Beyoncé ain’t the only one who knows how to make lemonade from lemons. Comedian Mike Epps certainly knows a thing or two about prevailing over obstacles, writing his own rules and staying true to himself in Hollyweird. From feature films to now lead character on ABC’s family comedy Uncle Buck, Epps is on fire.
During a press stop in Chicago earlier this month, the Indianapolis native sat with select journalists at a round table (more so a conversation between old friends) where he got real, super real about growing up with a single mother, how he’s preparing for the role of a lifetime as comedy legend Richard Pryor and more.
How He Balances Family and Demands of Work:
“I’ve been in the business for 20 years now, and I guess in the 20 year span you typically learn everything you want to do. I’ve just been a sponge in the business. I’ve learned how to adjust to certain situations and I got to give the credit to God for giving me the talent to do it; to be able to play one role and jump out of that and into another one. But any role you see me playing, I draw from my own life in all of them: good, bad, sad and happy.”
How He Had to Adjust His Comedy Style to be Family Friendly:
“It was an adjustment because my audience are used to seeing me in rated R movies, cursing and being wild. For many years I didn’t think I could be funny without cursing and being a certain way. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, you’re not that way around your kids are you? Well, there you go, you have to be that type of funny on this show.’ It took me a long time to be comfortable to trust that type of funny because my fans are critical and they won’t allow me to be on the soft side, so I’m figuring it out.”
Biggest Fear About Playing Richard Pryor:
“Being criticized for what people think I am and how people think I should do it. And just tapping into somebody who was so complex. As an actor in order to pull it off I have to go into some dark places in my own personal life that I don’t like to go to, but a sacrifice is a sacrifice and in order to give the people what they want, I have to sacrifice that and disappear and go away and deeply engulf myself in this role.
This dude was layered up; from education, to romantic, to a crazy street guy to very meek and afraid to vulnerable, I mean layers. And when you read the script, it’s a roller coaster. Every time you see him, he’s a different person.
I seen a clip of him singing and he was singing man! He could’ve been a singer- his voice was incredible.”
Some of Richard Pryor’s Surviving Family Doesn’t Support the Film:
“I think his daughter Rain [Pryor] disagrees and a couple other family members disagree with me playing him. And I told all of them I’m an actor-for-hire and I don’t care what you say, ain’t none of this bigger than my life. So if you don’t pick me, you’ll still me doing what I’m doing- I ain’t jumping off no bridges because of it.
And I lost it a few times; at one point they said Marlon Wayans was doing it, then Nick Cannon. All I know is I sat with him for a year before he died, and I know ain’t none of them did that. I’d go to his house, although he couldn’t talk that well because he had MS, but his wife took care of him.
I think I was born to play Richard Pryor.”
That God and His Mother Are the Reasons Behind His Success:
“I always say this, not to be sarcastic, but I contribute this to whatever God’s plan was for me. I definitely know this was written out for me- the day my daddy was on my way to mama’s in his Cadillac, drunk! [laughs]
And I also contribute it to my mother, who allowed me to go out in the world, through her prayers and experience everything I needed to experience at a young age. And I didn’t understand it. Now that I’m an adult, my mama didn’t know where I always was or what I was doing at some time of nights at 15, 16 years old but her prayers got me through a lot. For believing in me, in a different way. I’m so glad my mother let life teach me a lot and it just didn’t come from her. I used to wonder like, ‘Is she worried about me?’ and I’d come in the house and she would just sit there like, ‘Yeah, go take a bath.’ Now that I’m in show business, it all paid off. If I had another type of mother I wouldn’t be who I am- so it was a chance both she and I took.”
The Hardest Lesson He’s Learned in Show Business:
“To not do this for money and fame. It reminds me of when I was a kid; Christmas time would come around and I’d want these toys and my mother used to say, ‘Y’all went crazy about getting all this stuff and it’s laying all on the floor- it’s all in the grass, you really didn’t want it did you?’ And what I learned from that is anything you think you want or need to have won’t necessarily make you happy and make you who you thought you would be. It actually put more pressure and stress on me, so I had to get it, see it, enjoy it and look at it, and say, ‘You know what, this is not what I got in the business for.’
I actually feel embarrassed for riding around in a $300,000 car,that I thought I wanted. I bought a Ferrari and it’s so hard for me to drive that car because it’s so much attention and people look at you mad and crazy. I just got it to see if I wanted it and now that I got it it ain’t nothing.
