Anonymous and loving it? No, that's not quite what Omar Epps means when he says he doesn't really want to be a brand name. He sits amiably in a Los Angeles hotel room, and the topic of the moment is the expectations of stardom and why Epps feels that becoming too much of a commodity limits the options of an actor.
"Hats off to Denzel (Washington)," Epps says. "He's The Guy, kiss the shoes and everything. But if you saw him in a comedy, you wouldn't believe it. I want to do everything under the umbrella. Science fiction, romantic comedy, maybe some darker films. I want to be able to do whatever I want and not get stuck."
Indeed, for the past eight years, Epps has been suspended in the up-and-coming stage.
His was an impressive debut as a would-be disc jockey inevitably sucked into street crime in Juice. He was a disenchanted college student in John Singleton's social drama Higher Learning. It's clear Epps has done a little of everything: slasher meat in Scream 2, a running guest spot on the medical megashow ER and, finally, a convict obsessed with the owner of a Midwestern car dealership in Breakfast of Champions.
"I love (Breakfast of Champions)," he says, responding to the fact that it died an ugly death, both commercially and critically. "I also loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I know a lot of people that hated that movie. It's OK. That's their opinion, but you know what? We already got their seven dollars."
Tell Epps that he's hard to categorize, and he flashes a rare, warm smile. It's a startling switch from the natural go-through-the-motions rhythm that actors acquire during these serial interviews. It says, "I'm glad you said that."
In a way, that's the advantage of being a known, yet not quite A-list, actor in Hollywood: steady work. It may not be the most glamorous position in the world, but it's still one many struggling actors would kill for.
"In my generation of black actors, without sounding arrogant, I think I bring some seniority," he says. "I've been doing this steadily since I was 17. But to be honest, I never thought about any of that until guys that I respected started coming up to me and asking me questions. And I'm like 'I don't know.' I also think I have a catalogue of work to be able to go from a Mod Squad to a Deadly Voyage and so on."
Somebody brings up the sex symbol issue, to which he shrugs unassumingly.
"All that is flattering but it doesn't pay the bills, because there'll always be one," he says. "Right now, it's Taye Diggs and I'm like, 'Great, you can have it.' "
He has three films coming out this year alone, one of which is Love and Basketball, the debut feature from Gina Prince-Blythewood, who wrote previously for the Cosby spinoff, A Different World, and the short-lived South Central. It's an interesting choice of roles, considering his ambivalence about sports. ("Baseball sucks. Nothing ever happens. I'd rather watch golf.")
Epps plays Quincy, a suburban kid caught between his academic future, a prominent athletic lineage (his father plays for the L.A. Clippers) and his lifelong friendship with the girl next door that's about to become something more. In a way, playing Quincy reminded Epps of the contrast between the character and his own upbringing in Brooklyn.
"I know Quincy was a little more innocent than me," he says. "He grew up in the suburbs with a mother and a father. I only met my father once when I was 12, but that's neither here nor there. Where I grew up, the odds were stacked against you. I think the challenge was greater for me than Quincy, which forced me to be more intense and passionate."
Epps seems unconcerned with box office and potential droughts between jobs.
"There is no formula to a career," he says. "Nobody truly knows. The pros outweigh the cons. If nobody comes to see it, hey, I had a good time making it. I don't feel I'm taking risks at all. You can be Demi Moore, or you can be Demi Moore after G.I. Jane. You can either be an actor or a star. Tom Cruise is a consummate star, and he's formulated his career toward being a star. Now, he wants to be an actor. So he's doing the Magnolias and taking the smaller parts."
Race invariably comes up in any discussion with Epps about the current Hollywood climate. He shrugs indifferently. He believes in himself and the power of economics, not conspiracy theories.
"I choose my films as an artist and as a human being," he says. "I'm excited about the future. It's not going back to the way it was, in anyone's past. It can only go forward. I think things are taking their natural course. We're always going to have to fight a little for what we want. Hollywood is all based on money. and I tell this to people all the time. There's no panel sitting somewhere saying, 'No, this kind of movie will never get made.' The audience dictates what is made to a degree. The Juices and the Boyz in the Hoods were making money, so they decided to keep making them until people got tired of that.
"Now we're giving them another flavor, and so now there'll be a slew of The Woods and Best Mans, and then it'll branch off even more after that. They just keep trying. And if Charlie's Angels does big business, that'll bring out 10 other Mod Squads. The guys upstairs don't have an artistic bone in their bodies, but they're the ones who sign the checks so you can't tell them what to do. If Charlie's Angels bombs, they'll get together and say, 'You know what? That Starsky and Hutch thing we were thinking about is probably not a good idea.' "
For the moment, Epps wants to keep expanding, whether its recording more Hip Hop records, which he defends vigorously to those who question its authenticity (it ain't "getting jiggy with it", he says) and continuing to develop BKNY, his production company that's currently negotiating some scripts he's co-written.
"The situation is you get your first couple of films off the ground," he says. "Then people start coming to you with stories. You buy a couple and develop them, and pretty soon you have your own staff of writers. I hope to be 50, smoking a cigar, and just being able to say, 'I have an idea,' and have it written tomorrow."
Many New York actors keep residence at home to keep the film industry in Los Angeles at arm's length. Although Epps has since moved west for work (he has a classic love-hate relationship with his home city), he's no exception when it comes to searching for a livable balance between public and private life.
"I keep that reservoir of self and my private life well-guarded," he says. "I dig into myself a lot so I don't have to force it, so I don't have to put on a face. This way I can be in a bad movie and still be cordial and I can be in a good movie and be goofy. I can just be me. God granted me the chance to live my dream. And I don't take that lightly." ©