Actor, poet, athlete, philanthropist, businessman… Omari Hardwick is no stranger to hard work. The Georgia-born thespian is an award-winning slam poet with a string of feature film and television appearances under his belt. Thus far, Hardwick’s dedication to delivering quality performances has earned him accolades and admiration from peers and fans alike.
Omari has appeared in several major movies, including The Guardian with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher; Spike Lee‘s Miracle at St. Anna with Derek Luke and Michael Ealy; Next Day Air with Donald Faison and Mike Epps; Kick-Ass with Nicholas Cage; and The A-Team with Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper. On television, Hardwick has appeared on shows like Saved and CSI: Miami, and recently celebrated the second season finale of TNT’s Dark Blue.
As the 36-year-old actor gears up for the November 5, 2010 release of Tyler Perry‘s film For Colored Girls, Hardwick is very aware that even more eyes will be on him. While he pointed out to UrbLife.com in this exclusive interview that he has clocked more screen time in previous films, the subject matter relating to his character Carl in For Colored Girls is so potent, he’ll have people talking about him for years to come.
No matter how you see Omari Hardwick, there is no doubt that he has positioned himself as a viable player in Hollywood. Read on as he explains the reason he chose acting over music; thoughts on working with Janet Jackson and the powerful cast in For Colored Girls; and the ways poetry, sports, Hip Hop and acting resonate and intertwine artistically in his life.
While you played football as a teen, you were into poetry really heavy. How did you balance sports, your poetry and being an artist?
Omari Hardwick: I just waited to see if there was a stopping point that would make me divert from the path of expressing what was in me twofold. The balance in my mind said to try both and wait for failure to happen. You have that moment where all rock stars want to be something else and everyone else wants to be a rock star. I wanted to see how far I could go in terms of being an athlete and a poet, and it never stopped. I’m still as active physically as I was when I was playing football and obviously I’m still active artistically.
A lot of people who write poetry are into writing music. Was there ever an interest there?
OH: There wasn’t an interest, but the first couple of years I spent in L.A. I found myself in the studios with Ne-Yo who was a very close friend, and young MCs who have gone on to have substantial amounts of success. It’s probably my best friend when I’m on the set and working as an actor, I just think music feeds into the psyche of a character in terms of the rhythm of it, the time, place and nostalgia of it.
I’ve always had a very close relationship with music, and it’s ironic because I was always a spoken word artist and I had all of those cats in the studio trying to get me to rap. That so wasn’t me, I just wanted to honor what they were, and they were like, “As a spoken word artist if you just put it into 16 bars you come out sounding like a MC.” I knew that wasn’t going to be anything I could put food on the table with.
Now I’ve incorporated it as an artist, and become a lot closer to other artists like Nas - I’ve listened to his music forever and I’m a friend of his. We see each other, I’ll talk about the acting thing, he’ll talk about the music thing as a grandfather of the game. I’ve gotten close to Drake, and it’s great because I’ve always idolized musicians.
Hip Hop and acting aren’t very separate these days – whether it’s the [dramatics] of the rap game, or rappers going into acting. How do you feel about these two cultures combining the way they have?
OH: It was bound to happen. There’s always going to be a starvation so to speak for the truth. People will always starve for truth, fads will come and go. From reality TV stars remaining stars, or if it will persist… from Jersey Shore to any other shows that will give them a platform, those things will come and go. What will remain is something that won’t go out of style for our predecessors that began the race… this generation hasn’t really known what race we’re in.
In the NBA if you look at David Stern and his mobilization of professional basketball and his desires for it to go to the outer reaches of foreign lands, to let them benefit from what Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started… in doing that you have to tame a young Allen Iverson who’s fully tatted, listens to rap music and actually goes in the studio sometimes to perform rap music, yet he’s phenomenally talented with a basketball in his hand.
Then you have Kobe Bryant and you go over to musicians and into my world, the base and foundation for it all is Hip Hop. Not rock ‘n roll or jazz, which we are birthed out of – our generation is dancing around Hip Hop and its values and ethics.
The allowance for someone like Eminem, who is not necessarily befitting for Hip Hop at its origins, he says our truths and the world says it won’t go out of style. So it’s impossible for Hollywood – who is still starving for truth – to not at times want to marry it to DMX who’s telling the truth when he’s on stage with a microphone in his hand.
