Omar Epps on Growing Up Without a Father, Making it as an Actor and Living in Gratitude

The actor-writer sits down with THR to discuss Hollywood, the strength and influence of his wife and his mother, and his journey to self-publishing the memoir 'From Fatherless to Fatherhood.'
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Omar Epps

Omar Epps finished a 15-hour day on set, came home, sat down on the sofa and flipped on the television to catch the latest on CNN.

His wife, Keisha — someone accustomed to the grueling hours required by a career in the entertainment business after having spent years onstage with the R&B girl group Total — asked him to skip the TV and instead spend some time with their young son, Amir, who was in his room.

Epps was tired, his feet hurt and he was hungry. 

It's a scene many working parents know so well, but instead of this one ending with an argument or a disappointed spouse or child, Epps knew immediately that he owed his wife an apology, and he owed Amir time and undivided attention. He came through, but something else happened that night.

After sneaking up on his son, he heard Amir making rollercoaster noises. It's a brief yet sweet moment that 44-year-old Epps details in his debut book's introduction, the memoir From Fatherless to Fatherhood, and it led to a revelation. 

"Parents put their children first," he writes, as he explains that is not what he experienced growing up. His father abandoned him and his mother, Bonnie, back in Brooklyn decades earlier and he never got to know him. But what Epps learned that night watching his son in his room was that it was time to take a deep dive into his own story to uncover "the depths of the torment and pain I've felt toward my father for the lack of his presence in my life," writes the actor, next seen in the new season of USA's Shooter.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Epps inside Century City's Intercontinental Hotel over scrambled eggs, potatoes and orange juice — he gave up coffee last year, making green tea his only "kick" these days — to discuss the book and his thoughts on fatherhood. And while the book is an emotional journey of how a fatherless child grew up to own his responsibilities as a father while navigating a successful Hollywood career, the book is also a testament to the power of women and mothers thanks to the influence of Bonnie and Keisha. 

He discusses below what his mother thinks of the book, how Jay-Z influenced his decision to self-publish the book and why his Twitter bio says "A State of Gratitude." 

What is your writing process like? 

Well, it depends on what I'm writing. Like in terms of like screenplays and stuff like that it's 24/7. But for some reason with the book it was more in the morning when thoughts are fresh. And then editing, that was more evening, you know.

How does it feel having finished your first book and now owning this title of "author"?

It's a personal accomplishment that I set out to do. So, in that regard I feel proud. And there's, you know, there's a business aspect to it, too. You know, at the end of the day I do want to sell; I want the book to sell. So, part of it is new to me and it's like I'm learning on the fly.

You really only spent four days with your father when you were young. It was a rollercoaster time and he was kicked out of his girlfriend's house. Did you know what was really going on with him?

Not really. Everything was very surface. I told what I know. That's, you know, that's how I experienced it. I was just bah, bah, bah and it was over. And the why and how? I don't know.

Do you think he had any influence on you and how you turned out?

No, no, no. As human beings, we're constantly trying to make sense of it all, and for me that thought, you know, just it's like that's how I rationalize this. People may say, 'You got a great room. You had a pretty cool upbringing, and you made something of yourself.' So, this is, you know, this is what was meant to be, right? I guess I'll always wonder about that because we don't know how. I mean yes, this is what's meant to be because this is what's happened. But, you know, was this my meant to be? Could my meant to be, be based on someone else's choices? You know what I mean? And so, that's the part of me, I guess the little kid in me, who always will wonder, you know, what did I miss? Maybe I'd even be a better person. I don't know. Maybe I wouldn't be so good. But I don't know. But there's that void. It's like a forever void. You just, so you learn to accept it and you learn to make peace with.

Yeah, it's hard to rationalize.

Yeah.

Despite the trauma of this situation with your father, you had such confidence in knowing what you wanted to do with your life — acting. That was from an early age and you started working as a teenager. Was that drive inspired by your mother's influence?

Oh, that's one thousand percent my mom. Like my mom, she's the real superhero. She's just incredible. She's a force of nature. My mom instilled a sense of self worth in me at a very early age. 

What's also really impressive is that you knew what you wanted to do and you made it happen, yet all around you is chaos. You write that the streets of Brooklyn where you lived were filled with crack and crime. How did you not fall into that?

