Rising to the challenge
Omar Epps takes up boxing in
Against the Ropes
By Angela Baldassarre
As one of the industry's most talented and sought-after black actors, Omar Epps has been impressing audiences since making his feature-film acting debut in Ernest Dickerson's 1991 movie Juice. He made us laugh in Major League 2, cheer in Love & Basketball, yell in Scream 2, drool in The Wood, and even cry in ER.
Now the handsome 31-year-old Brooklynite is back to astound us a middle-weight boxer in Charles S. Dutton's Against the Ropes, the true story of white female agent Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) who defies the male-dominated boxing world by convincing a down-on-his-luck thug named Luther Shaw (Epps) to fight his way out of the ghetto. As his manager, Kallen and veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Dutton), fight their way to the top.
"Shaw is purely fictional," explains Epps from his office in Los Angeles. "But I took inspiration from several boxers, a little bit of his style, a little bit of his swagger, just to help out with the part. But it was pretty hard work. I had to work out for four weeks, five hours a day. And it was gruelling, but what was really hard was the filming because the training turned out to be fun after a while. I had to be reminded that we had a movie to shoot. And filming the boxing scenes was kind of difficult, 14-hour days, the repetition of it all. It was pretty tough."
But Epps isn't afraid of hard work. While making 2000's Love & Basketball, he had to shed 20 pounds in order play a rising basketball star opposite his real-life love at the time, Sanaa Lathan. "The difference with that," explains Epps, "is that losing weight was actually harder than putting it on. You have to be really careful, because you can't put your body through these yo-yo extremes. If you have to lose a lot of weight or gain a lot of weight, your body is going to do what you tell it to do. But after the fact you have to take care of yourself, wean yourself back into regularity again."
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Epps is a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. He met Dutton when the Roc television series star made his directorial debut with the HBO original television film First Time Felon. When Dutton approached Epps again to star in Against the Ropes, taking on the part was a no-brainer for the young actor.
"I can't even imagine thinking it was too much work," says Epps when asked if portraying a boxer would've involved too much training. "Nothing is too much work. This is the nature of what we do. For me the more challenging the thing is, the more exciting it's going to be."
One would be concerned about the potential beatings...
"Yeah, I took a couple of hits," he laughs. "You get one, you gotta get one. But when I received, I gave it back, then everything was fine after that."
There's also the macho element of the part. Here's this pretty suave black dude, tough, ghetto-smart, who lets himself be bossed around by a white girl...
"Y'know, if I was in the same position Luther was in, why not?" says the actor. "He had nothing else better to do. I think, for me, yeah, it's believable. It's so weird, opposites attract sometimes. What have you got to lose?"
Some would say, image...
"It crossed my mind, but the film is inspired by a true story, so these things really happened. When you think of the real Jackie Kallen with some of the boxers she used to have, they're some of the most menacing dudes to ever climb into a ring. And they weren't the best guys either, so it's definitely believable."
But Epps' biggest challenge this year is that of father. He and girlfriend Keisha Spivey, of P. Diddy's girl group Total, are expecting a baby this summer (his second). Omar and Keisha began dating again for a second time in March 2003 after the actor ended his almost three-year long relationship Lathan, to whom he was engaged.
However, the biggest question on this scribe's lips is not the baby's gender, but whether Epps' character on ER, struggling surgical resident Dr. Dennis Gant, committed suicide or was killed.
"I don't even know," laughs Omar. "I would assume that he jumped."