Looking to Score

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Talk about rude awakenings. when Omar Epps caught an early screening of The Mod Squad last year, he hoped for at least a modest success. After all, he had trounced many of Hollywood's hot young black actors and even a few rap stars for the spot opposite Claire Danes and Giovanni Ribisi in this Gen X version of the cult TV series. Once the screening began, however, Epps quickly lost interest and shut his eyes to escape the boredom. "I fell asleep," he recalls. "When I finally woke up, I looked around and said, '___, this movie is gonna bomb!'"

Hanging out at a taco stand near his Los Angeles home, Epps shrugs off the fiasco as if the bomb's blast didn't faze him one bit. Now 27, he has appeared in half a dozen films in the past three years, working steadily since his 1992 debut as a Harlem teen in Juice made casting directors notice his quiet forcefulness, strong build and deep, soulful eyes. (Danes has called him "one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen.") Brother, his crime film for acclaimed Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano, screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and Love & Basketball, a $15 million hoop-dreams romance produced by Spike Lee's company, premieres in Australia this month. For Epps, Love & Basketball is his shot at big-time stardom. "I look at Denzel and Wesley, Cuba and Will, and figure it must be lonely at the top for those guys right now," he says, laughing as he points his heavily tattooed arm toward the sky.

Epps still has a way to go before hitting the A list. Though he has a commanding presence onscreen, his rèsumè is erratic or eclectic, depending on how you look at it. "I'd compare him to Johnny Depp," says Lee's partner, Sam Kitt. "His pictures haven't all performed well, but his talent is widely acknowledged." Apart from supporting bits in silly sequels to Scream and Major League, he has top billing in two hbo movies and had a stint on ER's 1996-97 season. "He's still young, but Omar brings a real maturity to his roles," says Danny Glover, who produced the hbo docudrama Deadly Voyage, which starred Epps. In Love & Basketball, Epps found a feature-film role literally tailor-made for him. With Epps in mind, director Gina Prince-Bythewood created the character of an aspiring NBA player who falls for the girl athlete-next-door.

Epps was given the Love & Basketball script by his agent, and he appreciated its strong feminist point of view. "The thing that really made me want to do it was how the female character got to have her cake and eat it too," he says. "It was just refreshing." He hopes the movie won't be seen merely as a black film or a basketball story. "The sports angle is just a tool to appeal to audiences," he says. "This is a love story; it's Romeo and Juliet." He's gratified that the story revolves around middle-class African-American families and isn't just another Boyz N the Hood clone.

In making Love & Basketball, Epps and co-star Sanaa Lathan were put through their paces on the court. Like any other kid raised in Brooklyn, he played occasional pick-up games at the park, but Yale-educated Lathan had never shot a basketball in her life. Both spent months in training before the cameras started rolling. "Compared to the basketball scenes, the acting was a piece of cake," sighs Lathan, who suffered serious bruises, jacked-up knees and endless harangues from her director. Epps also took his licks. "Omar had an ugly-ass shot before we got him with a coach," says Prince-Bythewood. "He really had to work hard to lose that hitch and shoot in one fluid motion."

The hitch Epps faces these days is standing out from the pack. Over the past few years, a fresh generation of stellar black talent has wowed Hollywood, from Taye Diggs (Go, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) to Mekhi Phifer (Soul Food and the forthcoming Othello update, O). "Not to sound egotistical, but I think I'm at the head of the class," says Epps, ticking off a long list of promising newcomers. "I'm looking for opportunities across the board, not just as a young black actor but as an actor. Sure, I want to be respected like Denzel, but I also want to show I have the range of a Robin Williams or Tom Hanks." Sounds to us like a slam-dunk career plan.