Omar Epps: A Reel Contender
When Omar Epps read the screenplay for Against the Ropes, a based-on-true-life-events script about female boxing manager Jackie Kallen, he got excited. Already a fan of boxing, he was pleased that the movie dealt with more than sports. The characters had real depth and a traceable journey in the film. Epps had also gained respect for Charles Dutton, director of Against the Ropes, when they worked together in the HBO original movie First Time Felon. Dutton directed and starred, Epps played Greg Yance, a drug-dealer and gang member who finds a new life when he's sent to boot camp.
Although "Omar Epps" may not be a household name as yet, it should be soon. A young artist of considerable talent, Epps began acting as a child. He performed in plays in elementary school, starred in Grease in junior high, started playing music and went to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia Performing Arts High School in New York City. "I really liked writing short stories and plays," says Epps. "That became a natural extension of my acting, so I studied film culture and stage and went for it."
Raised in Brooklyn by a single mom, Epps laughs when he explains that his mother wanted him to go to grad school and head in another direction. "But she has always been my biggest supporter. She was an educator in New York, first a teacher, then assistant principal, principal and later on a superintendent. Once she saw my determination and acting ability she said, 'Maybe you can do this.'"
That same attitude permeates the connection between Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) and Luther Shaw (Epps) in Against the Ropes. "The beauty of their relationship is the conflict," said Charles Dutton. "And the beauty of their conflict is that they are both right when it comes to what they want for themselves and, ultimately, for each other."
Shaw must find the determination to change his life and pursue his dreams -- something Epps embraced at an early age, but also, he says, an ability that is taught by a parent. "I had the love. I know it sounds mushy and cliché, but the older I get, I realize how much love there was between my mother and me. It's something that makes a huge difference, stays with you forever and shapes who you are, or can break who you are. I had the same obstacles other kids did growing up but what was instilled in me from an early age was self-preservation, the care about self. There was a certain type of lifestyle in the ghetto that didn't appeal to me. I'm always looking at the long-term gain, and from that I saw nothing. I was more fascinated by literature, the arts and the things that keep the world spinning and, as Jessie says, 'keep hope alive.' Learning that at an early age helped me know that things that I wanted to do were possible. I just had to put the work in, because I also learned nothing worth doing comes overnight."
Luther realizes the same lessons in the film, and his bible for the ring is in mastering how to fight the good fight. Charles Dutton, who was a fighter at one time and had seen almost every boxing movie, wanted the fight scenes in Against the Ropes to be authentic. To pull this off, Epps underwent intense physical and mental training. He worked with stunt coordinator/boxer choreographer Roy T. Anderson and assistant boxing choreographer Nick Alachiotis who really put him through the ropes. "I had to sacrifice a lot and really take care of myself," said Epps, "but I wouldn't have changed a thing. Luther comes off as one helluva a great boxer…and he deserves it."
Anderson found Epps more than up to the challenge. "Omar is a natural athlete, and he came to the production in relatively good shape. He was definitely up to the task at hand."
After-the-film rumors about Epps's boxing prowess had him heading for the real ring. "That is going to become an urban legend," said Epps with a larger-than-life grin and a deep laugh.
The 30-year-old Epps is already too busy to take on that full-time challenge. With the films Deadly Voyage, The Wood, In Too Deep, Higher Learning, Breakfast of Champions, Scream 2, Major League 2 and Love and Basketball -- just to name a few -- under his belt, Epps is not letting any moss grow under his feet.
"I formed my own entertainment company, BKNY, and I'm still doing rap music. With BKNYrecords.com we're trying to create a vehicle to connect with other wonderful artists who don't have a platform. We've put together a good team who don't want to play the major game. BKNY is just a little guy trying to share music with the world."
Not unlike many of Hollywood's leading men, Epps is small, five feet and ten inch inches. He has sincere brown eyes and becomes animated with every response about his passions for life and acting. He also shares a passion with kids about pursuing their dreams. At home in New York or occasionally when he's on the road, he goes to schools to address the kids. "It's a blessing what I do," he says. "Last week I told the kids, if it's something you love to do and you can get paid to do that thing, that is the ultimate blessing. That's why the world is the way it is. My brother is a police captain, and he tells me, 'No, you live the movie-star life because you make the big money.' But I'm like, Dude, you're doing what you want to do."
Kids today have many obstacles to overcome and Epps likes to encourage them. "Part of my success has been my determination. There are going to be obstacles wherever you go, especially once you're in something corporate. I like to tell the kids to pursue their dreams now, because I wish someone had told me earlier in life that you can get paid for what you like to do, and I might have started writing sooner."
One early assignment when Epps was in sixth grade is still haunting him today. An article in the 1999 Newsday quoted Epps as stating, "I'm going to be the first black President of the United States. If Reagan can do it, I know I can."
And did he say that? Again Epps explodes with a warm laugh. "I wrote an essay, I want to be the first black president of the United States, and the teacher gave it to the principal, who was so taken back she made me read it over the loud speaker to the school. So I use that today when I talk to kids, especially in urban areas. I tell them, 'I was you, and the world is really your oyster. Whether you claim sexism or racism, there will always be some ism in the world and you learn when you grow up there's really only one color in the world and that's green. You have to inspire yourself and visualize and see it before it happens. For me, my political aspirations are probably dead, but it's something I share with people to let them know to dream big and have no limits. Imagination is the thing that keeps us sane.'"
Epps is co-writer with friend Mitchell Marchand of the upcoming Who Stole the Soul?, a film his company will co-produce with No Limit and Patriot Films. "It's like The Rose, but with hip-hop as a backdrop," says Epps. "It's about the rise and fall of a musical star, or in this case a group."
He's also co-producing Serenity Falls, a noir thriller written by Mark Mullhone, about a guy wrongfully accused of a crime and trying to pick up the pieces of his life.
Epps will soon be seen in Wes Craven's horror thriller, Cursed, and stars with Jude Law and Susan Sarandon in Charles Shyer's upcoming remake of Alfie (still not officially titled). "Jude and I are best friends in the film," explains Epps. "The movie is a remake, a playboy who gets all the girls, but with a new spin. Bill Naughton wrote the original, but this one is written by Elaine Pope and Charles Shyer, who also directs. It has a great cast that also includes Marisa Tomei and Nia Long. I'm excited about it."
In a recent interview with Michael Caine, who starred in the original Alfie, he made this comment about the remake. "I think it will be very interesting because Alfie was about a male chauvinist pig in the 60s. And an American woman who might have one or two feminist tendencies is rewriting it. It's being rewritten in a very cunning way."
No matter what project Epps is attached to, he's shown a knack for putting his all into it and delivering believable and interesting characters -- which makes watching his movies so enthralling.
"At this point in my life the only limits are the ones I set for myself," he says. "So as long as I can dream, it can happen."