Omar Epps, co-star of the "Cursed" Movie!
Bearing talent and good looks in equal measure, African American actor Omar Epps first became visible to audiences and critics alike with his 1992 film debut in Ernest R. Dickerson's urban drama Juice. Epps shone in his role as one of a group of four Harlem friends trying to make good, with the praise he earned for his work paving the way for steady industry employment. Born Omar Hashim Epps in Brooklyn, New York, on May 16, 1973, Epps was raised by his mother, an elementary school principal. He nurtured his interest in acting at both the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the New York High School for the Performing Arts. After his breakthrough in Juice, Epps ran the risk of being typecast, playing athletes in a series of films. However, his performances were consistently solid, and he earned particular acclaim for his portrayal of a young man attending college on an athletic scholarship in John Singleton's Higher Learning (1995). Around this same time, Epps also excelled in a brief recurring role as an emotionally stressed intern on E.R.; he would later identify that role as the one that made it possible for audiences to finally put a name to his face. A brief but memorable role in Scream 2 (1997) signaled a degree of Hollywood acceptance for Epps; two years later he could be seen starring in no less than four films in the same year. Two of these, a remake of The Mod Squad and Alan Rudolph's disastrous adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, were all-out turkeys, but Epps did strong work in both The Wood, in which he played one of a group of close-knit high school friends; and In Too Deep, which featured him as a police detective trying to bring down an underworld boss (L.L. Cool J. The following year, he returned to the college sports realm in Love and Basketball, a romantic drama that premiered at the 2000 Sundance Festival.
Against The Ropes: An Interview with Omar Epps
Omar Epps, unlike many African-American actors who started their careers during the early nineties' rebirth of urban pictures, continues to work as a significant presence in Hollywood. After starting in the now-classic Juice, where he played opposite Tupac Shakur, he has since gone on to star in feature films big (Wes Craven's Scream 2) and small (Takeshi Kitano's Brother) while turning in memorable performances on the small screen as well (on TV's ER). Though sports movies are hardly unfamiliar territory for the versatile young thespian (having played a track star in Higher Learning and an NBA prospect in Love And Basketball), with this month's Against The Ropes, he gets to try his hand at a new challenge: boxing. In this interview with blackfilm.com, Epps discusses the development of his character Luther Shaw, taking a few punches for director Charles S. Dutton, and how the twists and turns in his illustrious career have all been part of a grand plan.
TG: Had you ever boxed before starting ìAgainst The Ropesî?
OE: That's a rumor. You know how we all sing in the shower? That's how I box- in the shower. I never boxed before. When I was young, early teens, I took some martial arts and stuff, but the training on this was me learning from A to Z.
TG: You seem to have a natural affinity for it.
OE: It's one of my favorite sports- I'm a boxing fan, so that's where the eagerness to learn [came from]. The desire for it was definitely there.
TG: So what is the appeal of boxing?
OE: I think boxing, for me, it's the beginning of all sports. I mean, I'm willing to bet that the first sport was a man against another man in a fight, so I think that's something innate in all of us- we were all Romans once, I guess. It's like the Coliseum, and the gladiators are going at, it's so stripped down and bare. There's no equipment, there's not this, not that, it's just two guys in the ring, for the most part with their bare hands, going at it. And it's so primitive, it's wonderful to watch.
TG: Did you pattern yourself after any particular fighters?
OE: Definitely. Of course, Luther Shaw is a composite character, but I definitely took bits and pieces of a lot of fighters that I liked. I ìthoughtî I was incorporating them into the character, but I don't know if I have the ability to really do the Sugar Ray things, but yeah, we took bits and pieces of different boxers and tried to make this character come to life.
TG: Do you like boxing movies?
OE: I like boxing movies. One of the hardest things for me to watch as far as boxing films [is concerned], is the boxing. You know, you see wonderful stories, but the actual boxing usually sucks. Most of the time you don't care about that because you're so into the story; but we wanted to set a new standard with that as well.
TG: What are your favorite boxing films?
OE: Of course Rocky. Shameless plug, but Against the Ropes has got to be up there (laughs). And there was a film called The Boxer, with Daniel Day-Lewis. I liked that.
TG: How much of the character was developed when you joined the project?