Peer pressure's really hard. But I think that, you know, when you have a sense of self then the people you choose to surround yourself with sort of, you know, they're — all their own individuals, but you're sort of cut from the same cloth. And I was very fortunate in, you know, my lifelong friendships that I had brothers who had their own aspirations and their own dreams and we all sort of stood on the same side of the fence when it came to certain things. In those teenage years, I had these guys, and we just all sort of held each other accountable. If one of us swayed too much it was, 'Hey, what are you doing?' You know what I mean? We don't do that. We do this. Come back over here, you know. We just sort of kept each other and we still do sort of keep each other balanced in that way.

You broke out with Juice and started having success as an actor. I love the scene in the book, although its very heartbreaking, when you're driving your new BMW and you pull up to a stoplight and see your father selling CDs and incense on the corner.

It's like a scene out of a movie. That literally happened.

Do you regret not saying something or getting out of the car?

No, I don't regret it because I know that that me, the young me of 19 years old, he wouldn't have known what to say. He wouldn't have handled that I don't think the right way. Not to say that I was like an asshole. I was a cool kid. But I was 19, right? I was in that moment and in the moment as it's happening and I'm like, "This is like a movie," because it so surreal. It was literally surreal. So, it was all I could do was just sort of — it was like I wasn't witnessing myself in the moment. I was so present, I just, I couldn't believe it. And, you know, I had a young lady with me at the time. I just drove off. And when I think back to that now right here, I wouldn't have known what to say.

And you likely weren't going to get from what you needed at that moment either ...

And, vice versa, you know. Would I have handled that in the way which would have projected negativity into his world? I certainly wouldn't have wanted to do that. But when I think about it as now as we're talking about it, I feel a sadness for him, or for anyone that's even had that type of dynamic or something like that to happen because it's kind of sad, you know.

You write about playing fatherless characters throughout your career. Has it been easy to separate yourself from your characters, or how much did it influence your performances?

It was something that I observed, but it didn't resonate in the moments. I didn't look at the character cue or some of the other characters from an artist perspective. Like "Oh, they don’t have their father." It was just acknowledging that, but also something that I hadn't really picked that up in totality until as I was writing the book. If I remember correctly, it was in Love & Basketball that was the only project where the relationship between the father and son is actually explored. But for the rest of them, it just was normal.

You have two daughters and a son now. Tell me about the differences in raising boys versus girls.

It's night and day. I got three different kids, so that's three different personalities. There is something with girls — at least in my experience — where there's this innate connection of the father to have with them. They're calmer when they're babies, and then now that they're teenagers and you got a whole different slate of emotions. For years, some of my friends who are older told me just to wait for their teenage years, and I was like, "No, my babies, they're cool." And woo! What they said was right. With my son, with boys in general, they just have so much energy.

At what age do think you'll give this book to him?

To my son? I mean, I guess when he asks. My oldest, she wants to read it. I don't know if my youngest girl has read it, but she knows what’s in it. And she doesn't necessarily ask me to read it yet. But she's the quiet one. So, she might be reading it on her own. My son, I want him to read it when he's ready.

How old are they now?

18, 13 and 10.

Your eldest daughter (from an earlier marriage) lost her mother recently. How are you handling that as a family?

It's a very difficult process. They were very close, so it's work in progress. That's a void that can never be filled, but we just try to ... all we can do is be supportive for her and try to work through as a family and at the same time give her her space, because she feels she needs it because that was her heart, you know.

Your father also passed away, and you never got to say goodbye. But you write that you found peace in that relationship. Tell me about how you did that.

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Way before he died. Way before. I've been at peace with that for a long time. Through the years, I’d try to build a relationship, but relationships are dialogues. They're not monologues. So you learn to love certain people from a distance. Ironic to say that about my father, but that's what it ended up being. I had love for him as a human being. I didn't know him really personally, you know. Just like I've got love for you as a human being. I don't know you as a person, but that's the love that I have for him because that's real. At the end of his life, I just felt a sadness and it was just like damn. It didn't have to be that way.

Did you ever cry?

