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Mike Epps is a name that many would consider household in the world of film and television. His face is recognizable first from his role as Day-Day Jones alongside Ice Cube in "Next Friday" and has been seen in numerous big screen roles in films like "Dr. Doolittle 2," "All About The Benjamins," "Resident Evil" (the second and third installments), "The Hangover," and many more. Now, his most exciting and career highlighting role has made him all the buzz, as he will be starring as Richard Pryor in the film biopic about the late comedian's life.
What many of you may not be aware of, is that playing the comedian is nothing new to Mike Epps. The background of his on-screen antics are rooted in his on-stage antics as a stand-up, something he has been doing much longer (and even more frequently) than acting. In fact, it was seeing Mike perform on stage that inspired Ice Cube to cast him to replace Chris Tucker in the role of his sidekick in "Next Friday."
Mike had humble beginnings as a stand-up comedian not in a comedy Mecca like L.A. or New York (that came later), but in his hometown of Indianapolis, IN, where he had to hustle to find any and every chance to get on stage. When you get right down to it though, his comedy career really started even earlier than that. "You know what, I was always the class clown, I was always cracking jokes in class and making people laugh. I even made the teacher laugh," he says, chuckling himself.
Whether this ability was genetics or a more intentional gift, family and faith both clearly had a big influence on Mike. "I came from a big family, I have a lot of brothers and sisters. Everybody had their own talent and that was mine, making people laugh."
Mike didn't know as a kid he wanted to be a professional comedian. His motivation wasn't career related, it was simply feeling joy in making others feel joy. "I didn't know I wanted a career in comedy as a kid. I didn't realize I was a comedian until I was an adult, you know what I mean. I was about 17 or 18 years old when that thought occurred to me." Once that realization struck, anyone in his path was a potential target. "I used to run around all over the place trying my jokes out on people," he remembers fondly. "They didn't know what I was doing, they were just laughing. So when I walked away from them, I'd be like 'Yeaaaah, that one worked right there, Imma use that one again. I made some girls laugh on that one? Yeah I'm using that again.' That's how I realized that my jokes were good."
This was in hometown Indianapolis, and once he got the inspiration and confidence to get up on a stage and behind a mic and realized this was something he wanted to do professionally, the challenge became finding someone to use these newfound aspirations on. "It was hard to find work, that's why eventually I had to leave home and move up out of there. There just weren't enough comedy clubs around, so I moved to New York and started building my chops up. That's what New York is for anyone that wants to be in the industry, whether as an entertainer or in the business. When you move to New York it's kind of like boot camp. New York is so hardcore, if it ain't funny, they ain't laughing. It's the Mecca of comedy, the opportunities abound but only for those people that can really work hard and have the ability to make themselves rise to the top."
Mike was only 18 years old when he made the move, and he staked everything he had on committing to it. "I had $1500 in my pocket. When I moved I didn't owe anybody anything. Let me tell you, it didn't last long. I got on a Greyhound bus and went on a wing and a prayer."
He looks back on the experience now with quite a bit of hindsight, and is thankful for the resolve that allowed him to not only take the chance, but also stick it out. "I tell people now all the time, if you maintain your campaign, you will get elected. Sometimes you have to believe in yourself, and love yourself. I believed in myself more than anybody and anything. When you believe in yourself, you can have a penny in your pocket and it will work, you're gonna go. I believed in myself and I got on Def Comedy Jam. I believed in myself and got on another Greyhound from New York to L.A."
The jump to Los Angeles was much like the leap of faith to New York. He wasn't answering a specific call to work, he just knew Hollywood was the next logical step on his way to the top. "I was just going out there to see what I could get in to. I was performing one night and a buddy of mine told me that Ice Cube wanted to talk to me. I saw him and was completely starstruck. I loved Cube. He gave me an audition for 'Next Friday' and I got the role and I've been doing it ever since."
One trait Mike is known for in Hollywood is his ability to give a dynamite audition. It's what landed him that first role, a few great ones since, and most especially the upcoming role as Richard Pryor, which Mike views as the project which will be nothing less than his crowning achievement. He credits this ability to wow the casting agents with his long experience on stage and managing audiences. You might think with such a consistently long and busy movie production schedule he wouldn't have the time or inclination to stay on the road and continue stand-up, but you'd be wrong on that count. "I tell people all the time, whatever your first passion may be, it's a lot like your boyfriend or girlfriend. You have to dance with the one who brought you and you have to always service that relationship. If you don't do that, you're in trouble. If you don't spend time with that person, they will leave you, just like comedy can. I'll never leave stand-up. Most times, comedians that become actors and leave stand-up become not funny any more. You have to stay sharp, you have to keep your tools sharp."
