At the beginning of USA’s Shooter, it certainly seems like Omar Epps is the bad guy, especially if you saw the 2007 movie Shooter or read the book Point of Impact. Epps plays Isaac Johnson, a Secret Service agent who recruits his former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger (Ryan Phillippe) to help him prevent an assassination attempt on the president. By the end of the first episode, Swagger is framed for taking the killshot. Just what did Johnson get him into?
It’s a big week for Epps too, because his holiday comedy Almost Christmas opens this weekend, with Shooter premiering on USA next week. In the former, Epps plays a romantic leading man to Gabrielle Union at a family holiday gathering.
Whether fans know him as Eric Foreman from House, Quincy McCall from Love & Basketball, or any of the roles he’s played in the last 25 years, no one quite knows what to expect from Epps as Isaac Johnson in Shooter. Swagger will have to find the truth.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Is it nice to have a leading man role in Almost Christmas and a villain role in Shooter coming out at the same time?
Omar Epps: It’s awesome. It’s just fun, man. I’m just enjoying the ride. I had a great time doing Almost Christmas, but then we had a really great time doing Shooter. What I liked about it was the storytelling was way more cerebral than the trailer could give off. On the surface, it looks like this action–espionage-y feeling, but the cat-and-mouse game is really a chess game with layers. So I’m excited about that.
RT: Even if people read the book or saw the movie, are there a lot of twists and turns coming for Johnson on Shooter?
Epps: Oh yeah, totally. We kind of start with that same plot, but then we veer off and do our own thing.
RT: There is a lot of jargon to explain to Swagger when they recruit him to help. Is that fairly easy compared to all the medical jargon you had for eight years on House?
Epps: Everything else is easier than the medical stuff I had to do on House. That was like speaking a different language. It felt good to just speak normal military jargon again.
RT: You say “normal military jargon.” That can seem like a foreign language too.
Epps: You know what’s funny with the military: It’s really a lot of acronyms. Everything has an abbreviation term. It’s like a quickspeak, but that was fun. I try to bring a level of authenticity to not even just my characters, but whatever their field is. I always want the people who are actually in those fields in real life to feel like, “Oh wow, it’s grounded and authentic.”
RT: That is a good point: that once you know what the abbreviations stand for, it’s easier to say them.
Epps: Yeah, and it informs your intonations.
RT: The Secret Service can’t let you do a ride-along like you could if you were playing a detective, right?
Epps: Yes, that didn’t happen. I did get to speak to a couple of ex–Secret Service guys just to get the little bit of insight that they could give me in terms of that lifestyle.
RT: What were some specific little details they could give you that helped you play Johnson?
Epps: You look at everything as a grid so it’s a very militaristic mindset in that everything is always through a scope. Everything is on a grid like roads, streets, buildings. It’s a different way of looking at your surrounding environment. One of the little subtleties for me was a lot of marriages don’t last because you’re living a life where you’ve got to pick up and be gone for two months and just get the call like that. I’ve never even thought about that, but I tried to bring that type of feeling into the character.
RT: Are guns part of your skill set at this point, having played different agents and cops?
Epps: I wouldn’t say they’re part of my skill set. I’m familiar with some. The guns that we were working with in Shooter, I’ve never seen those before. They were really high-grade pieces of machinery.
RT: As far as skills you’ve learned for roles before, do you still play basketball?
Epps: Here and there. I mostly like to box and do martial arts, things like that, to be physical.
RT: Like the movie, in the first few episodes, Johnson is part of this conspiracy against Swagger. Is there any hope of redemption for him?
Epps: Absolutely, because Isaac is not a bad guy. He’s a guy who believes in the system and the further up the ladder he went, simultaneously the deeper down the rabbit hole he went. You always hear that saying, “doing it for the greater good.” The greater good is sort of a relative term. His code of ethics and morals is tested and he gets to the position that he’s in by doing something that he thinks is for the greater good that turns up to twist on him. That redeemable factor is very prevalent by the end of the season for him.
RT: What are some juicy episodes of Shooter fans should watch for?
Epps: I think, hey, should watch the whole thing. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a couple of episodes where we go backwards in time, and you get to see how my character and Ryan’s character were in the military. Isaac at one time was the captain of the Marine Sniper Unit, which is pretty badass within itself. I think at that point, the audience needs to really get what their dynamic is before moving forward.
RT: Does that give you a chance to play two different relationships with Swagger, then and now?
Epps: A little bit. It’s interesting because on the surface it might seem as though they had a friendship, but you see it was more of a working relationship. That’s what happens during the course of the season. They discover their relationship, a different part of it.
RT: On the lighter side, Almost Christmas is your return to comedy in over a decade. Had you been looking for a comedy?
Epps: I actually have. This kind of fell right into my life. I had such a great time working on this project. The energy that you see spilling off the screen in Almost Christmas was exactly how we were on set. Everyone just had a genuinely great time.
RT: Was that scene with Gabrielle Union stuck in the window like a big screwball comedy moment?
Epps: That was actually my first day on set so we just dove in. Gab and I are friends, so we just had fun with it. It wasn’t a situation where these two characters come together and they’re like wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. There’s an innocence to it that we got to play with, so that was fun to do.
RT: Did you ever see House as a comedy? Because it was the funniest show on television.
Epps: I never saw it as a comedy, but all the comedic moments, I got. I thought the comedy in House was brilliant.
RT: Are you writing a script too?
Epps: I have a few screenplays that I’ve written. I’ve got a couple of television projects that I’ve written. I’m trying to hit on all cylinders. Everything is in full motion right now.
RT: Right now you’re on Shooter, but are you developing things you would act in?
Epps: Not all of them but a couple of them are, yes, definitely. I don’t want to talk about anything in development, but I do have a project at Lifetime that I wrote that we’re trying to put together. It’s a romantic comedy.
Shooter premieres November 15 at 10 p.m. ET on USA