When comedian Mike Epps made his feature film breakout performance in the sequel Next Friday, he had some rather big sneakers to fill. The original Friday, Ice Cube's first producing effort, was very successful and launched comedian Chris Tucker as an international comic sensation. When Tucker bowed out of the sequel, Epps was thrust into the zany sidekick position as Day-Day, Cube's suburban cousin stalked by his ex-girlfriend. The film got Epps' film career going, but if you ask him, Epps will tell you that the main reason he succeeded was that he had nothing to lose. After going from class clown to criminal, from Def Comedy Jam star to hot new comic actor generating industry buzz, Hollywood had nothing on him.
"I passed that test. It was a test, and it wasn't emergency broadcast system. It was a real test—a Hollywood test," says Epps. "I would be on the set, and the PAs and people that work the craft services would walk up to me and say, 'Man, I wonder how this movie's going to do without Chris Tucker?' And I'm looking at them, like, 'Well, thank you. Damn! That really helps.' But it fueled my fire, man. I said if I go in here, and I even sound like a piece of Chris Tucker, it's over. Hollywood ain't got shit on me, because I've been through the worst. So I look at Hollywood, like, 'You either like me, or you don't, and I'm moving on.' But I've been playing my cards right. I've dodged a couple bullets, and I've been able to make a few wise decisions."
He discovered the role through his management. As soon as Cube saw the comedian in action at the Comedy Store in Hollywood—and after several auditions—he offered Epps the role. Rapper-turned-actor/producer Cube took a liking to him, and Epps reprised his role in the third installment, Friday After Next. He co-starred with Cube again in All About the Benjamins, which he also co-executive produced. He essayed further roles in films such as Dr. Dolittle 2, Malibu's Most Wanted, 3 Strikes, How High (with Method Man and Redman), and The Fighting Temptations (starring Beyoncé Knowles and Cuba Gooding Jr). In his latest project, the sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse (starring Milla Jovovich), he absolutely steals the film as the much-needed comic relief, attempting to avoid the stereotypical "black man getting killed off by zombies in the first five minutes."
"It's off the hook, man. I'm still trippin', and I can't believe that I'm really in a movie like that," says Epps, who will also be appearing in two classic remakes out next year: The Honeymooners, with Cedric the Entertainer, and The Dinner Party, with Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac.
Cracking up the crackheads: Epps doesn't remember a time when he wasn't acting or telling jokes, even though his urge to become a comedian didn't arrive until his life was anything but funny. A high school dropout, he would do whatever it took to make people laugh wherever he was, whether he was with former crackhead clients or fellow prisoners in jail. "Things got a little hard," he says. "I realized that I joked my way out of not being able to survive as an adult, so I turned into a criminal. I started hustling. I don't sell drugs now, but I was a great crack dealer. I was, like, the funniest drug dealer in town. I think the addicts were buying from me because they could get a laugh with their sack, but God put his foot in my butt, and I got caught, I went to prison, and I ended up making guys laugh that weren't ever going home. Basically I found humor to save my life."
Comedy calling: It wasn't until the 21-year-old was in jail that he realized his true calling, thanks to his cellmate keeping him awake by incessantly giggling about an old Richard Pryor routine. "He handed me his headphones, and I was listening to [Pryor] and I was, like, 'Man, he is making people laugh off the same shit I've lived, and some of the things that I've experienced, and some of the characters and the people I know,' and right then it sparked me," Epps recalls. Some time later, he was in Indiana with his buddies, and he heard an announcement on the radio about a comedy competition at a local bar called Seville's. "I'm a convicted felon, I can't find a job, and I've got people looking for me because I owe them money. I had a gambling habit, I had a baby on the way—you name it, I had it, everything but death," he says. "So, all of this was looming over my head, and we hear this competition on the radio, so my buddies in the car bet me $50 apiece, knowing I didn't have $50 to give them. I thought, hopefully I'll win and have $150 in my pocket." He was the final contestant to go on after a series of established comics were booed off the stage. After winning over the crowd—and the bet—he ran off the stage and said it was like a light came into him. He bounced around, spending years on the comedy circuit in Atlanta and New York before making a name for himself in Los Angeles.
Still inspiring the prisoners: Epps has recently teamed up with Leila Steinberg, Tupac Shakur's former manager and mentor, to help inspire and motivate young people currently serving time at Los Angeles' Central Division Juvenile Hall through Assembly In Motion (AIM), a charity that is obviously close to his heart. "[Steinberg] said she's brought in a lot of artists, from rappers to ex-convicts, and she says she's never seen anyone touch them like I touched them. We're trying to put together a reality television show where we go to the juveniles or the jails, and we get the young guys that are getting released, and we're going to put them all in a house and do it like [P. Diddy] did with The Band—but this is The Criminal. These little kids' lives are at stake, and other people's lives are at stake with them, too, because they are real criminals. I can't change their lives, so I just want them to give their selves an opportunity to think bigger than what they're thinking about their lives."
Don't be a star in hell: After waiting years for "the big break," Epps believes that all actors will see rewards as long as they work hard and stay true to what they believe in. "First of all, I would like to say to any young, up-and-coming actors to place in your mind that you would always rather be a slave in heaven than a star in hell. And you have to realize that no one knows their time, when they're going to make it, or how they're going to make it. You just have to be very, very, very patient."