By Tom Holmes
Michael Epps lives in two different worlds. One world is with his family in Forest Park and his seventh-grade classmates at the Forest Park Middle School. The other is in a Chicago studio where he's filmed in "The Chi," a drama about life in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
So far, the 13-year-old has been able to keep the two worlds separate.
His best friend and classmate, Wade Gillespie, said Michael didn't tell him he was on TV when he first met him.
"When I found out, it didn't matter. He's still my best friend," Gillespie said, adding: "Michael doesn't consider himself to be famous. He thinks of himself as a normal person."
Michael's mother, Keisha Johnson, added: "He didn't want me to tell the teachers at the middle school that he had gotten the role on "The Chi" because he wanted to make friends on his own."
The Forest Park teenager might not think of himself as famous, but after being on "The Chi" for just one season, people sometimes recognize him when he's out in public and ask to have their picture taken with him.
In that way, his celebrity has changed in his life. He explained, "The attention I get doesn't bother me much, but I have to really watch what I do out in the public, because that could really affect my career."
"Since the show took off last year," Johnson said, "he's gotten so many fans on his Instagram page that I've lost count. Little girls are making fan pages for him."
Another change has to do with time.
Johnson, who calls herself a "momager" since she's both his mother and manager, said a scene that lasts 15-minutes can take eight hours to film. That requires Michael to be absent from class for up to three days a week when the show is being filmed. Johnson explained that by law the production company is required to provide a teacher to be with Michael on the set and have a space for him to do classwork.
"During the first season of "The Chi," the time away did affect his grades, because there was a miscommunication between the teachers here and the ones on the set," Johnson said. "I had to learn to be the bridge in the middle and make sure that everyone was getting the information."
She called her role as momager a "full-time job" and "learning process." In order to advance Michael's career, Johnson put her acting career on the back burner.
"He keeps me busy," she said. "I'm his acting coach, his manager and his taxi driver. When he first got the part on "The Chi" I tried to be his manager and work a full-time job. I soon learned that I had to choose."
She plans to go back to pursuing her own acting career someday, but for now her son's career has taken priority.
Michael's uncle, Mekhi Robinson, who is in fact a year younger than his nephew and thinks of him more like a brother, said: "Michael is just a very talented person. He's good at things like sports in addition to acting."
Shehariah Goodman, Michael's cousin, was a teenager when he was born and said, "To be a child actor it's something that you have to have within you." She remembers Michael standing in front of the TV with the Karate Kid movie on and perfectly copying all of Jaden Smith's punches and spoken lines.
"He was just amazing," Goodman said. "He was more entertaining than the movie."
Johnson said that when Michael was young, he was "all about basketball and Stephen Curry" and she wasn't going to push him to follow in her footsteps. But when she saw that he took direction well, was good at copying moves he saw on TV and could even dance, she started introducing him to agents.
"We got a lot of no's," she said, "until he got a non-speaking part in one of the episodes of the popular TV series "Empire"."
But his big break came in 2017 when he successfully auditioned for a speaking role on "The Chi"
Michael's plays Jake on the show—a kid whose brother is the leader of a local gang and who is at risk of falling under his influence.
"It's kind of fun to play a character who is different than me," Michael said of Jake. "I get to see what it's like on the other side
Johnson added, "To see him play a part like Jake is so funny, because he's the complete opposite of that kid."
Michael's grandmother, Gwendolyn Massey, added that Michael is the opposite of his TV persona, always offering to help around the house and taking out the garbage before she ever has to ask.
"From day one Michael has been a very good kid. He's always been very loving and considerate," she said. "He's the first one to offer help."
Massey provided a window into the character of the family, noting that "it's not whether you or this color or that color. It's more important to be a credit to the planet than to your race. That's where the issue gets lost, when you start drawing divisions."
That said, Johnson hopes that Michael's success will provide the public another positive image of black young men.
"As far as the race thing goes," she said, "there are still a lot of closed-minded people out there. When they see my son with dreads doing something positive on TV maybe this will open some people's eyes."