By Miki Turner
Page 3 staff

LOS ANGELES -- With a a solid body of work playing sports roles (not to mention a solid body, literally), it's no wonder that Omar Epps is often the first actor considered for the jock roles. He was a football player in "The Program," shot hoops in "Love & Basketball," took swings in "Major League II," and is now taking hits in his latest film, "Against the Ropes."

The film, based loosely on the story of Jackie Kallen, boxing's first female manager/promoter, also stars Meg Ryan, Tony Shalhoub, Charles S. Dutton and Tim Daly. Epps plays Luther Shaw, a drug dealer-turned light middleweight champion. Epps' portrayal is so authentic that some folks are saying that the Brooklyn-born actor has what it takes to really take a punch.

Omar Epps
Omar Epps shows off his talents and tattoos in new boxing movie "Against The Ropes"

No chance there, however. Although Epps is a boxing fan, he's a true renaissance man. He's been writing screenplays since he was 10, has appeared in more than 15 feature films and has even dabbled in rap game.

During an exclusive interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, the 30-year-old actor talked about his career choices, his affection for boxing, being African American in Hollywood, and those three touchdowns he scored in high school.

1. You've been in quite a few movies that have had sports themes. How good an athlete are you?

Omar Epps: I don't know how this all happened. I'm 5-10-½, 175 pounds. I'm not a big dude. Oddly enough, before "Against the Ropes," I didn't want to do any more sports films because I felt like I really didn't want to get typecast. But it's a great opportunity.

2. Did you play any sports growing up?

I'm as athletic as the average person. I played football growing up, but that's it.

What position did you play?

I was backup QB and the starting running back. I also played cornerback and a little bit of wide receiver.

What's the one memory that sticks in your head about your playing days?

Hmm. When I played ball, I remember my team was getting blown out and the starting QB got hurt. I came in and scored three touchdowns and we won. I did a Michael Vick that day. I was in the papers, and my mother still has that article. That was one of the top ones. Somewhere in the process of training for ["Against the Ropes"], I started sparring and it was like the third time out. And of course this was my ego talking -- I felt like I was really there. I felt like if I kept pushing and going, I could really be something.

2a. There's a rumor going around that you used to box, too?

Really? That's not true. You know how you sing in the shower? That's how I used to box. I never boxed before. When I was younger, I took some martial arts but the training on this was me learning from A to Z. It was my first time. I've always been an avid fan, and it's one of my favorite sports. It's the beginning of all sport. I'm willing to bet that the first sport ever was a man against another man in a fight. It's so primitive that it's wonderful to watch.

Did you pattern your character, Luther Shaw, after any one fighter?

Well, he's a composite character, but I definitely took bits and pieces from fighters I liked such as Sugar Ray (Leonard).

2b. Do you like boxing movies?

I like the movies -- the stories -- but usually the boxing sucks! Most of the time you don't care about that because you're so into the story. We wanted to set a new standard with that.

What are your favorite boxing movies?

Denzel Washington, Ray Allen
Do Denzel's skills go beyond acting?
Of course, "Rocky." And, shameless plug, but I guess "Against the Ropes" has to be up there! And there was a film called "The Boxer."

Is boxing part of your training regimen?

It will be now. It's actually the most gratifying training for me. It just feels good and it's easy. I don't like working with weights; I prefer a more natural workout. Oddly enough, I didn't lift one weight during this whole process. I just did calisthenics and boxed. A lot of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups.

3. Can you talk a little bit about the physical demands of this role?

It was tough. I couldn't get tired. I felt like I had to be ready at all times. And I felt if I kept my energy up, it would help keep other people fresh all the time. I took pretty good care of myself off the set in terms of getting proper rest.

4. Are you into hoops as well or was "Love & Basketball" just another role?

No, that was just a role. I wasn't really a basketball player growing up. I was more of a contact player. I felt like basketball was for all the pretty boys growing up. All the pretty boys played ball. All the rough and tumble boys played football. So, I played football.

5. You kind of look like an athlete... with all of the tattoos.

I have a lot of tattoos (He starts pointing them out). I've got one that means sincerity, love and power in Japanese. This one looks like a bull's eye, but it's an African symbol for royalty. This is a baby angel -- God's children, which we all are. I like to makeover the tats usually in a film, if a character calls for it. I'll have them make it into something else.