No, I didn't cry. I didn't cry. That's where the emotions didn't come. And when my oldest daughter's mom passed away, I cried, you know. I just never in a million years factored that as a possibility. And that’s another thing, talking to people about these issues. It's like, man, you never know which way the ball comes out, you know. There's so much dissension out here in the world and you see people squabbling over this or that. In the end, it's not worth it. It is not worth it. You don't know what could happen to you. Or to this person that you love. All of this happened after I was done with the book, so I had to go back in because I sat and thought about it for a while. It would be disrespectful to not announce it. You know what I mean? Because I, you know, some of it and those are heavy things. And I'm like, "Well, do I go in and write another chapter?" You know what I mean? And it just everything was so complete. So, I just tried to find the most graceful and elegant way to acknowledge them.

How's your wife through all of this?

She's amazing. There's no question that that's my soulmate. She anchors me in a way that I can only relate emotionally is like how I feel anchored by my mom. That's the weight of what I feel; this connection to another person. She is family. ... Keisha taught me how to smell the roses, which is one of the most important things in life. Like through her, I really am still learning, but I've learned how to become present, because I'm an artist. I'm constantly in my head and she's helped me be more present. She loves hard ... and she's taught me a lot, about everything. 

Do you censor your children's movies or TV?

We censor them in a sensible way. Our kids are a little different because we raised them on the stuff that we came up on, Jefferson's, Cheers and The Cosby Show. When they were younger they wanted to watch Nickelodeon but then at 7,8, they were like 'Wait, I wanna see that old stuff' now. Musical influences are all across the board, you know. And obviously they're into like the stuff now, but they have a wealth of like, you know, real R&B, rap. You know, the stuff that we came up on. So, at least they have the balance. That's what we hope.

What does your mom think of your book?

She loves it. Yeah, she loves it and she told me she was proud of me, which obviously makes my heart smile because at the end of the day, I would want — I need her to feel good about me, you know. And yeah, she's proud.

Why did you self-publish?

Jay-Z did an interview and he was asked about his first album. He said that he lived his life to write that album. I feel the same way about this. I can live my life to write this. I took the proposal around town, but I wanted to self-publish from the beginning because I just had a vision. I listened to the team around me and I, thankfully, had an offer at one point. But the business side of it made no sense to me because this is not fiction. This is my story. And in my opinion, this is where the publishing business is right now. So why not gamble on myself and use the direct-to-consumer line, you know? 

Do you have other books in you?

That, well, that's bringing it back to my mom and Keisha, they both feel that I'm going to have to write a follow-up. I never thought about writing a book until I did it. So I don't know. For some reason they both feel strongly that almost that it will need a follow up, so I may do that. 

In terms of other work, Shooter is back on June 21. Do you have conversations in your home about guns and how to protect your own family?

We do have those conversations. As any parent, you try to talk to your kids about the dos and don’ts. And the school that they go to, they train 'em this, that and the other. But really, you just pray. You hope, not only your own kids, but any kids, period. People lose family, you know. And my kids, they just seem saddened. Every time I see one of these it’s like, you know. But we don't over-talk it to where to make them paranoid. You know, just for them to be aware. That’s the main thing is like, pay attention. I mean, if something doesn't feel right, that’s because something ain't right. But I don't really tie that into it. They're old enough to know that's a show that daddy’s on and it's entertainment, versus real-life stuff. So, I don't have to balance that out. 

You've worked for years, and enjoyed career longevity like few actors can claim. From House to E.R. to now on Shooter and all the features you've done. Have you had a moment to reflect on your success and what that means to you?

I'm just thankful. On my Twitter, on my heading it says "a state of gratitude." Because I'm constantly thankful because I know that it — well, you know, every day since the beginning of my career, every single day that I've been on a set, there's one part of the day that I have to myself where I just look around and realize how incredible this is. I still do. But at the end of the day, we have to find our courage by living our purposes. Life is ebbs and flows, but really your purpose never shifts. I'm a firm believer in that. We only got this one time. Whatever this thing called life is, we got one shot at it in human form, right? For me, I want to feel like whenever it’s my time, I wanna feel exhausted, you know. I wanna feel like I did it and I lived it and let's go to the next level, you know? No matter what your story is, you can make something of your life and of yourself and you can help someone along the way. That message is needed more now than ever.