When Omar Epps was approached about doing a picture with Japanese writer-director Takeshi Kitano, a multi-media superstar in his home country and a cult figure here, he realized that signing up would entail some risk. The rising young actor was intrigued by Kitano’s idea for the story–about a member of a yakuza coming to Los Angeles and starting a multi-racial gang which briefly enjoys success on the streets–but recognized that other opportunities might provide a bigger boast to his career.
“I knew about some of his work,” Epps recalled during a recent Dallas interview for “Brother,” “but I wasn’t aware of how big he was [in Japan] and that sort of thing. They called me and sent over a synopsis of the screenplay–he didn’t have a script yet–and then I studied his films, watching ‘Sonatine’ (1994) over and over, and that sort of thing–and I just wanted to do it. I figured, let’s take a chance. This guy’s a great filmmaker, it’s an intriguing story, let’s do it. And it was fun–a lot of fun.”
Epps visited Japan for a few weeks before shooting and witnessed the extent of Kitano’s celebrity there–he’s a television star as well as a director-actor best-known for his yakuza stories–but what most impressed him was the originality and personality of his pictures. “I get a high off of ideas, put into motion, because they’re living,” he said. “You’ve got to be a movie buff to sit there and watch this movie because of how Kitano shoots films–there’s no [music] soundtrack and there’s elongated scenes. It’s not going to attract the average moviegoer.”
Epps went on to reflect on Kitano’s unusual helming style. “We rarely went past one take,” he explained. “It was a serious thing if we did two takes. It’s like doing stage on film. So you had to be on all the time, you had to be aware, because if you mess up, he’s going to leave it [in], because he totally trusts his cast.” He pointed to yet another remarkable fact about the director’s method: “We shot it in sequence–which is great, because you don’t have to balance your emotions, you’re going in order. And [shooting out of sequence] causes a lot of bad performances, or mixed-up performances. You can tell.”
Kitano’s inability to speak English also made things interesting, especially since it meant there wouldn’t be long conversations between the gangster-star and his young American protégé in the film to flesh out their relationship. “The art was surpassing the language barrier,” Epps said. “It was important [for me] to play on the nuances, because that’s the only thing we had…because there’s no dialogue between us, because the story between us is really limited. I think I had enough to play on to not seem like a dead guy on screen.”
Epps believes, moreover, that the thrust of the narrative is powerful enough to carry audiences over the film’s unusual aspects. “It’s about brotherhood,” he emphasized. “It’s about how much of yourself you would sacrifice for another–and what determines that. I hope that young audiences get that [idea].”
In the final analysis, “Brother” satisfies Epps because it fulfilled his ambitions as an actor. “I want to push the limits,” he enthused. “I want to see what’s out there, and by putting it out there, and believing it and living it, I know it’s going to come to me. When people ask me, ‘What roles do you want to play?’ I say, ‘I can tell you what roles I don’t want to play’–based on the movie. But I want to play everything under the sun. As an actor you get to work with a palette of human emotions, and that’s supposed to be never-ending.”