OE: Well, I don't know. The character was probably about twenty-five percent there, as far as what's on paper. After the first time I read the script, the first thing that jumped out to me, which was really refreshing as an actor, was that here's an African-American guy, from an urban area, but he didn't have a chip on his shoulder. He didn't blame the world for his plight, or what have you- he was responsible for his own actions, and that was really attractive to me. So I started with that, and then of course put my own spin on it, and Charles had a certain vision of the effect of the character, so we tried to collaborate, put our hands together to make him a likeable guy.
TG: How was it working with Charles S. Dutton?
OE: It's great. I had the good fortune to work with him before in his directorial debut, First-Time Felon, so we speak in a shorthand sort of way. I know things about how he likes to move, he knows how I like to move, and it's wonderful to watch him blossom into a filmmaker. I think that all actors who choose to be directors can be actor's directors. And Charles is a great actor, but now he's really getting into the cinematic qualities of these films, so much to the point where selfishly I want to tug his sleeve, like 'dude, can you give me some direction, to my left, to my right? You're so concerned about everything else, what about me?' And he's like, 'just do what you do. I know you'll be alright.'
TG: How was it to work with Kerry Washington?
OE: Kerry's cool- a really smart girl, and a wonderful actress. I wish we had more time together on screen, but we had a great rapport.
TG: Was there any discussion of developing a romantic interest between Luther and Jackie?
OE: No. Of course, it's inspired by a true story, so we wanted to stick to the page in that way, but it just didn't lend itself to the story. I think the beauty to their relationship is that there was none of that. It's just a guy and a girl who needed one another, but not in that way. They just needed one another as peers and as comrades to 'take on the enemy,' so to speak. And he had Kerry Washington's character to pay attention to. She's a babe, you know.
TG: Dutton discussed directing as the character he played in the movie. How did that translate on set?
OE: I think it was in his mind. I've never heard that, but now, looking back on the whole experience, now it all makes sense. Now I see what was going on. But that [experience] was wonderful.
TG: You didn't feel like he was different people at different times?
OE: No. He knows how to turn it on and off.
TG: Do you have ambitions to direct?
OE: No, I'd like to write and produce. Writing is how I got into the art of acting, you know, I've been writing for as long as I can remember- short stories and stuff like that- and acting was an extension of that. And for me, it's really about writing, and I'm dying to produce as well. Directing is too hard of a job.
TG: Have you felt like the roles you've wanted were always available to you?
OE: No I haven't always felt that way, but the way that I look at the world right now is that the world is as it should be, and the only limitations that I can have are the ones that I set on myself. But I feel that there's more than enough available out there. We just have to persevere to get to it. You have to play the political game sometimes to get to it, and then other times it will come to you.
TG: Have you ever taken a job just for a paycheck?
OE: Hell yes. You get to that point sometimes, but even then, I feel like whatever you do in life, if it's what you love to do, and you can get paid for it, then it's a blessing. So I've never taken myself too seriously in that light- when I've had to do stuff like that I still wasn't taking it for granted, because it's still a wonderful life.
TG: Can you discuss the choreography of the fight scenes? Did you get hit?
OE: Yeah, I took some lumps and bruises, but that's what we were there to do. That's one thing- Charles is an avid boxing fan- and we wanted to sort of set a new standard for boxing films. We wanted the boxing to look authentic, like you guys are [watching] pay-per-view, like 'wow,' and in order to do that, he really wanted to film everything from here (indicating just a few feet away from himself)- to just see two guys fight, and so we had to go in there and dish it, and give it.
TG: How good was your boxing opponent Juan Hernandez?
OE: He was pretty good. He was okay. He got banged up, man. He's an actor, good actor, hell of an actor. We had a lot of fun.
TG: Why do you think you've succeeded as an actor where your contemporaries have failed?
OE: I think it's just opportunity, and first and foremost, dedication to the craft. You have to dedicate yourself to this. I love being an actor, and I've been given certain opportunities, but as far as the consistency, who would have known? It's not something I came in expecting. If anything, after my first film, I was like, damn, I'm not going to work probably for another five years, so that's been a blessing. But I've tried to really immerse myself into what it is that I'm doing at that particular time, and I've tried to choose projects that good platforms not only for myself but the other actors in the film, that are just good projects so that people, when they see my face, they will expect something that they will like, they'll expect good work. Like, 'yeah, he does good movies, so I'll go see his films,' and hopefully I'm getting to that place.
