After riding scores into Tinsel Town, RZA honed his acting chops across genres and, to his surprise, found fulfillment in executing small duties. "Being the head [of Wu-Tang] is a heavy job," he says. "But working for others was good for me, because there's a difference between being driven and driving. In acting, I felt for the first time the freedom of pampering — instead of worrying about everybody else, they were worrying about me. That was a good feeling, and it gave me a bug, an itch. I wanted to be an actor."
Without overexposing himself, RZA racked up a string of unique performances — a broke bankrupt rap producer in Repo Men, a deli counter muse in Funny People. There's also his memorable turn as a cop in American Gangster, through which he met his friend Russell Crowe (who RZA later asked to channel Ol' Dirty's unhinged charisma for the part of Jack Knife in Iron Fists). RZA's biggest breakthrough, though, came behind the lens — as an apprentice on Kill Bill. For 30 days on sets in Beijing and Mexico, he took notes on Tarantino's movements, all the while composing music for the double feature.
"A typical hangout with me and Quentin is us having a good time — some margaritas, some movies, a nice bowl of weed," says RZA. Their friendship has evolved, with RZA working up from pupil to chief creative force on Iron Fists. "As friends, I learn by just watching movies and dissecting them with [Tarantino], paying attention to what he thinks, and seeing what he prescribes. But when we first worked together, I came on as a student. A master should always know how to be a student."
By the time he found himself at Logan airport with Roth, RZA was three years deep in Tarantino's circle, and just beginning to write Iron Fists. On that snowy night, the Abbot spoke endlessly about the concept, and the two continued the discussion all throughout the next year. They'd bonded; in addition to a shared affection for gratuitous carnage, they discovered that RZA grew up in the same neck of Brooklyn as Roth's father, and even attended the same elementary school years earlier.
"We started talking, and it turns out that they were also from Brownsville," says RZA, who moved to Staten Island as a teenager. "A year later, Eli had a situation to help get [Iron Fists] made, and wanted to write it with me. I thought if it could be done with a friend — someone I was cool with — then that would be great. That's the thought that I put into picking teams: scrutinize everybody. I've learned a lot from doing so much with music and movies, and I always work best with friends who are like family. That's why I say this all started over a good bowl of mushroom soup."
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTSOPENS IN THEATERS ON NOVEMBER 2.