch different characters and try to learn from them.

You can’t underestimate mentorship. In whatever field in life. That’s true generosity. Piven didn’t want anything from me. He just wanted to give me some advice. He just wanted to help.

While he was talking, I kind of zoned out for a second and started daydreaming. How did an angry kid from Brooklyn survive to be talking to Jeremy Piven about a play from the 1930s about a black family in Charleston? Life’s a crazy ride.

A couple years later, I got to appear on an episode of Entourage. You better believe I had all my lines down pat. On the set of the show, Piven comes up to me before our scene and says, “Hey Mike, I’m gonna throw a curveball in there. Be ready.”


All of a sudden, the director’s shouting things out and we’re taking our places.

Oh, shit. What curveball?

The scene’s starting off O.K. It’s me and Ari Gold, sitting in his office sitting in chairs next to each other. In the scene, I’m asking Ari about getting a role on the new Black Brady Bunch sitcom, with Jessica Simpson as my wife. Ari is trying to be nice, but secretly he knows it won’t happen. He’s supposed to just be cool and let me down easy.

Piven’s not changing any lines at first, so I think I’m safe. But then he starts ad-libbing. He starts making fun of me. He makes some remark about me biting off an ear. There it is. That’s not in the script.

But I was ready. Instead of responding, I just put my head down and start shaking it. It was the same head-shaking movement I’d watched Jimmy Stewart do in a movie scene where he was expressing shame and disbelief. I don’t know where I saw it, but the scene had stuck with me. I’m sure my version wasn’t very good, but I was proud that I took his curveball and responded. I got out of the scene alive.

Since then, I’ve tried to listen to Piven’s advice. I watch as many actors as I can. But I mean, I really study them, in a systematic way. I’m not just lounging on my couch with the TV on. I’m in classroom mode, man. It gives me flashbacks to my trainer Cus D’Amato. It’s the way I used to sit with Cus and he would slow down fight tape to super slow-mo when we were preparing for a fight. Here’s where he starts his combo. Look!

So I’m a student now. Actors have combos and tendencies, too. One of my favorites to watch is Gary Cooper because of his body language. You know how in High Noon, Cooper’s got that gang of criminals coming after him? When I watch that, I feel fear. But it’s a good kind of fear. It reminds me of the story of the FBI surrounding my house. At the end of High Noon, the clock is ticking down to the standoff. The sheriff’s all alone to face his fate.

I can relate.

My all-time favorite actor is Marlon Brando. When you think about acting, it’s Brando … and then there’s everyone else. I think I’ve watched Apocalypse Now about 50 times. He plays this really dark role in it. And you can tell he had to go to a dark place inside himself to play that role. Brando was the master of the method. The master of illusion and confusion. One minute he’s calm, then he’s explosive. With Brando, his acting was so subtle, under the surface like a volcano.

But it always made me wonder how much acting affected him emotionally — after the movie was over. In my one-man show, I learned how to separate myself from the stories I was telling. That was the only way to remain objective.

But it’s not always possible to stay detached. Last year I shot a film called China Salesman. It’s a Chinese warrior-type movie with Steven Seagal that we shot on set in China. It made me think about Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now because I was playing an African revolutionary general. A really nasty guy like Colonel Kurtz. You know what happened? I came back home after filming with that nastiness still in me. I was a little edgy. I had to decompress for like two weeks. I was back home in Vegas, but I was still in the movie.

What’s funny is, everyone always wants to talk to me about boxing, but I’d rather talk art and acting and writing and stuff like that. That’s what it’s like when you’re learning something new — when you’re not an expert, but you’re trying to become one. That’s what it was like when I was boxing. You live it. You’re always trying to get better and you’re watching and listening to everybody around you, just looking for lessons.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from acting:

Fear is your friend.  

The best creative juice in the world.

Seek out mentors.

In sports, you have coaches. But in life, we forget to seek out people for guidance and advice. Piven was one of those guys who showed a real interest in my acting. Now I’m trying to pass it on. The generosity is good karma.

Prepare … and then prepare more.

“Remember your lines!” Moral of the story: Listen to Puff Daddy.

Be willing to fail, or even to humiliate yourself.

Your comfort zone will kill your creativity. A little humiliation is healthy.

Always be a student.

I was the heavyweight champion of the world. But in a room full of actors, I never forget that I’m just a rookie.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

When I did The Hangover, some people were surprised I was comfortable playing myself as a parody. Are you kidding? If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re too worried about what other people think.


Undisputed Truth, Mike Tyson’s live one-man show, runs select weekends through the end of June 2016 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries airs Sundays on Adult Swim.