Channeling the Champ in Big George Foreman
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s never easy to play someone who is larger than life. However, Khris Davis has the goods.
Davis was born in Camden, New Jersey and started his acting career in nearby Philadelphia. And, coincidentally, he has played a few parts based on real life characters even before getting the lead role in the biofilm about two-time heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman.
In fact, Foreman isn’t even the first boxer that Davis has played. His theatrical breakthrough role was the lead in the play The Royale, which is a fictionalized version of the life of Jack Johnson, the first Black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship. (Johnson was champ from 1908-1915.)
Davis has also been in fact-based films like Detroit and Judas & the Black Messiah. Of course, it’s not all been hard facts for Davis, he also turned heads a couple of years ago as LeBron James’ best friend in the goofy and sweet comedy Space Jam: A New Legacy.
However, he is getting his first film lead role in Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World. Playing the former boxing champ, who made history by winning the heavyweight belt twice over 20 years apart, Davis takes a physical and mental ride through the history (and body changes) of the famous boxer, minister and grill master.
A couple of weeks before the premiere of Big George Foreman, we were one of three local media outlets who got a chance to speak with Davis together at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia about the film and his career.
You went through an incredible physical transformation halfway through shooting. How challenging was that? What did you learn from that process?
Oh, man, what I learned was I could put my body through a lot of trauma. (laughs) Even the boxing training was incredibly difficult. There were days where I just felt like it was impossible, and I wasn’t going to be able to do the job. When it came to gaining the weight, I thank God I’d done boxing training before because I had already experienced so much intense working out. My body was being stretched and pulled in 20 different directions. When it came to gaining the weight, I was ready for that kind of intensity. They wanted me to gain to get to around 280-285, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do that. We got a plan together with a nutritionist; 4000 calories a day when I was just home sitting around, 5000 calories a day when I was filming it, and 6000 calories a day when I was boxing training. However, that was never going to get me to weight. So, I did some mixing and matching. I ended up eating 7000 calories a day. I gained 50 pounds in five weeks. Went from 225 to 275. In total, I got to 282. It was it was really intense, man. I mean, the first week all I could do was see stars and sleep.
How much involvement did the real George Foreman have? Did you spend any time with him? Was he around the production of the film?
He was one of the executive producers. He showed up one day on set. Before that, before we even started, I spent three days in Houston with him, just talking to him and getting to know him. Spending time at one of his ranches. When he showed up on set, it was the day that we were filming the fight for Joe Frazier. Oh, yeah. I walked in and I was so focused. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t even go over to shake his hand. I didn’t want to go over and start glad handing [because] then I get in there and I’m trying to box, to emulate him and I [would] look like a clown. Then he’d be like, “Oh, man, this kid’s messing up my story.” I was just focusing on the fight. He was watching on the monitor. When he left, one of the producers came over to me and she said, “Khris, he was watching the monitor. He leaned over to his daughter and said, ‘That boy can fight.’” I knew then that we were on the right track.
You’re a little bit too young to have seen most of George Foreman’s career, but what did you know about him before getting the role? What was it about his story that intrigued you to make it?
I didn’t know much about him, except for the fact that he was the hurdle that Ali had to get over. Ali was such a pivotal fighter at that time, a [pivotal] figure at that time. [I knew] he was very boisterous and flamboyant, so it was easy to overshadow a lot of the guys at that time. And I knew him as the grill guy from the commercial. I really didn’t know much about him except for that. When I took on this role, essentially everything that I learned about him was brand new. All the history about his career, who he was in the ring, who he fought. It was incredible to learn about him. Read his autobiographies, saw almost every interview that I could find on him, things like that. That’s what I know now, what I learned about him. Then also that time I spent in Houston with him gave me a different perspective on who he was. Because we watch these videos, we read the autobiographies and things like that, but you’re still just getting a presentational version of him. That’s not the story we were telling. We weren’t telling a bunch of vignettes of interviews and commercials. We were telling a story about a deeply human individual. Having the ability to do that, meeting him and extracting some of that and putting all that together to tell this story was good.
