Which is harder: acting in a television show or playing video games professionally?
Michael V. Epps thinks about that one.
“I want to say acting,” he replies. “Playing a game, you make your own schedule. Acting, you have to know your script, and you have to be ready to work a full day.”
Epps stars in the multigenerational ensemble drama “The Chi”; its season finale is on Showtime Sunday, Sept. 4.
Production doesn’t start up again until January. In the meantime, Epps is building a following on Twitch, the video livestreaming platform where viewers pay to watch top gamers do battle. That workday varies when it comes to hours spent on the console.
“I try to get one, two, or three,” says Epps, 16, who prefers Call of Duty and NBA 2K. “More than that. An hour goes by real quick.”
His other project is Crown Me Clothing, a fashion line of black T-shirts and colorful hoodies.
“We want to uplift people,” he said. “The motto is ‘Claim your royalty.’ We want people to strive for greatness.”
If you’re wondering why you’re reading about a teenage actor, gamer and budding fashion tycoon — not my usual subject matter — that’s easy: His publicist asked, and I thought, “Why not?”
I haven’t watched enough of “The Chi” to categorize it confidently: I’d call it a fast-paced Black soap opera set on the South Side. Epps plays Jake Taylor, whose gangbanger older brother is killed in a drive-by shooting.
There are similarities between Epps and Taylor.
“I’m like Jake in a lot of ways,” said Epps. “He’s a real laid-back, chill person. That’s me, real life. I don’t care to be in the middle of attention.”
That’s true. When he got the role, he was a seventh grader at Forest Park Middle School and ordered his mom not to tell anybody so he could make friends on his own merits.
He is also different than Jake.
“He likes to go behind his friends’ back and take their girlfriends,” Epps said. “That’s not me.”
Child actors are famous for going off the rails. What keeps him grounded?
“My mom,” he said. “She keeps me level-headed and on the right track. She still lets me be a regular person and go out and enjoy my life and it’s not all about work.”
The show, created by Lena Waithe, features a number of established Chicago actors such as Tyla Abercrumbie. Epps, one of the youngest in the cast, has learned much from them.
“They’re always giving me great advice, dropping jewels on me,” he said. “Techniques on how to perfect my craft.”
We talked about Chicago’s image, much in the news. The violence in Chicago’s streets gets reflected in “The Chi.”
“Violence is everywhere,” Epps said of certain neighborhoods. “Just a normal average kid growing up in a normal average neighborhood, there’s nothing but violence going on. He’s going to end up doing violent things or criminal things.”
That said, Epps feels that people beating down Chicago simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
“They really like to kick Chicago because they’re really just on the outside looking in,” he said. “They only see what the media pulls in. That’s why we love ‘The Chi,’ because ‘The Chi’ goes more into depth about the city and shows there’s more to Chicago than just violence. Real-life events and situations. A day-to-day life of an average person. Chicago is a real beautiful city.”
There was one thing I had to ask. “The Chi” is not a term that I’ve ever heard actually spoken by a real person to specify the nation’s third-largest city. Ever. Maybe it’s an age thing. Does Epps call Chicago “The Chi”?
“I just say ‘Chicago,’” he said, allowing that “Chicago” couldn’t be the show’s name.
“If the show called it ‘Chicago’ it would be basic,” he said.
Can’t have that. Not wanting to insult “The Chi,” I suggested maybe the name was just sitting there, unused, ready to be taken by somebody. Maybe, inspired by the show, people will now start calling Chicago “The Chi.”
Either way, “The Chi” is a compelling ensemble drama, and Michael V. Epps — the “V.” doesn’t stand for anything, just a way to distinguish him from a comedian of the same name — is a young man to watch.