Brooklyn native Omar Epps attended La Guardia, aka the “Fame” high school for performing arts, and grew up writing poetry, rapping and acting. But he had a chip on his shoulder. In middle school, he lost out on the lead role in a production of “Grease.”
“That bothered me the rest of junior high school. I’m like, ‘Oh … they’re going to see,’ ” he told me on this week’s “Renaissance Man.”
That chip kept him in the proverbial gym, training hard to perfect his theatrical jump shot. By the time he was 17, he landed his first movie role in “Juice” alongside a few folks named Samuel L Jackson, Tupac Shakur and Queen Latifah. The director Ernest Dickerson called him at home and broke the good news. His mother, a school principal, had a different take.
“She’s like, ‘I wanted you to go to college, be a lawyer.’ “
I’m sure she changed her mind by the time he was done filming because he parlayed that role into a pretty awesome musical gig.
“At the time, I was in a [five-man] singing group called Vision, and I was able to get two of them extra roles, like background roles, on the set of ‘Juice,’ ” he told me. At the time, Queen Latifah was affiliated with a group called Simple Pleasure, and she had just cut a demo with them, which she played in her trailer. “So I’ll be walking by the trailer and, again, the competitiveness … I’m like, ‘Yo, my group will smoke them’ … she’s like, ‘What?’ ”
Omar brought his bandmates to the Harlem set and they sang a capella to her in a staircase. She started crying and said she wanted to work with them. “The next thing you know, after we wrap ‘Juice’, she’s like, ‘Yo, I’m about to go on tour with Ziggy Marley, and I want you all to sing background’ … It was crazy … I filmed ‘Juice.’ I ended up on tour with Queen Latifah before the movie comes out. Then the movie comes out. You can’t even make this up.”
He clearly left that movie with all the real-life juice. And someone must have loved him because his character, Q, played the much younger love interest of Cindy Herron from En Vogue. It was also surreal because he had the girl group’s poster on his wall at the time.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you got to kiss her,’ And I’m like, ‘What? I don’t even know how to kiss,’ ” he said, adding that it was brave of Dickerson to explore the very real dynamic of an older woman and a teen.
Of course, Omar went on to star in television hits such as “ER” and “House” and flicks such as “The Wood,” “Love & Basketball” and “Higher Learning,” the latter of which tackled sensitive racial and societal issues before its time.
“Salute and rest in peace to [director] John Singleton. But this brother was just on another wavelength of energy and he was so acutely aware of the power of imagery, the power of the words that the characters are saying. So everything was so intentional, you know? I was still young at the time. I was like early 20s. So some of it would go over my head, like I would have to go chill with him at the crib,” he said adding that he’d ask him tons of questions.
“And then he would break it down and I’m like, OK, I get it.”
He recently pivoted to writing and has released a young-adult sci-fi novel, “Nubia: The Awakening,” which is about three teens displaced in a futuristic New York City after a storm destroyed their African homeland.
“I’m a creative. I just follow the idea,” he said of the book, which he co-wrote with Clarence A. Haynes. But mostly he wanted to tell a story and provide an escape. “I remember being a kid reading ‘Super Fudge‘ by Judy Blume, and it would just take me somewhere for hours. And then I come back to my life and they give me a little bit more umph … And I’m like, that’s what I want to give these kids — an escape.”
Like we mentioned, Omar has had on-screen relationships with some of the most beautiful women in showbiz. But in real life, he’s been married to the equally stunning Keisha Spivey since 2006, which is a lifetime in Hollywood.
“Our little secret sauce is we took breaking up off the table. And what that did for me personally, I can’t speak for her, but what that did for me was it changed the way that we had conflict … We still bump heads from time to time. We do it in such a respectful way.”
We all know Omar is supremely talented but he also knows how to nurture relationships. That counts for something in Hollywood, where he is still a force. He will soon be starring alongside Glenn Close in Lee Daniels’ “The Deliverance,” which he said will appeal to fans of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”
But he still has some serious names on his co-star bucket list.
“I want to work with Wesley Snipes. I want to work with Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said, adding “There’s a long list, but Denzel is at the top of that list.”
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.
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