Mike Epps: Feeling Good in the Neighborhood
- 2005 7 Jun
Mike Epps make not consider himself a Christian, but he definitely credits the Lord with getting him on the right path. The 34-year-old comedian-turned-actor, who has appeared in more than a dozen films, including “Dr. Doolittle 2,” “The Fighting Temptations” and “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” struggled with drugs and had even been in jail – all before the age of 21.
“Oh, man. You’re talking to a guy who didn’t graduate,” Epps says, about landing his first film role in 2000 (“Next Friday”). “I got an eighth grade education. I grew up with eight brothers and sisters on welfare. From the gutter. It was like, thank you, I’m glad for the opportunity. If I don’t get more than this, it was more than I thought I would do.”
But Epps did get more – much more. He’s starred alongside Ice Cube in both the second and third installments of the “Friday” series, and Eddie Murphy in “Dr. Doolittle 2.” And he’s just finished shooting “Roll Bounce” with Malcolm Dee, Spike Lee’s cousin, and is currently filming a drama called “42.4 Percent.”
With Cedric the Entertainer, he’s also starring in the film version of the CBS television series, “The Honeymooners,” which opens this week.
“I don’t know where the idea came from,” Epps said, about the decision to use African-American actors in the film. “Someone said ‘Let’s put some flava in the neighbor. Let’s dip it in chocolate and see what it’ll do.’”
Raised by a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked in a factory, Epps says his family never attended church. He’s not a religious man, either, but says he’s a “God-fearing person” who believes in “the spirit.”
“I believe that there’s a spirit that wakes me up every night – every morning – and protects me,” he explains.
And when asked how he got off the narrow road he was on as a young man, Epps says simply, “Man…through the will of God. I know it. It’s like He had a plan for me and I took some footsteps. You gotta strip yourself.”
Epps got his start in showbiz with "Def Comedy Jam," after years on the comedy circuit. He was always the class clown, he says, getting into trouble at school and with the law. Born in Indianapolis, he won a contest at a comedy club (grand prize: $35 and a bottle of champagne) at the age of 21, which gave him the confidence to move to Atlanta. There, Epps worked on this routine and performed stand-up at the Comedy Act Theatre. Encouraged by the club’s owner, however, he soon headed to New York City.
Now, he’s appearing in a lead role with one of Hollywood’s top actors.
“The Honeymooners” television series, which aired on CBS for 39 episodes during 1955 and 1956, starred Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. Extremely popular, the show transformed Carney, who played Norton, into a household name, along with Gleason.
“Carney was a brilliant comedian,” Epps says. “I’m not trying to compete with him, just to give my interpretation of the character.”
Epps understands Norton’s character pretty well. While learning to be a stand-up comic in Atlanta, he worked in the sewers – just like Norton.
“I didn’t have to do too much research to get to know Norton,” he says, with a laugh. “I’m particularly familiar with the underworld.”
Unlike Norton, however, Epps lasted only a week in the sewers. He had his mind on Hollywood.
John Schultz, who previously directed the comedy “Like Mike,” enjoyed working with Epps on “The Honeymooners.”
“Mike is a very talented actor with his own style, which works really well opposite Cedric,” Schultz says. “He’s kind of the straight man – the Laurel to Cedric’s Hardy – but he’s more than that. Mike has some of the funniest lines in the film; his commentary on Ralph’s actions is hilarious. His biggest gift is his spot-on comic timing and instincts.”
In many ways, Epps' comedy is similar to that of Cedric, who plays Ralph, the film’s lead. Norton’s best friend and sidekick, Ralph, is always cooking up schemes to create a better life for himself and his wife, Alice. Alice and Trixie, Norton’s wife, want to move into an expensive duplex with their husbands. This means that Ralph, who has secretly spent their life savings, must come up with yet another plan. This time, it’s dog racing. And the dog in question? The one that Norton just happens to be dog-sitting.
“They’re totally opposite, and they sometimes seem like they get exasperated with each other, but ultimately, they’re both there for each other,” Epps said, about the two male characters. “[Norton] would follow Ralph into anything.”
Cedric is well aware of the comparisons people will make between him and Gleason, who died in 1987 at the age of 71 from colon and liver cancer.
“You have to honor Jackie Gleason,” Cedric says. “You have to respect what he achieved. At the same time, I didn’t want to imitate him. What I’ve tried to do is take elements of what he did with the character – enough that people will recognize him as Ralph Kramden – and bring my own personality into it.”
“Cedric is a big, larger than life guy – a real character – who also has great spirit and warmth. You instantly like this man the minute you meet him,” says producer David Friendly, who also produced “Big Momma’s House” and “Dr. Dolittle.” “Mike Epps matches him well, as a skinny, very energetic ball of fire. With Mike the fun is we never knew what was going to come out of his mouth from take to take. He’d do one take that was scripted and then seven that were unscripted, and we didn’t know which one to use because they were all hilarious.”
Epps still enjoys stand-up comedy – especially the immediate feedback he gets from audiences.
“Standup is kind of like instant gratification,” he says. “You make somebody laugh right on the spot. But in a movie, you don’t know if it’s funny until after they cut it together.”
Although not a family film, “The Honeymooners” is funny, and is likely to do well at the box office. Epps’s comedy is so good that it’s no wonder Richard Pryor recently handpicked him to star in the upcoming biopic Pryor and his wife are writing about his life.
“I’m still in shock,” Epps said, during a recent interview with BET. “I got a phone call from his wife to come and have a meeting with her and Richard. We talked for awhile… Before you know it, they were talking about writing the movie. They’re writing the script now, and I imagine it will be done soon and we’ll probably shoot in a year or two. I don’t think they’re gonna do the typical bio-movie. I think they’ll cover some things that people didn’t know about him.”
Pryor is considered to have been one of the best comedians in the business. Confined to a wheelchair since 1986 with multiple sclerosis, he has reportedly long wanted to pen a script about his life.
“I’ve got to represent him right,” Epps said. “Pryor was an amazing guy. He’s the master of our comedy, and he’s the bridge. He paved the way. White people loved him as much as blacks, and he made it possible for [both] to sit in one room.”
Epps’ goal, he says, is to be an inspiration to others – especially kids like him.
“For me to pull out of that and achieve the things that I’ve achieved, I think that’s my way of giving back to the African-American community and to the young kids – to show them that there is a way out,” he says, with no small amount of passion. “Don’t give up. With all the odds against you, you can still reach your goals.”
While he appreciates the money he earns these days, Epps says it has little to do with what he does.
“The money comes with it, but I know I didn’t get in this business for money – because I wasn’t making any,” he insists. “At the end of the day, I like to feel good about myself. And a lot of the things that I do, I do them for that reason – so that I can feel good about myself. If I can make somebody else feel good, that’ll make me feel good. I know that’s why I’m in the business. I’m in the business to make people feel good.”
Photos © Paramount Pictures
Starring Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Regina Hall and Gabrielle Union, Paramount Pictures' "The Honeymooners" releases nationwide on Friday, June 10, 2005.