By Keith Davis
Is Isaac Johnson the character you love to hate? Omar Epps gives the scoop on this week's Shooter episode, what it's like working with Ryan Phillippe, and how he came to learn a bit of Mandarin Chinese. Check out the exclusive interview.
USA Network: How are you feeling about the show so far?
Omar Epps: I'm feeling good. I'm glad that people are responding. On the surface, it looked like Shooter could just be straightforward action. It's the whole cat-and-mouse game. I think it's more character-driven than what people anticipated, so that's exciting.
USA Network: How did you prepare for the role of Isaac Johnson and how would you describe Isaac to those who may not be familiar with him yet?
Epps: Overall, he's just a guy who thinks that he's fighting for the greater good, but he finds out that that notion is relative. In terms of prep, I prepped the same way I prepare for any other character. The militaristic part of him, I did a little studying and paying attention to nuances. The mindset of a secret service guy, they have a certain type of mindset, so I just wanted to pick up those nuances.
USA Network: Did you speak with any secret service agents to pick their brains and see how they go about their business?
Epps: Yeah, I actually spoke with a former secret service guy. It was interesting to hear about the personal side of that type of lifestyle, which I wasn't really thinking about. It's very hard on their personal lives and their families.
USA Network: In your mind, is Isaac a good guy or is he a bad guy?
Epps: I think that he's a good guy that's made some bad decisions and this first season, it's peeling back the layers of how he got to that point. Because again, like I was saying, the greater good is relative. He's a good guy that thought he was doing the right thing, and then he went down the rabbit hole and saw that all is not what it seems.
USA Network: In the flashback episode (S1 EP4 "Overwatch"), it shows the origins of the relationship between Isaac and Bob Lee Swagger (Ryan Phillippe). Can you give us some of the back story in this episode and what's going on?
Epps: Isaac is the captain of the Marine Sniper Unit. Obviously, Bob Lee is top of that food chain. They're in Afghanistan and it shows how things were when they were deployed, and how that dynamic worked. The audience will see that it was still a working relationship. They're brothers in arms in that sense, but Isaac had the authority over him because he was there to take care of the whole unit. It will be interesting to see how the audience responds because of a lot of the comments I've seen, people are like, "How could he betray his friend like that?" We weren't exactly friends in that way.
USA Network: How's it like working with Ryan Phillippe in the show?
Epps: Oh man, we had fun. We're kind of similar in that we're both sort of laid back and quiet in that sense. We got along lockstep.
USA Network: Did you have to get any special training to be able to figure out how to handle the guns and be authentic in that way?
Epps: In terms of the tactical stuff on the show, we really rehearsed and practiced getting that stuff down because we wanted all of those subtle movements to be authentic so that people who have served or who are serving in the Armed Forces would appreciate it. I think Ryan had more training because he had to do more of that stuff. We had a lot of fun with that. It's less about learning how to shoot the gun and just learning some of the body language. How you keep it when you're not firing and just how you move. That whole mindset, it's a lot of little nuances.
USA Network: There's a scene in tonight's episode where Isaac shows up at Donny's mother's house after Bob Lee paid a visit. You had to make a hard decision in that one. Was it hard for you filming that particular scene?
Epps: The challenge was in trying to, for the character, him trying to rationalize that. That's one of those moments that can be a life-defining moment in terms of one's own morality and code of ethics. I think that Issac rationalized it in the way that he did, and he just went for it and executed on what had to be done.
USA Network: Do you think that's the theme of Isaac in general in the show? He seems to get presented with a lot of choices where he has to decide either for the greater good or for his own morality.
Epps: Yeah, I think that he's more of doing it for the greater good, or what he thinks that is, but then the further you get into the season, the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, and he realizes that what he thought he was standing on wasn't solid ground to begin with. That's when it gets more interesting because then he becomes dangerous. Then it becomes a story of self-preservation and people are dangerous in those predicaments. You really don't know what someone will do in that predicament.
USA Network: Do you think viewers will see Isaac as a sympathetic figure as the show goes on?
Epps: I think some people will have sympathy, but I think it's just more about empathizing because once they learn that he sort of has been manipulated as well, then it doesn't mean you would agree with how he has handled the whole thing, but you see he's sort of in between a rock and a hard place. What's been fun is people love to hate him. They don't just hate him. They want to like him, but he keeps going further and further, which has been fun for me creatively to play. I had a lot of fun just playing in all of those layers and textures of a character instead of just the straight out good guy.
USA Network: There's a scene in tonight's episode where you're talking to your wife in the show and you're speaking Mandarin Chinese. Do you know Mandarin or did you have to pick up a few phrases for the show?
Epps: I had no clue. Quick story, it was funny because when we were shooting the pilot, John Hlavin (Shooter showrunner) and I were talking about back story and about the character. He said, "You know, I think I want him to have a wife." I was like, "All right. If you do that, let's do something different." I think he'd have an Asian wife. I think he'd speak Mandarin and it's because Isaac is sort of an opportunist in that way. Everything is for a reason, and so we just had this quick little conversation. I didn't think anything of it until I read that script, and I was like "Oh. I gotta learn how to speak Mandarin." It was challenging because obviously it's a different language, but we had fun with that. I think that was a nice little curveball to throw at the audience. They won't see it coming.
USA Network: What do you think viewers should take away from this first season?
Epps: That's a good question. It's about family, it's about that code of honor, what do you believe in, what do you stand for, and how far are you willing to go to protect your beliefs? Also that we have the best Armed Forces on the planet in terms of America. We get to see glimpses of that all throughout. I just think it's sort of a salute to that. Ultimately, it's about protecting your family and all those greater themes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.