Brother: An Interview with Omar Epps

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By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

“I won’t give in to the whole Black Hollywood thing”

Omar Hashim Epps has never been one to do what you might expect him to do. The 28-year-old Brooklyn native began writing plays when he was just ten years old, and his first starring film role was also his first film role, as the ambitious turntablist Q in Ernest Dickerson’s Juice, in 1992. Since then, he’s been working pretty much nonstop, in films such as The Program (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Don’t be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996, with his friend since childhood, Marlon Wayans), Scream 2 and First Time Felon (both 1997), In Too Deep, with LL Cool J, and The Wood (both 1999), Love & Basketball and Dracula 2000 (both 2000); this is not to mention his tv work, as an actor on ER and a composer for The Wayans Brothers. In between all these acting gigs, he’s working on a record with his group, Society X. Just now, he’s talking about his new movie, Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano’s Brother, an unusual choice for a young actor to make. He plays a small time drug dealer named Denny, who, as protege to Kitano’s Aniki, a yakuza gangster transplanted to Los Angeles from Tokyo, learns about loyalty, trust, and love. The film is violent and disconcerting, not least because it Kitano works in a nearly abstract visual style, with stationary cameras and single set-ups. For Epps, the experience was both educational and enlightening.

PopMatters:

What attracted you to Brother?

Omar Epps:

Honestly, I just wanted to work with [Takeshi] Kitano. The excitement and the thought was, this guy doesn’t speak my language, I don’t speak his. What’s the vibe going to be like? Here’s a cast I don’t know. And then, of course, once I saw some of his films I knew the outcome was going to be good.

PM:

I know he brought his crew over to do the scenes in LA, along with American crewmembers. What was that like for you?

OE:

I had to be on the ball. He rarely went past one take, which was gratifying for me, but it definitely kept the crew working a lot. But you know what, the American crew loved him, because sometimes we’d do a whole day’s work in half a day, and everyone could go home. It was really nice.

PM:

How did this inform your thinking about Denny, your character, who was also learning to work with someone, Aniki [Kitano’s character], who is very different from his own experience?

OE:

Plus, I think Denny was getting used to working, period [laughs]. He was kind of a misfit, and then this guy falls out of the sky into his life. So he rolls with the punches, but still has a sense of himself.

PM:

The performances in the film are mostly nonverbal, and ideas are translated by camera set-ups. How unusual was that for you?

OE:

You never know. You give yourself to the moment and go with it. I knew that each day, the language difference would cause some comedic moments naturally on screen, and I think it did.

PM:

So many U.S. made gangster and gang movies deal with racism; how do you think this movie handled that theme differently?

OE:

I don’t really think there’s so much of a difference: you just had the Asian guys and the black guys working together, but we still went up against the Latinos and the Italians. So it’s still there, but we, within our group. I think that if it’s an issue, it’s because the viewer is having their own issue. That’s kind of cool, that we glossed over all that. And in the end, that’s what the whole fraternity, or brotherhood, is about.

PM:

What was Kitano like to work with?

OE:

He was wonderful, man. As an artist, to sit back and watch him go, it was wonderful. This is a guy who has, like, seven tv shows. He’s a comic, a painter, a musician, writer, and director. To watch his energy go, his vision, from the standpoint of being an aspiring filmmaker myself, to study his technique, that was great. His vision is so clear. That’s why everything happens so fast. You feel like you have to get it done, so he can get to the editing room and have fun. It was a great experience. It gave me a lot of confidence as an artist, to know that I am an artist and I have an instrument that can be played beautifully.

PM:

You didn’t have many takes. Did you rehearse a lot?

OE:

No! Literally, everything was one take. Even if you flubbed your line, it counted, it stayed in. The only time we went past one take was when there was a technical difficulty. We shot all over LA: we’d work quickly, then just slide back home.

PM:

Were there a lot of cameras?

OE:

No. They had one camera, maybe two. They move, boy.