What I love to do, is getting a satisfaction out of making people happy. That’s my real true love. That’s what makes me really happy. To come out on that stage and make people laugh that I do not know, have never seen in my life and they sit there laughing.”
That He’s Actually a Loner:
“What I like to do is hard for even me to determine. I can definitely say I’m a loner. I have a lot of people around me but I’m alone. In my own space, in my own world. That’s real. That’s how it is for me- you are lonely in this business because there’s so many people around you, so many people pulling at you and you become a machine but you’re really, really alone. You can be in a room with your family and your friends and you’re just alone. What makes you singled out is you’re the only one with these responsibilities.
I come from a poor background, so everything I get, I feel like I have to share it. I’m learning now as an adult you can’t share with everybody. You can’t make this person happy, you can’t give them what they want, you can’t buy them, you can’t do none of that. You just have to be thankful that it’s yours and learn how to say no. I’ve had such a hard time saying no.
And that’s a void. That’s something that’s in a person: I’m a Scorpio, we love hard, very hard, and our radar is always on trying to figure out who’s really there for us and sometimes it gets in the way cause we don’t get a chance to see because we put up a defensive side. And we’re usually right.”
Advice He’d Give To His Younger Self:
“I would say Mike Epps, don’t be afraid to change and when it’s time to change, embrace it. That’s always been the hardest thing for me: changing. I don’t like to leave my old anything. And that has hurt me in the business. I’ve always felt like I should’ve been bigger than what I was a long time ago. And I still battle with myself with that. But then I say, ‘No, that’s not true. I’m right where I’m supposed to be and where God wants me at’.”
What He’d Change if He Could:
“If I could change things I wouldn’t have put so much time and effort in pleasing people and trying to prove people who I am and where I came from. Because a lot of times throughout my career, because of the way I look, or being from Indianapolis, it’s a struggle. Being from a small town and you go around people- I can’t prove to people I been in prison. I can’t prove to people I done popped pistols, sold drugs- I can’t prove that to nobody.
I went to my hometown and shot a documentary I never put out, that I’m still shooting it. But I documented where I was in school where I was in Special Ed in the first grade. I dropped out in the eighth grade, never had an education, mother on welfare, got seven, eight brothers, four different daddies, daddies weren’t around.”
How He Made To Hollywood:
“I rode a bus from the second comedy club I ever did in my life in Chicago, I rode a Greyhound bus to Clique, right on Southeastern, my first time on stage was in front of a Chicago crowd. I realized the business wasn’t in Chicago so I moved to Atlanta. Moved to Atlanta, stayed there for a year, realized the business wasn’t there, rode another Greyhound bus to New York. I had $1,500, I got my tax returns back. Moved to New York, ran out of money. I had a manager that believed in me who told me I couldn’t stay with him and I had to move back to Indianapolis and man I cried my heart out because I bragged to everybody, “I’m gone!” [laughs]
He said I could stay with him for two weeks, but I had to get a job. I ended up staying with him for two years on his couch. Got on Def Comedy Jam, did the first season of The Sopranos, did the Apollo Theater and it just started working for me but I realized I had to move to Hollywood. I jumped on the Greyhound again! Thought my life over a hundred times, it took me seven days to get there! [laughs] By the time I got to Utah, I was done!”
How He Met Ice Cube:
“I’m in a comedy club one night and when I got off the stage he [Baby Looney] said Ice Cube want to meet you! He was in the club looking for the next guy for Next Friday. I seen Ice Cube and John Singleton. Ice walked up to me and told me I was funny and asked could I act. I said yeah! I didn’t know if I could. But he set me up on an audition.
Two days before I went to the audition Baby Looney got killed, somebody killed him up on Sunset. I went from his funeral with my dress clothes on to my last audition because he [Ice] made me audition 12 times because they’re so many other people auditioning for my role. I took my suit off in the car, put on my clothes and I was crying and we had a bottle of Hennessy. And I went in there and saw Ice Cube’s wife sitting there and when I was doing it she was laughing hard, and when I seen her laughing I was like, “Ohhh boy!” He started laughing and when I walked out the room Ice Cube nodded his head. I got the role and I been in the movie business ever since!”