One of the things that we learn about George Foreman is he’s a very spiritual man. What did you as a person take away from the experience of walking in his shoes in this film?
What I take from it is just because you’re spiritual doesn’t mean life isn’t hard. It doesn’t mean that sometimes you don’t lose faith. Because you will, you’ll be challenged. The challenge is to keep your faith and keep leaning on that faith with those challenges. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to lose everything. It just means that you’re going to have to dig deeper and lean further into that faith. I already believed that for myself before getting this film. So, it was exciting that aspect of his life was in there. I could identify. I think that it will help tell the story from beginning to end. How I can lean into that – or lead into that – find that and then carry that.
You’re from South Jersey, and you spent some time in Philadelphia doing some stage acting.
How did how did that shape you as an actor?
My time here doing theater in Philadelphia was key for me. 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. I was able to get with a group of people. We created a classical theatre company called Quintessence Theatre Group in Mount Airy. I oftentimes say that being in Philadelphia was my grad school. I learned so much here. That carried me into New York to do theater. That still carries me today. It is a part of my foundation, very foundational for me, starting off here.
You have played a boxer before in The Royale on stage. What is it about boxing and boxers that you think make for interesting protagonists?
Well, not all boxers are interesting. But you think about the two men – Jack Johnson and George Foreman. I think that Jack Johnson story needs to be told more. I don’t think people really understand what he represents, and what he did at that time. How it has shaped and affected all of the sports culture to this day. I mean, you talk about big money, wearing the coats, hanging out with ladies, fast cars; it started with him. That was his life. What he did and the racial implications as a fighter at that time – they weren’t letting Black men fight for the heavyweight championship belt of the world. When I look at images of him. You see the images of him in the ring, he’s surrounded. I thought this was crazy. This man must have a God touch on him, because how could you be in a room or in a space where there are hundreds of white men who were there to see you go down? Better not beat our white champion. He does it and he walks out. Nobody touched him. Blew me away, but this was what he was doing. He owned homes in white neighborhoods. He was in interracial marriages at a time where we believe it was illegal. It’s an incredible story. So, diving into his life was interesting for me too, because I was like: who is this guy in the midnight hour? What were his emotional complexities that no one knows? The same thing with Mr. Foreman. It’s easy to bypass him and just call him a brute, a slugger, a brooding menace. But he’s a person. When you watch those interviews, it’s easy to miss those quick smiles that he has. Those quick looks that he gives people to connect. That’s the human part of him. That’s what I wanted to bring out. I wanted to put a light on all of the underdog energy people were giving him because Ali was there at that time, but he in my opinion was nobody’s underdog. I think if Ali hadn’t been there, we’d be calling George Foreman the greatest fighter of all time.
You mentioned doing a lot of research in terms of watching the media and reading interviews and such. Is there anything that didn’t make it into the film or piece of his life that you wish you would have been able to explore?
The autobiography by George, reading that book, I was like this man’s life can be like 10 seasons of a TV show because it’s so epic. So, you had to just pick what story we wanted to tell and stay true to that. There’s so much that didn’t make it into the script. There’s so much that didn’t make it into the movie that we did. He had such an incredible life. (He points to the poster.) The word miraculous is there because it is miraculous, his story. I wish that we could have done like a three-parter, (laughs) or some type of miniseries on it because we couldn’t really touch on everything.
We’re in Philadelphia, the home of Rocky. The steps are right there if you look out the window.
Yeah, we were over there earlier.
Being from the area, what do the Rocky and the Creed movies mean to you? Do they in any way inform your performance in this boxing movie?
I’ll tell you. (laughs) I’ve always imagined myself saying this in the interview. When you’re from Camden, South Jersey and live 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 you like, sure, whatever. You think about being on Broadway, you’re like, yeah, sure, whatever. It’s there, but you don’t really believe that you’re going to touch it. I would go running. When I would go jogging, I would listen to a song from Rocky IV, “No Easy Way Out” (performed by Robert Tepper). It says, “there’s no easy way out. There’s no shortcut home.” There’s no shortcut, you’ve got to take the hard road. You’ve got to put in the work. Whenever I would run, I would listen to that song that was on my playlist. I would imagine myself doing boxing montages. (laughs) Here I am now, with boxing montages. Yeah, so it affected me tremendously. I loved the Rocky films growing up.
