Spending time on a big-time movie set might be a dream come true for some. For former all-pro defensive end Simeon Rice, it was a disappointment.
During his 12-year NFL career, Rice used his connections to shadow director Brett Ratner on the Los Angeles set of “Rush Hour 3.” But while Rice studied the the actors’ choreography, and the many screens a director must watch during filming, he kept getting interrupted by introductions to women.
Another time, he got a meeting with Bruce Willis while the “Die Hard” star was working on “16 Blocks.” He enjoyed the conversation, but what he remembered most was hearing about how cool being a movie star was, and being invited to a party in Jamaica.
“I respect that, it’s all real cool,” Rice said. “But for me, to be honest, I don’t really care about stuff like that . . . I’m more impressed with the set.”
Rice had unearthed a passion for filmmaking, but realized that to be successful, he’d have to be more than an ex-NFL player dabbling in movies. Willing to work his way up, Rice enrolled in film school, and graduated in 2009. On Friday, a thriller he wrote and directed, “Unsullied,” opens in theaters.
Rice, 41, is hopeful that one day, interviews in the lead-up to the release of a full-length feature film will focus more on his artistic creation and less on his previous career. But he realizes he made that a challenge.
When a critic told Rice that “Unsullied” surpassed everything Rice did as a football player, the Super Bowl XXXVII champion said he understood it was meant as a compliment, but he still took offense.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, relax, did you see me on the field?’ ” Rice said. “I’m a future hall of famer. Are you kidding me?”
The Chicago native was the all-time Big Ten sack leader when Arizona drafted him third overall in 1996. He won defensive rookie of the year honors and that year earned the first of four all-pro nods.
While Rice was racking up 122 career sacks, 17th in NFL history, mostly with the Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was also thinking about what he wanted to do after his football career ended.
After growing addicted to the scene-by-scene action in “Max Payne,” a video game with an immersive story line, and being told he had a knack for storytelling, Rice tried to prepare himself to transition smoothly into the film industry. It did not work as planned.
When he freestyled a script that blew one of his friends away, Rice was hesitant to invest in actually producing the film because he did not understand the movie business.
He later paid Writers Guild of America members $40,000 to help him with a script loosely based on his life, only to end up unhappy with the final product.
Once, he signed on to be the executive producer of someone else’s film, but then walked out of the pre-release screening hoping to get his money back.
Rice said enrolling in the New York Film Academy finally “put me in the driver’s seat in my own life.”
“I think it showed a lot about any individual willing to start at the bottom,” said “Unsullied” actor Rusty Joiner. “Some people don’t want to go to film school, they have money in the bank and they want to jump right into making a movie. He wanted to go to school and learn.”
Two days before the 2011 Super Bowl, Rice premiered his first short film, a comedy called “When I was King.” Rice said he was more nervous before that showing than he was before he played in the 2002 Super Bowl.
During the 2013 NFL season, Rice was back in the Tampa area filming “Unsullied.” The first day can be overwhelming for a director, with dozens of people scurrying around the set and countless details to nail. Joiner said Rice appeared calm from the moment he arrived.
Rice had the actors spend time on set before the cameras starting rolling, unwilling to rush a project he had waited so long to embark on. The first scene to be filmed involved Joiner and his partner visiting a small-town general store. During that bit of filming, Joiner said Rice made sure the actors displayed the right mood for that point in the movie.
And from there, Rice grew more comfortable on set over the next three weeks.
Lead actress Murray Gray grew accustomed to late-night phone calls from Rice. Usually, Gray said, directors do not speak much with actors after filming is over, but the leader of her most recent project does not fit in the “usual” category. Rice updated Gray, and everyone else involved with the movie, constantly over the past two years.
Still, everyone involved knew a lot of work had to be done after filming ended in late 2013. A small percentage of independent movies make it to theaters, and “Unsullied” had obstacles of its own.
When Rice’s Dreamline Pictures first shopped the movie, Gray said, people responded that they liked the film but they could not market it “because it’s a black movie.” Gray called that an unfair characterization.
Interest picked up, though, ultimately leading to a call Gray got from Rice that demonstrated what type of director he’d become.
Gray said she did not know about Rice’s record-setting past until she mentioned his name in the UCLA football office before shooting began. Rice rarely brought up his past heroics or acted with the arrogance they could have validated.
Rice, like he had playing football, called his actors because he simply wanted to revel in each success with his teammates. That attitude helped lead to the triumphant conversation he had this spring.
“He doesn’t sleep,” Gray said. “It was super late California time, so I know it was super late Illinois time, and he called and said, ‘Murray, we are booking the theaters tomorrow. Goodnight.’ ”
She added that though many independent films only book theaters for a couple weekends, “Unsullied” will be showing for at least five weeks, including in three D.C.-area theaters.
“For a year and a half, people have been telling us we couldn’t do it,” Gray said, “And he did it.”