Athletes with tattoos want to tell their truth the same way Michael Jordan and Wilt Chaimberlain did, and it’s all based out of Hip Hop. So I guess the hybrid or the marriage of all of those entities, from sports, music and into cinema – I’m cool with it as long as no one is telling a lie.
How would you feel if someone like 50 Cent or Diddy produced your next feature film?
OH: I’m so open to that. It would be very hypocritical of me to tell you I stretch the limits and boundaries where others won’t and then not be open to somebody who might be able to stretch those same boundaries. I actually read for 50 Cent, for his Get Rich Or Die Trying movie.
I’m open, I’m not one of those cats judging anyone trying to bring anything to a project. I’m only going to bring my truth to it, and if I feel that they dropped the ball, I might make that publicly known or I might keep it to myself, but I’m not going in with a closed mind, because they might be better than every Hollywood producer I’ve ever worked with.
You worked with Queen Latifah in Beauty Shop and you’re now in For Colored Girls alongside Janet Jackson. How is it to work with these larger than life pop personas in the movies, and how do you get past who they are?
OH: When Drake spoke in this song of Allen Iverson going against Michael Jordan, I’m going against my idols. You don’t have to show them up in terms of equal confidence while honoring what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished. You’re there to do a job, and we’re paralleled in this ability. We’ve been asked to play a husband and wife – I can’t give Janet what she needs out of me if I’m acting starstruck. I did a double take and a pinching of the skin of course, but never while I was working with her.
Friends will text you, and I stay away from that while working, because you have friends remembering you as lowly Omari Hardwick and now all of a sudden you’re lowly Omari Hardwick working with the artist they were addicted to at a certain age. But when I finish, I go back to the humble beginnings like, “I just worked with Ms. Jackson and that’s crazy.”
I loved her as Charlene on Diff’rent Strokes, that was my favorite show as a kid. Obviously she was ridiculously talented as Penny [in Good Times], she was Dakota Fanning’s age. She comes from a family that might have birthed the most talented siblings we’ve ever seen.
When it did hit me, it was one of those moments like working with Latifah, or the fact that I’ve worked with Spike Lee twice now or Kevin Costner who’s won Oscars. While I didn’t make Janet any bigger than any of them, obviously I did because I had 50 crushes on her. It was definitely surreal… hopefully she feels it was a moment for her to step down from that iconic place that she didn’t put herself at. The world has put her there – she’s done the work and honored the talent she’s been bestowed with.
Just like she was dealing with the loss of her brother, I was dealing with the loss of uncles, cousins… and even though he survived my father was shot six times around the same time Michael Jackson died. We had a lot of things to share in common as far as pain and loss, so hopefully it was a moment where she felt she didn’t have to be as big and it was a moment for me to feel bigger than life because I got to work with Janet Jackson.
What are the differences and dynamics of working on a movie as opposed to working on TV?
OH: It’s a sprint when you’re on TV, told you have this amount of minutes to complete this many miles and the only way you can do it is running nine seconds per minute. They want you to fit whatever barometer they have for looking at their clock as producers. You can get done what they want time-wise, but you can’t abandon your mission to tell your truth and do your best work so that you can continue to like it the way other people do. As long as we can maintain the integrity with the character and with the show where we have to run nine seconds for 10 minutes, then you’re successful.
In the beginning, I was coming from film, which is a marathon; and now with TV, you’re back on the treadmill, which is having four hours to run all day. Sometimes you can get off the treadmill and another actor gets on grab the baton from another actor and you get to run and that can be for three months as well or less than three months, but you didn’t have the same day to day sprint that you have within the three months.
For me coming from film to Dark Blue where I had only done film and theater, I’m connected to the truth and integrity of the performance and show. It was a crash course to learn how to become a businessman and an actor. There’s a business to it, and obviously it protects what you bring to it with film, what film brings to Hollywood and the money that Hollywood brings to the world. In TV you sort of feel like you have to be your own producer, studio exec and director after every day.
Not to make the job of the studio exec or the director minimal, but if they’re telling you to run that fast within 14 hours and they give you the script two days before you start, obviously you have more hats to wear when you should be wearing one as an actor. In a film, you can wear that one actor hat.
People might say you’re an overnight sensation when you’ve been developing your craft for almost 20 years. How does that feel, knowing how much work you’ve put in?