6. A lot of actors have fantasies about being athletes and vice-versa. Why do you think there's such a crossover between the two worlds?

Yeah, actors want to be musicians and musicians want to be actors and athletes want to be either one! I think it's the world of the arts. Interestingly enough, if you were to go into the history of 90 percent of the working actors, they are musically inclined because that's part of our world -- musical theater or whatever. There are great dancers who are actors. Everybody wants to be an athlete because we all want that big paycheck.

It's just that fight, that feeling of winning, that camaraderie, that teamwork, that overcoming the 4th-and-2 with two seconds left and you're at the five and your team is down, and you've got to do it for the Gipper. We all want to be the guy carrying that ball across the goal line. Athletics are a great metaphor for life. It inspires people -- especially when you find out the story behind the story.

Have you seen any athletes who are particularly good actors?

Hmm. Good question. I don't know. I haven't seen one yet. Honestly, I could put the pressure on all athletes. I love Shaq to death, that's my boy, but he can't act worth a lick. And I think he knows that. Michael Jordan in the commercials -- it's real stale. It's always stale. They're really, really stiff. It's easier for us to act like them than it is for them to act like us.

What about Ray Allen in "He Got Game?"

Yeah, he wasn't bad. But he was stale -- meaning one-dimensional. He was there reading a bit. He actually wasn't too bad because they didn't give him too much to do. So I thought he pulled it off.

Omar Epps, Meg Ryan
Meg Ryan, who plays Epps' boxing promoter in the movie, is on the list of his favorite leading ladies.
7. You've got your own production company so you can write and produce projects for other people. What kind of stuff do you want to develop yourself?

That's a good question. The parts I want to write for myself are all across the board. I'm actually working on a romantic comedy to dig into myself. I know me, and there's so many parts of me that people haven't seen. I don't want people to get used to seeing me in a certain way because then they won't accept the other parts of me. But the stuff that I write is all over-the-board-comedies, drama, action, and I'm trying to put together some animation.

8. Who's been your favorite leading lady in film?

Halle Berry. She sticks out. I did a film with her called "The Program". Of course, Meg Ryan. She was great. And Cindy Herron from En Vogue. I remember when I did "Juice," that was such a weird experience because I was 17 or 18, and I still had posters up in my room of her. When we'd rehearse she'd be sitting right there, and she was like, "You're starring in a film, what are you drooling for? Close your mouth kid!"

9. It's been a couple of years since Halle and Denzel won those Oscars, and there was a lot of buzz about Hollywood really opening up to African American actors. Has that really been the case?

I think the door is open. Of course, with them winning those awards, I don't know what it did to be honest with you. I don't know how it affected Hollywood or African Americans in Hollywood. Frankly, I don't know if people felt this way, but Denzel was long overdue for an Oscar. I fancied him winning an Oscar, but I felt like he should have gotten it for other things. That's kind of what happened with Pacino, too.

I don't know if two African Americans winning Oscars will open up the doors for other actors. How? It doesn't mean that they'll start buying more scripts written by African Americans if they're not good. I've been trying to explain to the African American community that it's not about us writing more, directing and producing more, and taking more of the power. That's a given. To me, it's more about us raising the standard of our own filmmaking. We've already been through the blaxploitation movement, and now it seems like we're reliving it. There are so many "shuckin' and jivin'" stories out there, and that's a lot of what we're seeing when it comes to black movies.

Are you offended by that?

Yes, because we're so much more talented than that. We're so much more versatile than that. We're able and articulate. There has got to be 50 million more Spike Lees. There just can't be one guy! The problem goes a lot deeper than Hollywood. Hollywood sees one color, and that's green. We should put the onus on us and raise the standards of our own filmmaking so when we speak as one voice, it's taken seriously.

10. Have you always felt that you've gotten yours?

No, I haven't always felt that way. The way I look at the world now is that the world is as it should be. The only limitations that I have are the ones I set on myself. I feel that there is more than enough available out there. We just have to persevere and get to it.

Miki Turner is a day and night laborer in L.A. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com