First Thing He Bought For His Mother When He Made it Big:
“Told my mother I was going to buy her a washer and dryer! Wasn’t thinking about a house! My mother used to go to the laundromat and she’d be in there bragging like, ‘My son gon’ be in a movie!” folding clothes and they in there looking like but you in here with us! [laughs] So I told her she wouldn’t have to deal with that no more, I’m gonna buy you a washer and dryer.”
First Thing He Treated Himself To:
“I bought me 745 BMW, charcoal grey. And my credit was so bad I had to put so much money down on it. And that was my treat and I been blessed ever since. I’ve had some ups and downs in the business, couple close calls but I always felt like I’ve had angels watching over me in my career and my life.”
How He Keeps His Family Grounded:
“In my household, I don’t bring no show business home. I try to give my kids the same stuff I got from my grandmother—go take a nap! To this day I’ll go take a nap, I’ll lay down with nothing on… I don’t hear nothing, or see nothing.”
He Knows How to Cook:
“I like to cook a little bit of everything. My mother again, I give all praise to her because my mother would make menus for us: on Monday night, liver and onions, whether you like it or not! On Tuesday, we’d do some chicken noodle casserole with some peas on Friday, fish fry. She wasn’t cooking on Saturday and Sunday we have an after church dinner and I learned how to cook from that! I didn’t even know I knew how to cook until as an adult in New York and I was by myself. And I’d go to the grocery store and get what I needed and cook it.”
His Favorite Musical Artists:
“I really like Drake, especially now that he’s doing the island sound now. I like Future. I was a big Prince man! I went to see him a month before he passed away. I was blessed enough to know Afeni Shakur from doing some philanthropy work with her. I went to her house in Oakland and the same night I went to see Prince. And unfortunately we lost them both in the same month, in two weeks time.
I love Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan, R. Kelly—man! I don’t care what you heard about him, that man got hits!”
That He Loves to Work:
“My father worked at a plant for 40 years, had perfect attendance and never missed a day in 40 years, it was unbelievable. And I watched my father work hard and never miss work so it’s just in me. I love to work—I can only sleep for about four hours a day because I run so much, then I have anxiety—it takes so much for me to relax. That’s why I take cat naps throughout the day. But I love working because I know one day I won’t be able to do it. So I’m getting it all in while I can.”
How He Takes Care of His Family:
“I got into this business for survival. I found something that I can do because I absolutely didn’t know my purpose. I wanted to be a gangster. I was impressed with that. I used to watch dudes come home from prison and thought I had to go see what they were talking about, that’s how I ended up getting in trouble cause I wanted to see what they were talking about—how they’d get their muscles like that and the lingo. And it took me to become an adult to know that wasn’t nothing.
I take care of my mom, grandmother and a whole herd of people in Indianapolis. Went back to my hometown and brought every house we got kicked out of all over the city. We was on welfare and my mama would find a house, fix it up, knowing we wouldn’t be there long, but she wanted to give us something good, but we’d evicted. I went and bought the six houses we got kicked out of, fixed them up—they’re in white neighborhoods now but my aunties and cousins are all living in those now.”
That He Loves to Cry:
“I just cried on The Steve Harvey Show earlier today. I teared up because I was sitting across from him and I knew Steve from back in the day. And it was something he said that made me like man! I cry all the time. I let it go and it feels good. Sometimes I think about my kids and cry. I’ll be driving thinking like life is so precious and delicate!
I hate to pick my phone up in morning! That’s real! I always get bad news in the morning. I hate to look at messages in the morning. But I love to cry.”
Best Gift Someone Has Gotten Him:
“My kids is the best gift I’ve had. Having my children just being excited about going to the hospital to see them. Nothing can top my experiences with my kid!”
His Thoughts on Katt Williams:
“Katt Williams is a good brother. We all know this business is tough for all of us. And I understand him. Just because he’s in a situation right now and someone else is not doesn’t mean it won’t happen to them. This business can turn anybody out. It’s a tough business and I pray for Katt. He’s a funny, strong dude. This is a part of what’s making Katt Williams, Katt Williams. And when he come out of that, he’s going to be a savior for so many younger brothers and sisters in the business. I think some joy will come out of all this ugly happening for him.”
Uncle Buck premieres on ABC on Tuesday, June 14 at 9/8c.