PM:

How did he help you to appreciate your “instrument”?

OE:

The main thing is seeing your vision. I’m an aspiring writer and producer, and I’m sure that the first couple of things I write and co-produce, I will be acting in. And if I can see it—my vision—as a writer, while I’m acting it out, I’ll be going through a different part of the same picture. Same thing as a producer, which is partly hiring people to do your job for you. Whatever art form you’re working in, it’s crucial to see it clearly, to feel it clearly, and not to worry about the results, or how someone else will see it. If I see it clearly, that’s what it should be.

PM:

What’s your process as you write?

OE:

I write in terms of the world. There’s different styles of writing, and then there’s always rewriting. For me, it comes from the heart first, from what I feel needs to be said, and from there I can shape it based on the reality that I live in. And then from there, I can shape it with my knowledge of camera angles and other techniques, to make it available to the reader. But initially, it’s all coming from the heart and that’s where it should end up.

PM:

The violence in Brother is almost abstract in its depiction, very different from most U.S. action pictures. Did that affect your performance?

OE:

I didn’t think about how it was going to look when I was doing it, and the first time I saw it, I was in Italy. And I thought it was great, a really interesting film. Kitano has a definite style. The violence in this film is not gratuitous, it happens swiftly and it’s cold, which is what violence is, whether it’s a fist or a bullet you’re throwing, you know. And I think that, for what we want people to walk away with at the end of the film, we need that coldness.

PM:

The last scene in the film has gotten some attention in the press, and it’s very intense, because the camera doesn’t move from your face, for a long time.

OE:

That was one take too. And it was wonderful. It was really a man in between the walls of reality. They say the most troubling time in your life is when you’re becoming enlightened, because then you can’t relate to the ignorant or the enlightened, because you’re in between. And I think in that moment for the character [Denny], he was caught there. It was a man seeing a destiny in front of him, knowing what’s behind him, but not knowing where he’s at. It was great to play that.

PM:

To develop this relationship between Aniki and Denny, you shot much of the film in sequence?

OE:

Yes, and that was also wonderful. It’s definitely easier to know what you’re doing, why you’re there, and where you are in the chronicle of your journey.

PM:

The guy-guy stuff was very intense, and specific to the yakuza codes. Did you do research on yakuza culture?

OE:

Yeah. Kitano’s yakuza theme is basically, that he likes the old school yakuza. The new school, they don’t really do that stuff, the finger-chopping, they’re more like modern-day gangsters. And so he brings it back to the old days, and the means are so drastic, that the code actually calls for less violence altogether. Like when the old Italian mob was coming up, during the Kennedy years, they still had ethics, like, no women and children, and that sort of thing, which calls for less violence. That’s what the word “organized” is, in front of “crime.” I’m not saying that all the gangsters should get organized, but the idea of that, especially in this modern day when all these kids, whether they have families or not, are feeling displaced and joining gangs. It gives them a code to draw from.

PM:

What about the other guys in the cast? Did you know anyone previously?

OE:

No, I didn’t know anyone, and that’s always fun. There were Japanese guys, Spanish guys. We all jumped in and made it happen. And we had a lot of fun, but it was earnest, because we were all in the room together for the first time. And Kitano has a tremendous sense of humor. He’s basically a big kid. Even in the midst of the gangsterism in his films, you see [the characters] playing some kind of childish games, playing hopscotch games with someone’s life. That’s a theme in all his films. I think that comes from his sense of humor.

PM:

How do you see the broad theme of “brotherhood,” and how that translates across cultures?

OE:

I think that we’re moving toward that. People are realizing that color has no bearing on what’s known as brotherhood. If someone saves your life, you develop a brotherhood, no matter what your race.

PM:

How did you think about the film’s depiction of violence, which is so different from the cathartic style you see in U.S. movies?

