The big moment for Mike Epps came in one of his first scenes in "Next Friday," the 2000 sequel to the 1995 hip-hop comedy hit "Friday."
A stand-up comic and Def Comedy Jam veteran, Epps was cast essentially to take over the role of resident jester from Chris Tucker, whose appearance in the first film had catapulted him to stardom. Epps' improvised rant about his conniving girlfriend and her bullying sister was a hilarious symphony of ineffectual rage and impotent fury that would mark him as an undeniable new talent.
The performance and the film would help launch Epps' Hollywood career in earnest. Over the next decade, roles in some 30 films — from urban fare like "Jumping the Broom" and "Next Day Air" to mainstream blockbusters like "The Hangover" and "Resident Evil" — would follow, as would gigs hosting Showtime comedy specials and the BET Awards.
The 42-year-old Epps grew up in Indianapolis and moved as a teenager to New York City, where he launched his stand-up career before going on to film success. On Sunday, he returns to the Mid-South to headline a show — also featuring an appearance by hip-hop legend Doug E. Fresh and sets by comedians Henry Welch and Dominique — at the Landers Center in Southaven.
Even a decade removed from Epps' breakout role as Day-Day (he would go on to appear in another installment, "Friday After Next," in 2002), there are rumors of a final "Friday" film in the works. "They're talking about it," Epps says. "They keep saying they're gonna do it. We're crossing our fingers and seeing how it comes out.
"If they decide they want to do it and pull it off, I'm down with it. It's about getting all the other players together."
Regardless of what happens with the "Friday" finale, 2013 looks to be a high-profile period for Epps. He will return to another comedy franchise with an appearance in "The Hangover III," set for release this summer.
"It was really cool to be able to come back with them guys," says Epps of the film's stars Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms. In the latest "Hangover" sequel, the action returns to Vegas, and Epps will reprise the role of "Black Doug" from the original 2009 film. "Yep," he cracks, "I'm playing a black guy again."
While finding himself at home in the raunchy comedy, Epps recently showcased a more dramatic side. His performance in last year's "Sparkle" — noted for being Whitney Houston's final film — was a surprise. Playing the role of Satin Struthers, the dark, abusive villain of the piece, Epps drew on his distant past — a youth misspent flirting with drugs and racking up a handful of felonies — to deliver a powerful, sinister turn.
More than just offering Epps a chance to work out some of his old demons on film, it also showed his range as an actor, and his work was singled out by numerous critics. "'Sparkle' was definitely a movie that was out of the lane for me. I think it was good. In this business you can be stereotyped, typecast and all that. People think you're gonna be Day-Day forever, or be this funny, goofy guy in the movies forever. It's about evolution — evolving and growing.
"You've got to take a chance in this business, 'cause if you don't, people get tired of the same stuff, no matter who you are. You've got to keep reinventing yourself over time."
In the forthcoming "Nina" — a biopic on singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone — Epps will split the difference between comedy and drama, playing one of his heroes, Richard Pryor. Stepping into the shoes of a comedic icon and personal idol was daunting.
"It was a really scary because of the respect factor that I have for Mr. Pryor and everything he did," Epps says. "But it was definitely an honor to play the master." The film, directed by Cynthia Mort, is slated to come out in late 2013.
Another film project also set for release later this year is an Epps-helmed documentary called "Still Can't Catch Me." Built around his stand-up act, the documentary will offer a glimpse into Epps' life and career, as well as the darker corners of his past, and his struggles on the way up.
"A lot of people don't really know me. I want to let people know I came from nothing. I wasn't godfathered or grandfathered into the business," he says. "I left my hometown when I was 18, and I've been doing comedy for 20 years now, and it's been a journey. City to city, on the road, dealing with all the stuff that comes with it — drugs and alcohol, the whole nine."
Even now, Epps' stand-up comedy continues to be both his passion and his bread and butter. He tours constantly when he's not on set. And while he's got a wealth of material to draw on, no two Epps shows are alike.
"I want to give people a chance to see something different and new, versus me doing the same (stuff) all the time," he says. "What I do is have a conversation with the audience that's unique from show to show."
Though he's a familiar face to audiences now, Epps says the battle to get laughs remains as difficult as ever, and that it's actually part of the appeal of the job. "In the beginning of your career, people are challenging you on the fact that they don't know you, and once you get famous, they challenge you to keep the (stuff) up," Epps says with a laugh. "The fight never stops. But that's the way I like it. You've got to earn what you get."