Power Book III: Raising Kanan star Omar Epps previews 'our culture's version of The Wonder Years'
House alum Omar Epps is feeling right at home.
The New York City native headlines the highly-anticipated Power prequel, Power Book III: Raising Kanan, which travels back to 1991 to track the cold-blooded origins of Kanan Stark, who was memorably played on the flagship series by Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent. The new installment from creator Sascha Penn (a writer on Power season 1) stars Mekai Curtis as 15-year-old Kanan, Tony-winner Patina Miller as his queenpin mother Raq, and Epps as Det. Malcolm Howard, a powerful force on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens.
"Sascha and I make a joke that Howard's like an octopus, in the sense that he has tentacles everywhere," shares Epps, who in real-life was filming Juice alongside Tupac Shakur in the year and region that Kanan is initially set.
Ahead of Raising Kanan's Sunday premiere on Starz, Epps spoke to EW about being intrigued by what's "buried underneath" Det. Howard's surface, taking pride in the show's depiction of the '90s, and believing Kanan is "our culture's" The Wonder Years.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before being cast on Kanan, what was your relationship to Power?
OMAR EPPS: I was a fan. I thought it was a great series, and I'm a fan of [creator] Courtney [Kemp] and 50. So when this came down the pipeline, I was super excited. And then once I connected with Sascha Penn, who runs our show, and ran down his vision for it, I was locked in.
You're in a unique position, first looking at Power as an outsider and now being on the inside of it, so what do you think it is about this world that's enabled it to connect with people in such a big way?
I think that Power hits on passion points from a cultural standpoint. It offers you not only insight into certain worlds, but I think everyone gets to live vicariously through one of the characters. It's just so many twists and turns, but, ultimately, the magic sauce is it's about family at the end of the day. And as they say, we never get to choose our family, right? That's relatable to true life; we all have family and have to deal with each other. Do you inherit the sins of your father, or do you make your own path?
Separate from being a Power fan, when approached with Kanan and the character of Malcolm Howard, what made it a no-brainer to sign on?
Det. Howard, he's a dark guy, but he has his reasoning, and what appealed to me there was the challenge of finding his why — why is he the way that he is? Because, to me, that's parallel to the show itself; Kanan, we know the end result of who Kanan was, but what brought that human being to make the choices that he made to ultimately become what he became in the previous Power? I approached Howard the same way. Like, "Yeah, this guy seems like this on the surface, but what's buried underneath?" I wanted to explore that.
As we wait to see what is buried underneath, what can you tell me about how Det. Howard connects to the other characters?
Sascha and I make a joke that Howard's like an octopus, in the sense that he has tentacles everywhere. Yeah, he's a detective, but he's also a street guy and a husband. So he's kind of connected to all parts. He knows Raq (Patina Miller), he knows Kanan, because he's from the neighborhood. But then he's going to be faced with his own trials and tribulations as a human being that he's going to have to figure out how to get through.
We've seen a variety of characters throughout the first two Power series, but this feels like the first time we've followed a cop on a regular basis. For you, was that an interesting new avenue into this established universe?
Yeah, because he's a cop, but he's a street dude at the same time, so that was interesting to me. And again, in that sense, he relates to the family because he's a product of his environment too. And you got to remember, not only is the show set in a different time, in the '90s, but Howard is older. So he comes from a different time than the show is set in, when policing was done a certain way, politics was done a certain way. And so he's sort of still carrying that, the generation before's tactics, and trying to figure out his way through.
In a fun coincidence, you grew up in New York and were only a couple years older than Kanan in 1991, the year that the series picks up. Now, you weren't running around getting in trouble on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens. You were actually filming your big screen breakout Juice in New York at the time, so very different situations! But was it kind of wild to be looking at this era through a new lens?
Yeah, part of that is kind of surreal. But then I'm one of those people who feels like everything happens for a reason. For me, it became another challenge in the sense of maintaining authenticity. So Sascha and I had many conversations about styles of dress, verbiage, or the difference between the slang in the boroughs of New York, so that it really feels authentic and it's a grounded portrayal of that timeframe. And there are so many subtleties and nuances that can go over someone's head, but Sascha was very adamant about coming to me like, "Hey, if you see any loose ends, let me know." But everyone did their due diligence, in terms of the cast. A perfect cast. I'm so excited for this young crop of actors, they brought their A-game, so I'm excited for the audience to experience it.
I just Juice, which helped launch your career almost 30 years ago. Ever since then, you've been around the block a few times, and have found success on the big and small screen. So when you're paired with someone like Mekai, who is just coming up and is preparing to take on the biggest role of his life, do you look at it as a kind of responsibility to pass on your knowledge and help guide the next generation as much as you can?
That's a great question, and I think that the simplest answer is we never stop learning. We're all still students. And the conversations that I've had with him is, you chart your own path, and he has it. Obviously, he has it, he's about to not be able to walk down the street next year. But I'm always open and willing to have conversations with younger artists, because it's really less about the art, it's more about the business. That's the hardest part of all. The hardest part about this thing is the business and building a career versus having a job, and those are the things they don't really teach us when we're coming up. So I always try to impart things that I've learned to help younger actors figure that part of it out.
Talking to Mekai, I know he's trying to soak up whatever he can from you. But wrapping up, what would be your pitch for why people — whether they are already Power fans or maybe if they're coming in fresh — should tune into Raising Kanan?
It's a slice of real-life, in a time where things were not politically correct. And it's a powerful piece about a woman and women's empowerment because Raq is this woman who's taking on a "man's world." And it's also a coming-of-age story. It's almost like it's our culture's version of The Wonder Years. These are the circumstances that these kids were coming up in, and these were the cards they were dealt, so they're trying to figure it out and just grow up. It's a really, really good show, and I'm excited for people to take this journey with us.