TG: What validates the success of your career- critical acclaim or personal accomplishment?
OE: My accountant would say... (laughs) but I don't answer to him. It's the work. It's different things- sometimes it's the process, sometimes it's the people you work with, sometimes it's the finished product. For me, the continuous validation is the opportunity to get to do it, because each film you do, it's like a different little family, so you get different things from it. For me, one of the main things is affecting people, having done Deadly Voyage and First-Time Felon>, that really affected people and when they come up to me in the street, and it's not, 'hey, I liked you in that movie,' it's 'man, that movie really helped me get through this time.' It's sort of like what musicians do- 'oh, that song, it helped me get through,' or 'we made love and had our kid,' that's what you do art for. It's to be a part of the world and for people to share your work. TG Do you tell yourself when you've really done well?
OE: No. Well, the ego does, which is interesting. I don't know if you guys relate to this, but do you remember being in school when you're taking a test, every time you think you aced it, you failed, and every time you think you failed, you aced it. It's sort of like that still. They're like 'cut,' and I'm like, 'that was some bad stuff,' and the director comes over and says 'that really sucked,' and other times, you're like 'I don't know where I'm at,' and you turn around and everyone has tears in their eyes. I like other actors responding, when they feel like, 'oh, it took me here, and when you said this, and when we improv-ed this,' when you're really doing a dance, that's great for me.
TG: Is that better than a good review?
OE: Well, you know, good reviews don't hurt, but I protect myself. The review box for me is all ego. It's like, 'Don't take it personally, dude,' one way or the other. If they say it's good, don't take it personally. If they say it's bad, don't take it personally.
TG: Can you discuss your production company?
OE: Hopefully we'll build a platform for other artists. That's really what I'm trying to put together- a company, of course to create vehicles for myself, but through my travels, it's only been ten or fifteen years, but I've come into contact with so many wonderfully talented people, writers, producers, directors, filmmakers, and people come to me all the time. I'm an actor for hire, so I can tell you an agent to get in contact with, but if I had a place where they could maybe work from, that's what we're trying to achieve.
TG: You've been working on music as well?
OE: The album's coming out. We're going to put out some music this year. I have a lot of talented musicians around me as well, so I put together a company that's about them, and we're using my face to get them out there.
TG: On a major label or independently?
OE: Independently. I can't mess with those majors it's on the internet, actually. BKNYCrecords.com will actually be up and running in about another month.
TG: How do you find inspiration or influence for your music?
OE: Oh, well, you've got to go make your own, really, and that's what's beautiful about the internet. It's about the small guy. You set up your website, it's a store. It's basically your store- it's a boutique- and the only thing you've got to do is promote it, to get as many people as you can to come to this place and then you'll get your own crowd. It's like it's the last place the little guy really has a shot.
TG: It doesn't hurt to have a recognizable actor as a figurehead.
OE: I hope it doesn't hurt. I hope they don't visit and go, 'that sucks,' and never go again.
TG: Can you discuss Wes Craven's Cursed?
OE: ìCursed is, well, cursed. It's actually not going on any more. They re-shot it and it went away again. It was crazy, but I think it's dead again.
TG: Were you a werewolf?
OE: No, I was a security guard who was scared of the werewolf.
TG: Some of the other actors mentioned they were back on set.
OE: Could be- maybe they just got rid of me, but I can't complain because I still got the check.
TG: What was your last involvement?
OE: I really only had a cameo. Bob Weinstein called my house and said 'I want you to do this film,' and when Bob Weinstein calls your house you can't really say no- he's like Vito Corleone calling your house. So I was supposed to do the film, but they wanted to do a rewrite, and they wanted to shoot this and that but they shut down production, and then last I heard, it went away.
TG: You're doing a film with Jude Law?
OE: Yeah, we did a remake of Alfie, with Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, myself, a wonderful cast, and I had a hell of a time doing that film. There are some surprises in store. We shot London for New York- who knew? We actually shot in London, but it was supposed to be New York, so Jude's a Brit and everyone else is American.
Omar Epps: Lord of the Rings Briefs on His Career in Hollywood
Omar Epps likes boxers.
"They just give more room to breathe," said the 30-year-old actor from Brooklyn in a recent interview.
