Mike Epps tells what may be the greatest story ever about what it's like to be a little kid who dreams of being a star. And he's going to tell it again in a second.
But first a bit about Epps in 2011: The Indianapolis native, who made his name as a standup comic and actor (Next Friday, The Honeymooners, The Hangover), is thrilled to be headlining Conseco Fieldhouse.
"I'm psyched," he said. "I'm hyped. It's going down, Naptown. I appreciate you, love you so much for your support. Couldn't do nothin' without you."
Epps, 40, said he comes back to Indianapolis at least once a month to visit his mom, seven brothers and one sister. "They're all working and raising their families," he said. "Mom was a great mother. Raised us all the best she could in the inner city."
Now, onto that story.
NUVO: I heard you tell a story on The Tavis Smiley Show about being a little kid and imagining you were a star. Tell that story.
Epps: I can remember as a kid, nobody knew what I was thinking. My approach was, I wanted to be a celebrity. So when I was young, in my head, I would think that I was getting out of a limo when I was going to the grocery store. I heard people in the background screaming – in my head. So I'd get out of the car – I'm behind my mother the whole time while she pushed the cart – and everybody's screaming, I've got (sun)glasses on, I'm waving to the crowd.
NUVO: When did you tell people what your plans were?
Epps: I really didn't tell people. Probably about 17, 18, I told people I wanted to be a comedian/actor. But I still didn't see the vision at that point. It was all kind of like prima donna wannabe type stuff.
NUVO: How did you make it a reality?
Epps: I started out doing local comedy, doing places like Crackers and hotels where people would rent out rooms and do comedy shows. There was a guy named Terry – rest in peace – he had a company called Sunrise Promotions. These guys were doing local stuff. They put together a comedy show and I did the comedy competition. My name was on the local radio, on WTLC, and I was going crazy. People were calling me, "Man, I just heard you on the radio?!" If you want to say something sparked me, that sparked me. I want to say I was 19. This was the early '90s.
NUVO: Then you left here and moved to Atlanta.
Epps: Yeah. Just being ignorant of what the business was, I thought I could go to Atlanta and make it. I'm going to move to Atlanta. Gonna be a star! And I go down there, there ain't nothing but Peachtree Street. They had a couple of comedy clubs, I did a couple of comedy clubs. Then I realized I had to move to either New York or L.A. I moved to New York. I moved to New York with $1,500. Never turned back.
NUVO: What did you do there?
Epps: I had a couple of connections, performed in front of a guy named Bob Sumner, who was casting for Def Comedy Jam. Auditioned for that and got a gig. I started on the road with Def Comedy Jam, opening up for the tour and making money. One thing led to another and I moved to L.A. after living in New York for about eight years. I auditioned for Ice Cube's movie Next Friday and I've been doing movies ever since.
NUVO: You've always been close to Indianapolis, though. You've never forgotten where you came from.
Epps: It's kind of hard to, man. For me, it's where I get everything. For whatever Indianapolis is worth to everybody else, I love it because it's where I'm from. A lot of times, when you get a little success and you're out in Hollywood, you can forget about real life and the regular things people go through and live. I draw from Indianapolis for that. When I'm thinking of a joke, and I'm talking about "Oh, man, there was a guy standing in the street, or a guy standing in the liquor stores," I'm thinking Indianapolis.
NUVO: When you'd tell people you were from Indianapolis, did you find they didn't know much about the city?
Epps: Yeah. They're like, "Where's that at? Is that dirt roads?" But I love it. I love this town. There's nothing like it. I go all over the world. Indianapolis has its own swagger. And it's my swagger. That's where I'm from. I went to Tech High School. That's probably where I learned to do my comedy. Because I wasn't in class. I try to tell the kids, "That worked for me, but don't you try it. Education is very important." Now that I'm in show business, I realize what classes I needed. I can hire people to do it, but there's nothing like knowing it yourself.
NUVO: Your dreams have come true in a big way, haven't they?
Epps: They have. One of the things is, I'm never satisfied. I want so much more, and I realize this is a lifetime business I'm in. This is not an overnight business. So I tell the kids you have to work hard to achieve whatever status you want to achieve. To have longevity in this business, you have to understand what your self-interest is. It's got to be the love. To have longevity in anything, you have to really and truly love it and nurture it and make wise decisions.
NUVO: You have a foundation (The Mike and Mechelle Epps Foundation) that deals with literacy issues. Tell me about that.
Epps: I went through literacy programs and at-risk teen programs. I used to be an at-risk teen. I feel like it's a must that I give back, given that I've been blessed so much. There's an empty space for these children that has to be filled. Right now, through our outreach program, I go to juvenile centers and orphan homes and teach kids. Right now, I don't have a lot of resources to do things I would really like to do – like after-school programs where I set up computers and tutors and monitoring for children who don't have a place to go after school – but I'm lending my support as far as my presence, just talking to the kids.
NUVO: How at-risk were you?
Epps: I've been to juvenile center, in and out of juvenile, having problems at school. At one point in my life, I was embarrassed about it. Now I'm thrilled because I have the experience and the background so I can reach the kids. I go in and talk to the kids and they can relate to me because I've been through it.
NUVO: When you tell them that, do they say, "It was OK for you to be a troubled teen, so it's OK for me to be a troubled teen"?
Epps: I reverse it. I always talk about the positive I did to get to where I'm at. I talk about the negative I was involved in to show where I was headed. I have to tell them I did negative things and I was a troubled teen to reel 'em in, for them to even want to listen to me, and to connect. Once I do that, I explain to them how I made it. I try to tell them how to take the negative and turn it into a positive.
NUVO: Is there anything that could have been done to make you a better student? If you had great teachers, would that have helped?
Epps: Well, I did have great teachers. I've had teachers who really cared and were concerned. But you can't go home with 'em and they can't go home with you. Once school lets out and you go home on the bus to your community, to your block, that's where it starts. That's why I was talking about having the after-school programs that consist of mentors and monitors. A lot of these kids don't have places to go after school. In school, they're cool. Then after that, it's back out to the jungle. We need a place for the kids that don't have that mother or that father. And if they need a meal, they can get a meal. And if they need help with their homework, they can get help with their homework. And if they have a personal issue, they can get help with it.