Epps learns ringside manner for 'Ropes'

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Special to the Journal-World

Omar Epps stars as a street hood turned boxer in "Against the Ropes." The film opens today in Lawrence.

— Omar Epps grew up idolizing "Rocky." Now he is the central prizefighter in his own rags-to-riches story of boxing glory.

"'Rocky' is like the template," Epps says. "It's not going to get much better than that. Yet boxing movies are iffy. The allure of boxing itself is so magnetic, but most people lose the story."

The story of his latest film "Against the Ropes" -- which opens today in Lawrence -- is inspired by Jackie Kallen, America's most pre-eminent female boxing manager. Although the facts have been overhauled concerning how Kallen (Meg Ryan) discovers a street punk named Luther Shaw (Epps) and turns him into a middleweight champion, the basic themes of her empowerment in a male-dominated sport remain.

"My character was fictionalized," says Epps, interviewed at the Fairmont in Kansas City, Mo., while in town promoting the film. "But I took pieces from certain boxers, their style and certain things about them. The oldest boxer I tried to take from was Jack Johnson. He had this thing where after he would knock someone out he would grab the rope and just look at them."

The 30-year-old actor trained about five hours a day for months in preparation for the role. Many of the fight scenes were shot in a location that looked like an arena but in actuality was an ice-skating rink. Thus, the competitors were often freezing while choreographing the sweaty battles.

It was one of many things that added to the overall difficulty of trying to capture the realism of the brutal sport.

"I've done a football film ("The Program") and it was the easiest thing to shoot, because you can't fake getting (tackled)," he explains. "You either get hit or you don't. Boxing, on the other hand, I found it to be one of the hardest things I've ever shot because of the fact that true boxing is straight on -- meaning the punches are straight at you. Movie punches have to come from the side like in old westerns in order for people to believe that the guy got hit."

Away from the boxing ring, hits haven't come so consistently for Epps.

He followed his edgy breakthrough roles in "Fresh" and "Higher Learning" by hooking up with the can't-miss franchises "Major League II" and "Scream 2." But after joining the cast of TV's "ER" for a season (1996-97), he endured back-to-back cinematic duds -- "The Mod Squad" and "Breakfast of Champions" -- that topped the majority of critical "worst of film" lists in 1999.

"I don't think that I've really had a movie that bombed," he says. "And I say that because I've never been in a movie that they've expected to make a whole bunch of money."

Does the fallout from those films cause him to re-evaluate his choices as an actor?

"I don't go through anything, because it's already done," he replies. "The rest of it is not in your hands. A film is impersonal in that way. That's why in music that musicians are so driven because THEY deliver it to the audience. As an actor, you do your part, someone else does their part, and the director wants it to look a certain way, then the editor has to do his thing, then there's the marketing and the studio.

"There's nothing you can do to control that. For me, I just seek personal satisfaction."

Perhaps the greatest moment of vocational satisfaction that the Brooklyn native remembers came on the set of one of his most reviled pictures.

"Albert Finney kissed me on my mouth when we were doing 'Breakfast of Champions,'" he says, laughing. "We got into a little discussion, and he looked me in my eyes and said, 'Isn't it wonderful to be an actor?' We connected on a soulful level, like, 'Yeah. It is. We're like part of a cult.'"

Epps has just completed a major role in the remake of the cockney classic "Alfie," starring Jude Law. He also continues to run his hip-hop label BKNYC Records while recording music with his own group Wolfpak.

"My style is conscious but not preachy; 'braggadocious' but not flashy. I just like to have fun," Epps admits.

(Although when pressed to perform an impromptu free-style about "Against the Ropes" he took the fifth.)

This current tour promoting Epps' boxing endeavor brings him to the Midwest for the first time in his career. Depending on where he goes and who he meets, the actor says that everybody tends to bring up a different flick when discussing his body of work.

"All the guys in college, 'The Program' is their movie," Epps reveals. "All the cops, 'In Too Deep' is their movie. Women love 'Love & Basketball.' I did a film called 'Deadly Voyage' for HBO. It was about African stowaways, based on a true story. Everybody that was from Africa came up and said, 'I was deeply touched by that film.'

"It's always a different movie for a different reason."

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