Besides being an advocate for the traditional cotton underwear, Epps is also an avid fan of the sport of boxing and plays a boxer in the upcoming film, Against the Ropes.
The film, which is released in theaters this Friday, is based on the life of Jackie Kallen (played by Meg Ryan), a former sports writer from Detroit, Mich., who became one of the world's first female boxing managers. A few of Kallen's real-life clients include boxing legends James "Lights Out" Toney and Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns. Deemed by many as the "First Lady of Boxing," Kallen was also the commissioner of the International Female Boxers Association.
"[Jackie] wasn't one of those women who tried to be one of the guys," Epps said about Kallen. "She was in touch with her femininity, she wanted to stay beautiful, but at the same time, she knew how to work it to get where she needed to go, without sacrificing too much of herself."
In the film Against the Ropes, Epps plays Luther Shaw, a rough-and-tough boxer-wannabe looking to escape his life in the ghettos. He is soon discovered by Kallen, who decides to transform him into the next heavyweight champion.
"These characters are basically from different sides of the earth," Epps said about Jackie and Luther. "But I think they were both on the same plane in that they were both the underdog of their respective worlds. They needed each other to overcome the whole thing."
A story about hope and perseverance, Against the Ropes illustrates the struggle the two characters had to go through in order to survive in the boxing world, without dwelling too much on any of the obvious stereotypes which surrounded them. According to Epps, this aspect of the film was what really drew him to the script.
"The first time I read this script," he said, "the first thing that jumped off the page to me was that you have this young black kid, who's from Any Ghetto, U.S.A., and it's sort of that same cliché story line, but the guy didn't have a chip on his shoulder. He didn't blame the world for his circumstances and that was refreshing to me as an actor."
Another thing which Epps said really attracted him to the film was the opportunity for him to play the role of a boxer.
"I'm an avid fan of boxing," Epps said. "So the eagerness was there, the desire was there but I dunno ... physically, this was just the most I ever put my body through."
Epps had to endure a month-and-a- half of rigorous conditioning in order to train for this role, and spent nearly five hours in the gym every day.
"I wanted to be physically prepared because I knew [co-star and director] Charles [Dutton], who is a big-time boxing fan ... wanted to set a new standard in particular with boxing," Epps said.
In order to achieve this new level, Epps said he and Dutton incorporated distinct characteristics from several different boxing legends into the character of Luther.
"I tried to take nuances from boxers," Epps said. "Not so much their style of fighting, but everything else around that: How a guy looks after he punches a certain guy."
For instance, in one part of the film, Luther knocks out one of his opponents and then grabs onto the ropes behind him. Epps said that this action was a trademark move he and Dutton took from heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Epps and Dutton also took distinct characteristics from other famous boxing champions such as Toney and Hearns.
Known for his roles in films he labeled as having a "heavy urban undertone," most people remember Epps for his performances in movies such as Juice, In Too Deep and Love and Basketball. Epps said that this transition from so-called urban movies to what many would consider more mainstream films was purely evolutional.
"It's all about trying to break the mold when the opportunity is there …" Epps said. "I think the film world is evolving and it's not just one color anymore."
Breaking the mold also seems to be the underlying theme for Against the Ropes, as a majority of the film centers around the characters' struggle to break free of their prescribed roles in life in order to fulfill their dreams. According to Epps, this is the idea he hopes people will bring home with them after watching the movie.
"Hopefully, people will just feel good at the end of the film," Epps said, "and just feel like whatever problems they have [are] not so big. Or that they'll have a fresh breath and wanna take them on and you know, kick some ass in life."
