Epps picks character over fame's seduction

Film: Young actor seeks lasting, hard-earned success, seeing a valuable lesson in his `In Too Deep' role.

August 25, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Omar Epps knows all about how seductive the dark side can appear, how all that money and all that power can be hard for even the most righteous person to resist.

That, he says, is exactly what "In Too Deep" is all about.

"The dark side of life is very tempting. It's supposed to be," Epps says over the phone from New York, where he's getting ready to be a guest on TV's "Late Show with David Letterman."

The 26-year-old actor feels good about the film, in which he plays Jeff Cole, an undercover Cincinnati narcotics cop determined to bring down drug kingpin Dwyane Gittens (LL Cool J), a violent, charismatic hustler better known on the street as God. To do that, Cole has to infiltrate Gittens' street gang. So he becomes J. Reid, a hair-triggered street operator who quickly becomes God's right arm.

In the film, Epps' character finds himself being drawn inexorably into Gittens' world, both physically and morally; before long, he's more J. Reid than Jeff Cole. That struggle between good and evil is being played out in cities throughout the country, the actor believes, helping make the story resonate within its audience. And his character's struggle to right himself is what sets the movie apart.

"We've seen that [drug culture] reflected in other movies," Epps says. "What's going to be interesting to people is how my character deals with that."

Society, he believes, needs to get away from the notion that good things come easy. They don't, but the sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving them is what makes the struggle worthwhile.

"The message of the film is obvious," Epps says. "If you live by the sword, you die by the gun. If you walk down the righteous path, it's not going to be easy. It ain't supposed to be easy. That's what makes righteous a beautiful thing.

"It's like ... when you see your daughter or your son graduate, or achieving something in their life, and you sit there and think about when they were little kids and you held them -- that's what it's all about."

Epps' career is gaining a higher profile.

From early appearances on TV and in "Major League II," he's progressed to such films as John Singleton's "Higher Learning," plus the HBO films "Deadly Voyage," "First Time Felon" and "Daybreak."

Among his upcoming projects is director Alan Rudolph's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions," in which he'll be starring with Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte.

"I'm not looking for the big breakout role," he says. "I'm looking for the many [small] breakout roles. The body of work is what I'm for.

"I don't want to be a shooting star; I want to be as bright as any star in the sky at night."

The Brooklyn native and graduate of New York's High School for the Performing Arts made his film debut opposite Tupac Shakur in 1992's "Juice." He's been making films since he was 18 and hopes "In Too Deep" is better received than his last high-profile effort, the almost-universally panned big-screen adaptation of "The Mod Squad."

But, he says, that film got what it deserved.

"I wasn't disappointed by the reception, because I knew going in, we got us a script with gaping holes in it," Epps says. "What it was for me was the opportunity to work with Claire [Danes] and Giovanni [Ribisi]. I believe that all three of us, for our genres of film, we can be among the great ones 20-30 years from now."

Too bad, he says, audiences didn't have as much fun watching the film as he had making it. Maybe if there had been some way to let people know the film was more about three young actors enjoying each other's company than trying to make a great -- or even a good -- film.

"It was such a beautiful experience, meeting one another and working together, learning together," Epps says.

"It was more of [an ego] trip for the actors."

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