Mike Epps on Playing Richard Pryor, the Shift From Comedy to Drama, and His New Film Repentance

"If I could get my grandmother to laugh, then I can retire!"

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Mike Epps spent 10 years as a stand-up comedian before he ever appeared on camera in projects like Def Comedy Jam, Next Friday, and The Hangover. So his recent turn to acting in and producing biopics, crime dramas, and suspense thrillers is a sharp career left turn. The new work is also keeping him plenty busy. Shortly after the 43-year-old actor-comedian wrapped up his role as Richard Pryor in Cynthia Mort's long-gestating Nina Simone film, Nina, Epps headed off to Atlanta with Vince Vaughn, Bill Paxton, and Hailee Steinfeld to work on Peter Billingsley's upcoming crime drama Term Life. In the meantime, the Philippe Caland suspense-thriller Repentance, with Forest Whitaker, is in theaters now.

Still, he's made it clear that he has no intention of abandoning his comedic roots. His next major project is a brand-new stand-up tour that kicks off this week in his hometown and will take him to at least 30 cities (including a few dates in Australia) over the next five months. Here, during a rare moment of downtime, Epps chatted with us about the impressive success rate of comedians turned dramatic actors, spending a year with Richard Pryor, and how not to make a nonagenarian laugh.

DETAILS: Your new film, Repentance, just hit theaters and is the latest in what seems to be a trend toward more dramatic parts for you. Has that career shift been by design?

MIKE EPPS: Yes. I have a wide range of talent, [but] in this business you get pigeonholed very quickly. So because I have that muscle to work, I am really expanding and broadening my horizons in my career and my acting. I like to show people that I have that range . . . I've done movies like Don Cheadle's Talk to Me, and I worked with Whitney Houston on her last movie, Sparkle.

DETAILS: What's the biggest difference between comedy and drama?

MIKE EPPS: I think you have to be really, really skilled to do drama. I hear a lot of actors say that comedy is harder to do than drama, and I think that rings true when it comes to actors. But comedians have a history of crossing over to dramatic roles: Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Richard Pryor became great dramatic actors.

DETAILS: Speaking of Richard Pryor, you also just wrapped work on Nina with Zoe Saldana, in which you're playing him. How did you get involved in the film?

MIKE EPPS: I was actually set to play Pryor in another movie years ago. I sat with him for about a year before he passed away, studying everything about him and learning who he was as a comic and as a person. That movie didn't happen, so when this particular movie popped up, I had an agent who had a relationship with Cynthia Mort, who directed the film, so I sat down with her and she really liked my take on it.

DETAILS: You're a comedian playing one of the world's most iconic comedians, but in a dramatic film. Were you more thrilled or terrified to take on the part?

MIKE EPPS: It's definitely scary. To play someone so iconic, and who I consider the king of the game? I was scared. With a situation like that, you can only do the best you can. It's very intimidating, but I wasn't going to tell them no. I had to do it.

DETAILS: Is Pryor someone who inspired your comedy?

MIKE EPPS: Definitely. And Eddie Murphy. I've really been inspired by so many people in life, but Richard Pryor is definitely one of them.

DETAILS: Who are the filmmakers—writers, directors, or other actors—you'd most like to work with in the future?

MIKE EPPS: I'd really love to work with the great performers, people like Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, and Leonardo DiCaprio. I'd love to work with Meryl Streep one day. Also Sean Penn and Denzel Washington.

DETAILS: Nina is a great example of what seems to be a really positive change happening in Hollywood right now, in terms of black filmmakers making films about black characters. From the inside, do you sense that there is a real change happening, or is that more of a media-created idea?

MIKE EPPS: I definitely think it's changing. African-Americans are starting to get the light shining on them for doing great work and creating great performances. We've always created great work, but unfortunately we just don't have a lot of stock in the business. But we're starting to make waves in Hollywood. These last three or four years, black movies have made billions of dollars in Hollywood. Great performers are starting to get their just due on the awards side, too. It's just a great time to be an African-American in Hollywood right now. And I want to get in there before the door shuts! [Laughs]

DETAILS: You've made no secret on Twitter and YouTube that you're a fan of Pharrell Williams' hat. What's the one item in your closet that you've worn the longest and best defines you?

MIKE EPPS: It would definitely be my Top Ten Adidas. I have always worn Top Ten Adidas, because you can wear them with anything. You can put on a suit, and they look great with Dolce & Gabbana. I have a Dolce & Gabbana blazer that I've had for at least 15 years. I still wear it, it still looks brand-new, and people are always asking me where they can get it. And they never can get it. It's a limited edition that's come and gone.

DETAILS: Your next project, the "After Dark" stand-up tour, will take you to 30 cities in five months. Do you still remember the first time you stepped on a stage?

MIKE EPPS: I do. I was 14 years old, and it was at my grandmother's retirement party. My grandmother had 11 kids, and each of her kids had up to eight kids, so my grandmother had 52 grandkids at her retirement party. Out of that 52, maybe 20 of us had a talent, so we put together a whole talent show for her. Some of us sang, some of us danced, some of us did poetry. I was always the comedian in the family, so I put on a wig and a robe and did an impression of my grandmother. When I looked up out of the corner of my eye, everybody was laughing—except for my grandmother. She was looking at me like, "When I catch you by yourself, I'm going to kick your ass."

DETAILS: Okay, so Grandma was not an early fan. Did you eventually win her over?

MIKE EPPS: You know what, my grandmother is 91 years old, and she still pretends that she doesn't know I'm in show business. Everyone in my family is so proud of me, and they'll be saying something about what I'm doing, and then it will get real quiet all of a sudden, and I'll hear my grandmother say, "He's not that funny to me."

DETAILS: So really your only career goal at this point is to make your grandmother laugh. Just once.

MIKE EPPS: That's my biggest role. If I could get my grandmother to laugh, then I can retire!

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