Omar Epps: Love, Basketball & Acting
In the acclaimed new film Love and Basketball, star Omar Epps plays the game on screen as if he belonged there. Clearly, he has some genuine passion for the game. "I was a basketball fan like anybody else", the young actor explains. "I was like THE fan, like De Niro in that movie. I go to the games, they hate me," he adds laughingly. And for the record, Epps is a Lakers fan. It helps to have a love for basketball if you're playing someone who is passionate about the game, as it's part of the focus for Love and Basketball. In the film, Quincy McCall (Epps) and Monica Wright (a dazzling Sanaa Lathan) grew up in the same neighborhood and have known each other since childhood. As they grow into adulthood, they fall in love, but they also share another all-consuming passion: basketball. They've followed the game all their lives and have no small amount of talent on the court. As Quincy and Monica struggle to make their relationship work, they follow separate career paths though high school and college basketball and, they hope, into stardom in big-league professional ball. Love and Basketball was the first feature film for writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote Quincy with Epps in mind. It's a character with whom he can identify. "I can relate to his vulnerable qualities", the 27-year old actor quietly explains. It was a script, Epps recalls that spoke volumes to him. "When I first read it, it jumped off the page at me. I think Gina really, as a first time director, did a good job. Also the one thing that me want to do the movie besides it being a good movie was that the guy didn't get the prize. He ultimately got what he needed, but this time round, it's the woman who gets her cake and eats it. That's a rare thing in movies."
Bearing talent and good looks in equal measure, Epps first became visible to audiences and critics alike with his 1992 film debut in Ernest R. Dickerson's urban drama Juice. Epps shone in his role as one of a group of four Harlem friends trying to make good, with the praise he earned for his work paving the way for steady industry employment.
Born Omar Hashim Epps in Brooklyn, New York, on May 16, 1973, Epps was raised by his mother, an elementary school principal. He recalls that there were two reasons why he wanted to be an actor. "Firstly I was writing since I was like seven or eight: Poetry, short stories, etc." Secondly Epps saw acting as a means of escape, "because through my writing, I was going through a whole other world, so to complement that with my acting, I was like physically and literally escaping." He nurtured his interest in acting at both the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the New York High School for the Performing Arts. After his breakthrough in Juice, Epps ran the risk of being typecast, playing athletes in a series of films. However, his performances were consistently solid, and he earned particular acclaim for his portrayal of a young man attending college on an athletic scholarship in John Singleton's Higher Learning (1995). Around this same time, Epps also excelled in a brief recurring role as an emotionally stressed intern on E.R.; he would later identify that role as the one that made it possible for audiences to finally put a name to his face.
A brief but memorable role in Scream 2 (1997) signaled a degree of Hollywood acceptance for Epps; two years later he could be seen starring in no less than four films in the same year. Two of these, a remake of The Mod Squad and Alan Rudolph's disastrous adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, were all-out turkeys, but Epps did strong work in both The Wood, in which he played one of a group of close-knit high school friends; and In Too Deep, which featured him as a police detective trying to bring down an underworld boss (L.L. Cool J). The following year, he returned to the college sports realm in Love and Basketball. Epps continues to be busy. He'll next be seen in Takeshi Kitano's Japanese underworld crime drama, Brother and Absolute Zero, with Ed Harris. But it's Epps original love, writing, that is finally reaching professional heights. "We're in negotiation for 2 scripts to be sold, and one of them [dealing with the rise and fall of a hip-hop star] should be given the go ahead imminently."
Epps is not concerned about competing in an industry dominated by a handful of Black actors his age. "I've been in this business longer than most, while guys like Taye Diggs have only been doing this a few years." Epps hopes that with more Black movies making money at the box office, that Black cinema will find broad audiences internationally, as well as throughout the US. "We have a lot of great stories to tell." Love and Basketball is just one of them.
Omar Epps is ripe for a breakthrough
The Brooklyn native had a close call with 1992's urban drama Juice, and again in 1996 after receiving critical praise for his guest work as ER's troubled Dr. Dennis Gant.
Now, with four films due in 1999, it looks like the time is finally right for the 25-year-old Epps to step onto centerstage.
In April, he'll revive the classic role of philosopher/hipster Linc--made famous by Clarence Williams III--for The Mod Squad, alongside Claire Danes and Giovanni Ribisi.
He also appears with Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte in Alan Rudolph's adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel Breakfast of Champions.
Later in the year, Epps stars as a cop lost in the underworld of a drug ring in In Too Deep. He closes out his big year with The Wood, a film about a group of guys reflecting on their past on the eve of a friend's wedding. It's being called the black Stand by Me.
But acting is not enough for Epps, who was raised by his mother, a high-school principal, and attended New York's High School for the Performing Arts because of his interest in writing.
"I definitely want to write and produce some projects," says Epps, who recently relocated to Hollywood and moved in with boyhood pal and writing partner Marlon Wayans. If that's not enough, he also performs and directs videos with his rap group, Wolfpack.