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February 2004
Against The Ropes : An Interview with Omar Epps

By Todd Gilchrist

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 žAgainst The RopesÓ?

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 žthoughtÓ 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: žCursed 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.


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