When muscleman Mark ‘Rhino’ Smith shot to TV fame in Nineties game show Gladiators he had no idea his life would change beyond all ex-pecs-tations.
Or that a chance meeting in a London club would end up helping establish him as a Hollywood star.
The fan who strolled up to Mark to say hello that night in the late Nineties was just an unknown jobbing actor.
But Idris Elba never forgot the chat they had – and Mark’s words of encouragement.
The pair, now firm friends, are about to appear on screen in their third Hollywood movie together – with Rhino’s famous admirers now including the likes of Johnny Depp, Bond director Barbara Broccoli – and even, astonishingly, the Queen.
Mark, 52, explains: “I first met Idris in Dingwalls in Camden. He came up to me and said: “Hello, nice to meet you Rhino, man.” I said: “Nice to meet you too, bruv.”
By then striking green-eyed hunk ‘Rhino’ was a household name while East Londoner Idris was a strictly bit parts player.
“As we talked he told me he was thinking of going to America to try his hand at acting there. I told him he should definitely do that.”
Idris went on to land his big break in US crime drama The Wire, before becoming the star of hit films Avengers, Thor and The Jungle Book.
But he never forgot Mark’s supportive words and they were reunited on 2010 film No Good Deed about a family terrorised in their home by a psychopath.
Then Idris signed his pal up to star in his 2018 directorial debut Yardie, a crime drama of about a Jamaican immigrant determined to avenge the murder of his brother.
Mark explains: “Idris really took me under his wing when I moved out there. He was a great help.
“He cast me in Yardie which was filmed in Kingston.
“We really connected on that film. We hung out at his house, had drinks and would shoot the breeze. We talked about kids, life, goals, obstacles, training, health.
“He came from quite a hard background in Hackney and I came from West London.
“We have similar mutual friends, we love the same sort of music. He is an amazing guy, and a great role model.”
After Yardie they both appeared in billion dollar Netflix animation movie Zootropolis.
Their latest film The Harder They Fall, with an all black male cast which sees the pair on the same side in a cowboy gangs revenge tale, premiered at the BFI Film Festival on Wednesday night.
It was shot in New Mexico at the height of the Covid restrictions last summer. Mark and Idris spent their spare time in the gym together.
And their friendship just kept on getting better. Mark says: “I had an audition coming up for a big job in Italy.
“I asked Idris if he minded reading the role with me.
Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment)
He turns up at my apartment, just him and his phone, he is videoing me and reading with me. I had to be careful not to come out of the character, I was like, it’s Idris reading with me.
“He took the time out of his day off to help me read and I will never forget that.”
At work, the pair found themselves on hot 18th century desert film sets – and Mark admits starring in a Western is a dream come true.
He says: “I never thought I would be in one. I still feel like the boy from Acton.”
The movie premiere last week also brought Mark together with rapper Jay Z – a big hero of his who was a producer on the film.
Since moving to Hollywood with his PR worker wife and two children, he has become friends with other A-listers.
He plays tennis and rides motorbikes with Scottish star Gerard Butler – famous for his lead role in Spartan war epic 300. He bonded with fellow dad Johnny Depp at the school gates.
When he starred in Pirates of the Caribbean, he says director Rob Marshall was left dumbfounded as Johnny yelled over the set to greet Mark.
Ian Vogler / Daily Mirror)
He says: “Johnny’s kids went to the same school as my son. We would have chats there about life and London, he loves UK culture.
“We were on the set of Pirates and Johnny goes: “Hey Rhino, how are you man? Good to see you.” Everyone around Johnny was like “who is this guy?”.
Mark chuckles at being a Hollywood star who’s not so instantly recognisable.
He says: “Once I was at a club in West Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio was there. I think he thought I was an American football player. He came over to me and was like ‘yeah man, what’s up man?’
“We got talking and then he realised I was English and an actor.
“I once walked past Oprah Winfrey and she said, ‘excuse me, are they your real eyes?” then asked about my background.
“I told her I was a mix between Cherokee Indian, Chinese and Ghana and my grandad is half white, half Jamaican, which probably explains the green eyes.”
But he says his most remarkable encounter had to be meeting the Queen at The Royal Tournament in 1997 when he was at the peak of his Gladiator fame.
He explains: “I curtsied and she said, ‘hello, how long have you been working on your muscles?’.
“I said since the age of 16. She asked if I enjoyed it and I said very much so. She said, ‘You look very well’
He is still in touch with some of his Gladiator pals including Hunter and Jet and says he is forever grateful for the opportunity that the ITV programme gave him. Gladiators launched in 1992 and ran for eight years.
Presented by Ulrika Jonsson and John Fashanu, the show saw contestants compete against the Gladiators.
Mark joined in 1995 after winning the London Men’s Heavyweights.
He then quit in 2000 to pursue his acting dreams.
But the hard man Gladiator image has stayed with him in Hollywood – he says big name stars are always pally with him before they film brutal scenes.
He’s just wrapped The Enforcer with Kate Bosworth and Antonio Banderas, where he plays Bosworth’s bodyguard.
Mark says: “I did a film with Kevin Costner called Criminal and he took me to his trailer to show me offcuts from his film Waterworld.
“I think he was friendly because he had to smash my head through a kebab shop window.
“It was similar with Antonio. He ends up blowing my head off and I throw him through a coffee table. Off screen he was extremely friendly too.
“People are friendly with fight scenes because they want to make sure you are cool with it.”