Archive for Monday, February 23, 2004

Epps learns ringside manner for ‘Against the Ropes’

February 23, 2004

— Omar Epps grew up idolizing "Rocky." Now he is the central prizefighter in his own rags-to-riches story of boxing glory.

"'Rocky' is like the template," Epps says. "It's not going to get
much better than that. Yet boxing movies are iffy. The allure of
boxing itself is so magnetic, but most people lose the story."

The story of his latest film "Against the Ropes" is inspired by
Jackie Kallen, America's most pre-eminent female boxing manager.
Although the facts have been greatly overhauled concerning how Kallen
(played by Meg Ryan) discovers a street punk named Luther Shaw (Epps) and turns him into a middleweight champion, the basic themes of her empowerment in a male-dominated sport remain.

"My character was fictionalized," says Epps, interviewed at the
Fairmont in Kansas City, Mo., while in town promoting the film. "But
I took pieces from certain boxers, their style and certain things
about them. The oldest boxer I tried to take from was Jack Johnson.
He had this thing where after he would knock someone out he would
grab the rope and just look at them."

The 30-year-old actor trained about five hours a day for months in
preparation for the role. Many of the fight scenes were shot in a
location that looked like an arena but in actuality was an
ice-skating rink. Thus, the competitors were often freezing while
choreographing the sweaty battles.

It was one of many things that added to the overall difficulty of
trying to capture the realism of the brutal sport.

"I've done a football film ("The Program") and it was the easiest
thing to shoot, because you can't fake getting (tackled)," he
explains. "You either get hit or you don't. Boxing, on the other
hand, I found it to be one of the hardest things I've ever shot
because of the fact that true boxing is straight on - meaning the
punches are straight at you. Movie punches have to come from the side
like in old westerns in order for people to believe that the guy got
hit."

Away from the boxing ring, hits haven't come so consistently for Epps.

He followed his edgy breakthrough roles in "Fresh" and "Higher
Learning" by hooking up with the can't-miss franchises "Major League
II" and "Scream 2." But after joining the cast of TV's "ER" for a
season, he endured back-to-back cinematic duds - "The Mod Squad" and
"Breakfast of Champions" - that topped most critical "worst of film"
lists in 1999.

"I don't think that I've really had a movie that bombed," he says.
"And I say that because I've never been in a movie that they've
expected to make a whole bunch of money."

Does the fallout from those films cause him to re-evaluate his
choices as an actor?

"I don't go through anything, because it's already done," he replies.
"The rest of it is not in your hands. A film is impersonal in that
way. That's why in music that musicians are so driven because THEY
deliver it to the audience. As an actor, you do your part, someone
else does their part, and the director wants it to look a certain
way, then the editor has to do his thing, then there's the marketing
and the studio.

"There's nothing you can do to control that. For me, I just seek
personal satisfaction."

Perhaps the greatest moment of vocational satisfaction that the
Brooklyn native remembers came on the set of one of his most reviled
pictures.

"Albert Finney kissed me on my mouth when we were doing 'Breakfast of Champions,'" he says, laughing. "We got into a little discussion, and
he looked me in my eyes and said, 'Isn't it wonderful to be an
actor?' We connected on a soulful level, like, 'Yeah. It is. We're
like part of a cult.'"

Epps has just completed a major role in the remake of the cockney
classic "Alfie," starring Jude Law. He also continues to run his
hip-hop label BKNYC Records while recording music with his own group Wolfpak.

"My style is conscious but not preachy; 'braggadocious' but not
flashy. I just like to have fun," Epps admits.

(Although when pressed to perform an impromptu free-style about
"Against the Ropes" he tookthe fifth.)

This current tour promoting Epps' boxing endeavor brings him to the
Midwest for the first time in his career. Depending on where he goes
and who he meets, the actor says that everybody tends to bring up a
different flick when discussing his body of work.

"All the guys in college, 'The Program' is their movie," Epps
reveals. "All the cops, 'In Too Deep' is their movie. Women love
'Love & Basketball.' I did a film called 'Deadly Voyage' for HBO. It
was about African stowaways, based on a true story. Everybody that
was from Africa came up and said, 'I was deeply touched by that film.'

"It's always a different movie for a different reason."

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