Mike as a comedian is hard to describe in words, because he doesn't fit into a neat little box. He pretty much does it all, whether it is social and political commentary, physical comedy, storytelling, impressions, or just a good old "your momma" joke. "I do every genre of comedy. I do political jokes, physical jokes, characters, impressions, one-liners, I have a big bag full of tricks. I have been doing stand-up every week for 20 years which has given me a pretty deep well to draw from."
Some artists evolve and look on their previous work with chagrin. Others, like Mike, use it as inspiration to become still better and appreciate how far they've come. "I can't believe it when I see old footage of me performing. It's one of those weird things that makes me feel embarrassed and proud at the same time. To see how far I've come makes me realize how far I can still go."
Surprisingly (or perhaps not at all), the campus market has always been a favorite stop for Mike along his journey, with dozens of college towns adding to the list of dates he's played along the way. "You know what, I used to do a ton of colleges years ago, especially in the days when I lived in New York. I remember Stoney Brooke (laughs), and lots and lots of homecomings, fall and spring fairs and festivals. I love doing colleges because the students are hip and fun and wild. They like to talk big shit, they like to hear big shit, they love it," he says with a clear smile in his voice. "I love being around them because they are the now, it's an even trade off. I give them some game and they give me some game."
Without any further adieu, we should talk about what's on the tip of everyone's tongue and why Mike Epps will be a HUGE commodity, especially in stand-up in the coming years. His acquisition of the role of Richard Pryor in the upcoming Lee Daniels' film on the late comic's life might not make Mike's career, but it might make his legend. Rumored to star Oprah Winfrey as Richard's grandmother, Eddie Murphy as his father and Kate Hudson in a supporting role, this film promises to be one that will draw both critical acclaim and box office success. Mike himself looks at it as the opportunity of a lifetime. When discussing modern stand-up comedy, there are generally three names most people attribute as the most famous and influential names to have come through the business. Those folks are (in no particular order) George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Very few comics gracing a stage today were not influenced by one of those three names. "That is the literal king of comedy right there, Richard Pryor baby, no doubt. A lot of people don't understand what I have to sacrifice to play this role, emotionally and mentally. This is a big one. It's like Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles. It's a monster. Embodying a person like Richard Pryor is deep and it's spiritual. You are taking on someone's life. You have to get into it. You have to become the mother fucka, you know," he says in a perfect Pryor jive style, laughing.
Folks familiar with his filmography will know that Mike is not purely a comedic actor, but also has dramatic ability. This is a trait important for retelling the life of the legendary comic, which was not all fun and games. Pryor took some heavy hits in life and overcame great adversity. "Oh yeah, it's more of a dramedy. The comedy is there, but this is a dramatic retelling of his story. The funny parts of the movie are what come naturally to me, but the challenge for me is doing him justice and covering every base of what his life was and who he was as a person. That includes the hard times along with the light ones."
This was not an easy role to land, the script has been floating around for several years and there have been conflicting opinions as to who should star in it. There was competition as Nick Cannon and Marlon Wayans both auditioned as strong possibilities, and Pryor himself had endorsed Mike before his death. In the end his stellar audition spoke for itself. "I like to think that in some situations, cream rises to the top. I definitely became the creme de la creme this time (laughs). I auditioned for it; nobody gave me anything. I had to work for it, I busted my ass for it. I had to prove myself."
The movie is moving into pre-production in January, with a release in fall 2016. In the meantime, you can catch Mike in the feature role of ABC's new primetime sitcom "Uncle Buck," based on the 1989 film starring John Candy. "I am playing John Candy's role as this irresponsible uncle who is really fun and cool but is always getting himself into trouble." Mike Epps has spent 20 years building a name for himself both on stage and on the big screen. When it comes to being on stage, his passion has still never waned. "I've never stopped doing stand-up, that is my therapy. And I won't stop. I look forward to doing it far into the future, especially on campus. The students on campus now could be the age of my kids, and I love being able to relate to them on their level. There ain't no age on funny - funny is funny, you know what I mean?"
Let your students know what it means and bring Mike to your campus. Make your arrangements for the upcoming semesters soon, because once he becomes Richard Pryor, there is little doubt there will be a lot more competition for dates. Contact Matt Frost at CAA at (212) 277-9000 or matt.frost@CAA.com for more information.