You work with two of my favorite actors in this. What was it like working with Forest Whitaker and Sonja Sohn?
They’re incredible actors. They’re such strong actors. Working with Forest was like being in a master class. The dude is so smooth and effortless with it. That might come with time and experience. It was [also] like a master class working with Sonja. She’s such a powerful actor. She brings the heat every single time. She’s no joke.
In terms of theater versus film, the preparation definitely is very different. Which do you prefer?
I used to say theater because I thought it was more intellectual. But they both come with tremendous challenges. I think that if you’re going to act at the highest level, then all of the work is intellectual. I think that this film proved me wrong in that. This film showed me the light when it comes to what you can do with TV and film. How you can still inspire through TV and film. How it can be intellectual. How it requires those deeper parts of you as well. Sure, we tell it in segments, but if we’re telling it correctly, we’re still doing the same kind of work that we do on these set scripts that we do on stage. I think that we can tell a very impactful and powerful story. They both deserve the same amount of energy.
One of the first things I think about George Foreman is When We Were Kings, the Oscar-winning documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. Did you study that film while you were preparing for this?
No, that was just a part of the larger packet of information that I had on him. Because at that moment, 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. There are some parts of that I wanted to be in the film because I think it was key to his journey. This Ali fight really changed the course of his life in a lot of different ways. The footage in that film, you don’t really get much from him. He’s standing there. He’s chewing gum. He’s giving you short answers. He’s beating up a bag. We see this. He didn’t do a lot of a lot of press while he was out there. He didn’t want to be seen with Ali. Some of the things that I have found around that fight were a little more colorful when he was talking about it. I thought that those were more interesting. I didn’t want to get locked into just a brooding, menacing person. It’s a two-hour movie, if I’m in the movie just brooding the whole time, that’s not interesting. But it was definitely important to watch, I would say.
Tiny bit off the subject, but you just did Death of a Salesman on Broadway, which is such a classic play. What was that like to be part of?
Again, it came down to doing the work. It’s such a well-known [story], like doing Mr. Foreman, right, he is a well-known person. But it’s easy to make a mistake, right? It’s easy to do wrong. Everybody’s going to have an opinion – who he was, what he did, this and that. When it comes to Death of a Salesman, everybody studies that at some point during their educational journey in America. Everybody has an opinion on it. Everybody has a thought on it. Then you say we’re going to make the Loman family black? How’s that going to work? When we started doing it, we all understood we had that responsibility. Some of those questions were going to come up. We didn’t change any of the dialogue at all, but everything resonated so differently. The idea of the American dream meant something else when you saw it through that lens. Because Willy Loman being met with those challenges as someone who isn’t black resonates differently.
When Willy Loman is black, when he has to walk into that office and has to pick that lighter up off the floor, when they won’t give him a job, when he has to go beg for money from his neighbor. Right? For a long time, we didn’t talk about mental health within the Black community or that it was a thing. Now you’re opening up the conversation around mental health and the importance of that. You’re opening up the conversation around legacy and the importance of that. It was, I think, pivotal and important that we told that story. I’m just grateful that I was able to be a part of telling that story. It was always a dream of mine to play Biff. To get to play Biff Loman on Broadway and to also highlight some of those nuances. What does it mean to break free of the expectations of your father? Or a world that thinks you should be in this kind of a box? What does it mean to find yourself? At what cost does it come to find yourself? Because some will believe that argument that Biff has in the kitchen with his father at the end catapulted his father into suicide. Now, there you go again, we’re talking about suicide, right? Suicide within the Black community, no one has shone a light on it. So playing Biff, highlighting those things, highlighting that growth, was very important to me. I wanted young people who come see that and to feel as though they have permission to follow their dreams. To feel as though they have permission to do it in spite of whatever their parents were saying. Whatever anyone wanted them to be. Because you only get one shot. At a certain point, the doors may close, and it gets harder to pry them open. So, yeah, it was pivotal.
Copyright ©2023 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 18, 2023.
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