OH: I don’t get insulted by being thought of as an overnight sensation, that’s something you can’t shy away from. Within the acting community there’s a saying that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success, so as long as we realize that we aren’t binding the layperson to the same rules that we live by. We don’t expect them to know it takes 10 years to become an overnight success.
It’s actually flattering that we come off so fresh and cool. The insult comes when you’re going to studio execs with your team, and they’re trying to convince people giving me jobs that they should know me. It’s insulting when the execs don’t know, and they scratch their head considering the range that I’ve tried to show.
This range has inhibited me, because Hollywood and the rest of the world want people to be in a box so they can know when and where they’re coming and going. They say, “He looks like this, he should be doing all of this, I can’t believe he’s doing that” but one day it’ll fade.
How have you made yourself stand out in Hollywood, given there have been so few roles available for Black actors?
OH: I would be remiss if I kept it as something I just did, but I would say maybe it’s the combination of experiences I’ve been able to have in life. Growing up in Decatur where Andre 3000 was, and then going to a private school where I may have been 1 out of 13 Blacks in the school, excelling on the football field and forcing Anglo-Saxon superiors [teachers and coaches] to not only accept my ability on the sports level, but to accept that I was as bright as anybody else in the school.
Those experiences come from things like being raised around grandfathers who were both doctors in biology and engineering. Those experiences have fostered the ability to stand out because I don’t walk in an audition without the total sum of my parts. Casting offices are left to go, “This kid is not who we thought – we thought we had him pegged, he gave us another wrinkle” and that has allowed me to stand out in and of itself.
Publicity-wise, the extremes run from someone like Will Smith to Jeffrey Wright, their ability to stand out is who they are, but the ability to promote has had to come at the hands and through the eyes of publicists who have been able to promote the right Omari Hardwick, versus promoters who try to compare me to ridiculously talented competitors of mine who are different from me. For promotional purposes I kept scratching my head, because I didn’t know how to subtly tell the world who I was beyond casting offices and studio execs.
Getting with the right publicist [Jordyn at Persona PR] has truly helped me, and as a team we’ve been able to completely promote that which Omari embodies. That Decatur boy all the way through football, working for San Diego, living in a car, being a substitute teacher, there have been so many things that have happened over these 36 years and you’re only as promotable as the promoter that gets what you are.
In my heart and soul I go to bed every night knowing who Omari is – I know better than anyone else. What’s been new is not having to raise my hand and express who I am and what I think I can do. For someone else to be able to say it is just unbelievable.
Do you feel like this role in For Colored Girls will be your “breakout” role?
Yeah, I think it could be because Tyler [Perry] is behind it. I’m the husband of Janet Jackson, and she’s the storied actor out of Phylicia Rashad,Loretta Devine, Whoopi Goldberg and Kimberly Elise, with Tyler pushing the movie, and it being the first time a mega Broadway hit, has hit the big screen I think it will foster the breakout performance, but I don’t necessarily know if that’s because of my performance in the movie.
I’ve been in films just as big and received more screen time. It might be a breakout because close followers knew I had range and ability, and then you all of a sudden saw me playing a role in a larger than life movie because Tyler was the guy behind it, because Oprah had an involvement and because Janet Jackson is playing my wife.
In that regard sure, but I don’t ever know that any performance will be my breakout because I’m so into consistency. To me a breakout is like you’re on and then you go back down a little bit. I’m trying to do One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Jack Nicholson, Man On Fire and Malcolm X [Denzel] performances every time I step up to the plate. In the regard of making something bigger than the actor is, yes it’s a breakout performance. But I don’t want to make me bigger than the movie – the movie is a breakout movie.
Janet is doing a role we’ve never seen her doing before, Tyler is behind it and Ntozake Shange did it so perfectly on Broadway, it’s a breakout role. But it would be narcissistic for me to say, “This is my breakout role” – I don’t like that.
What else do you have coming up over the next few months?
OH: We’re hoping to get Kick-Ass 2 going, I don’t know that I’m a definite attachment to that yet. I did I Will Follow with the very talented Ava Duvernay, that has Salli Richardson and Blair Underwood in it. Also I did Everyday Black Man directed by Carmen Madden which was very big for me. Both of those will see the light of day in 2011. Hopefully Dark Blue will be back for another season as well.
I Will Follow trailer
CLICK HERE to read the For Colored Girls cast interview with Tyler Perry, Janet Jackson, Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton, Loretta Devine and Macy Gray!