OE:

I think, if anything, because there aren’t any special effects, because it’s not glamorizing it with slow motion or anything, that for the urban crowd, it will either set into their minds or they’ll overlook it. But it might make them look at how sarcastically we portray it in the movie: life imitates art and art imitates life. I think it will appeal to Kitano fans, art house fans, and some young, urban-suburban fans: they’ll come from all over.

PM:

What do you have coming up for the future?

OE:

I just finished a film called Conviction, for Showtime.

PM:

Cable television is opening up all kinds of doors these days.

OE:

Yeah, that’s because cable has the balls to do what they want to do, the balls to tell the stories that need to be told. They don’t have to worry about audiences, because they already have their viewership. It’s almost like movies in theaters aren’t meant to be intelligent. Major motion pictures are meant to entertain. People don’t want to pay 8 or 9 dollars to go see a problem that they have in their life, on screen. They pay to get away from that. That’s why they watch soap operas, because they know it’s not reality. On cable, you can take a little something and learn, there’s a little more meat in it.

PM:

How are you imagining your work, in producing films? Do you want to do big movies?

OE:

Yeah, I’m going to be at the helm of a big media conglomerate, and we’ll have funding from all of the Brotherhood. [laughs] And then I’ll probably be president when I’m 65. No, I want to do good work, whether that’s in the studio system or indie, or whatever. Pretty soon people will be putting their own movies online, literally. So I just want to roll with the wave and do good work. That’s work that’s challenging to me, as a person and an artist. And then, the whole project, whether it’s a film or a play, I want that to challenge the audience. Whether that’s entertainment, or based-on-true stories kind of thing.

PM:

Do you see this split between entertainment and thoughtful work as impassible?

OE:

I think there’s a way to do both. It’s the way you do it, not really what you’re doing. If you’re not outwardly preachy, but still saying certain things in an entertaining way, entertainment is all in the way you dress it. It’s like being a great cook: you can cook liver and put castor oil on it, and garnish it with fruits and [laughs]

PM:

Ewww. Enough!

OE:

[laughs] People will take what you give them. And we have to take the responsibility and do what we do.

PM:

That’s a question, because people accused of making “bad” product tend to say they’re delivering what the audience wants. They don’t take responsibility.

OE:

Yeah but, whenever you take a census like that, that’s being a bigot right there. Unless you’re asking everyone the same question, the studios know what they know, because they ask who they want and what they want. They’re right: their test audiences want to see that type of film, but their test audience is in Wyoming. Kids in Houston, Texas don’t want to see the same thing as those kids. And hence, we have this big world we live in. When they try to market what they call “black” films, they have this core audience, who has this interest or that expectation. And then when they put it on videotape, they make a [lot] of money, but it’s not from the urban areas. Why not put the movie out in 5000 theaters to begin with?

PM:

That happened with Love & Basketball.

OE:

That film was marketed okay. But I think it could have made $70 million, $100 million, if they had given it the same shot they give other films. If you open a film in 1000 theaters and most of your marketing is toward a certain ethnicity, you can’t expect it to do the same [business] as the film you’re marketing toward every ethnicity and that you’re putting in 5000 theaters. More people are getting the opportunity to go see it. So, Love & Basketball, it did wonders in terms of critical acclaim and it made money, but I’m not satisfied with it. I think it was a $100 million movie, but you need to give it the chance to make that kind of money. I won’t give in to the whole Black Hollywood thing, because that doesn’t exist for me anymore. Once someone says that to themselves, they subject themselves to those rules. I can’t say that for me, in my life, there’s a shortage of roles, because I don’t believe in that, and it’s not going to happen to me. I’m living I this world and I’m going to roll with the punches, but there are a lot of young actors, and we’re breaking down walls. Every year they have a “New Black Hollywood.” Where’s white Hollywood? Or Asian Hollywood? You know? This is what people want: they want to talk about race and that, they have something to talk about. Me, I’m trying to make $300 billion and laugh at the end of the day.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/epps-omar2/