By Masha Dowell | Shadow and Act August 27, 2012 at 11:18AM
I really doubt that an introduction to the intelligent, spiritual, smoking hot Omari Hardwick is necessary for S&A readers; so I'll skip the formalities and, instead, let the man speak for himself.
And speak, he most certainly did when we caught up with him recently, as he spoke to S&A about the evolution of his career since he first entered the business, his southern upbringing, his faith as he navigates Hollywood, projects he's involved in, being snubbed from the sequel to Kick Ass 2, and much, much more.
It's a lengthy read, but very worthwhile. And we thank Omari very much for his time, and especially his honesty.
Shadow and Act: Did you need a college education to make it in Hollywood?
Omari Hardwick: When I hear that question, I think of actors like Leo DiCaprio. For years, I asked myself that question. I had this acting coach tell me that my college years are part of MY story. I remember she asked me what I would do without my years playing football. She was like football is part of my story. To answer your question, yes, I needed a college degree to be successful in Hollywood.
Shadow and Act: How would you describe yourself?
OH: I’ve been described as a smart actor because I’ve attended college. Or I’ve been called an artsy jock. And I am thinking, so are actors supposed to be dumb? I read the comments online too. I played sports, and I am an actor. I am a poet. Actors are intelligent. Yet, many of them do not communicate well. That’s what makes it so hard to have a relationship with one.
Shadow and Act: Actors tends to get really emotional in love. They really act out their feelings.
OH: Exactly, but what happens when you need other communication? What about beyond the emotions? [Taps his head]
Shadow and Act: In Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” you played Carl. He was the closeted husband to Janet Jackson’s character. How did you develop that role?
OH: Well, I can’t relate to being gay. It was a challenging role.
Shadow and Act: How was it a challenge?
OH: It was a challenging role for me because I am a black guy. And white guys like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal can play those types of roles and their audiences will say that the roles are artistic.
Shadow and Act: So you feel that the role was challenging because the black community does not support roles like Carl?
OH: The black culture perceives roles like that one in a negative light.
Shadow and Act: How did you prepare for that role?
OH: I focused on being a deviant person. I focused on doing something wrong. I was lying to my wife. I was lying to these men. I prepared for the role by closing my eyes and thinking of times when I had lied.
Shadow and Act: You did not focus on the sexual orientation of Carl to get into character?
OH: No, because it’s like how could I do that really well? I focused on being deviant.
Shadow and Act: Did you tap into your own sexuality to build the role?
OH: You want me to explain how I used my heterosexuality to build this role?
Shadow and Act: Yes, I do.
OH: Okay, let me know if this is what you mean. There was this one time while we were filming in New York, where I was testing myself. l challenged myself to run through Central Park and behave like Carl. I wanted to see how I would run and live differently as my character.
Shadow and Act: And what did you find out about your character during this run?
OH: I did not get through the run without checking out women. It’s a natural instinct. So, that’s why I solely focused on being deviant. But you know what? Some of the greatest actors have played gay men. Anthony has played a gay man. Jeffrey has played gay. When it’s all said and done, I am secure enough with my manhood to say to the world, “I am a male actor, and its okay for me to play a gay man.”
Shadow & Act: Paint a picture of your childhood upbringing for us.
OH: I grew up in Decatur, Georgia. We had three boys in the household; actually it felt like four of us. My Pops sort of raised my uncle too. So, it was four boys, and later a younger sister. I grew up in a two parent household. We all played sports, all sports, which cost a lot of money. My Pops was an attorney; he went to College of the Holy Cross with Clarence Thomas. My mom worked a bit, then gradually came home and took care of us full time. My parents grew up streets a part in Savannah, GA. I considered our household to be lower middle class, or middle class. All of my grandparents are alive. Both patriarchs were college graduates. I am the middle boy. I still feel like a middle boy. One brother is out here in LA with me, and one is in ATL.
Shadow & Act: When I hear about your childhood, I can’t help but think of my own childhood partially growing up in Georgia. I attended a year at McNair middle, and Tri-Cities for a year.
OH: I think Andre Benjamin went to Tri-Cities.
Shadow and Act: No, he went to Banneker High School. Antwan Patton, Kandi Burrus, and Sahr Ngaujah attended Tri-Cities. Kandi and Sahr were actually in my drama classes.
OH: Sahr Najajah, you talking about the brother from Fela?
Shadow and Act: Yes, that’s the guy.
OH: That brother can really act. He’s a phenomenal actor. I went to see Fela like four times, met with him and everything. He never mentioned that he was from home.
Shadow & Act: When did you start to write poetry?
OH: As a teenager.
Shadow and Act: You played football for the University of Georgia. What I found so odd is that in most of your interviews that I’ve read, the journalists did not understand how big of deal the school is in Georgia. Can you tell us about playing football at UGA?
OH: I don’t make a big deal out of playing football at UGA to people who have interviewed me. But you know what, let me take a step back in this interview and reflect on where we are at this moment. Understanding that you and I both know how huge UGA is and we are in LA now. Its two different worlds, you’d have to have lived in GA to understand. Even USC or UCLA does not even have the same affect on its residents like southern football. I love the fact that I can appreciate where I come from, and know that world actually exists. Unlike many Californians or New Yorkers, college football is a religion down south. I played defensive back at UGA. I started out at Furman University in South Carolina. I went there for a year, and then I transferred to UGA.
Shadow and Act: Why did you transfer?
OH: When I got to Furman, it was just too small. I wanted a larger school, with a vast environment like UGA. But my dream school was the University of Michigan. Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to go there. But I couldn’t see having my parents come all that way to support me in Michigan. I wanted to be around bigger football. My senior year in high school, I had offers at Ole Miss, University of Wisconsin, Duke University, Furman, and University of Georgia. While in college I minored in theater.
Shadow and Act: While at UGA you joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. And through my research, I found out that we actually have a friend in common, Rasheed Cromwell, Owner or the Harbor Institute.
OH: So, you went to North Carolina A&T? That’s cool. I met Rasheed in my boy Cory’s wedding. Cory is an Alpha from A&T.
Shadow and Act: Yes, I went to North Carolina A&T. Through that organization you do workshops for young black Greeks entitled, “Brotherhood to Hollywood.” Tell us how this all came about.
OH: Well, Cory, Chuck Deezy (from How High), and I are all Alpha’s. We came together and created this program for college students as a how to workshop on transitioning from college to Hollywood. The workshops are split up into three parts: I cover the craft needed to make it in Hollywood. Chuck covers the perseverance needed, and Cory covers networking.
Shadow and Act: So, how many schools have you toured?
OH: We have toured five schools, and most recently, they did their first one without me. We started the workshops when I was having a dry acting season, and then when things took off recently, they kind of went ahead without me.
Shadow and Act: So you no longer do the workshops?
OH: I did not do the most recent workshop. We actually had a kind of disagreement about the matter. I had a talk with Corey about it, and I had to check Rasheed about it a couple of times. I have not spoken to Rasheed since the incident. But I talk to Corey all the time. I am like Godfather to his son.
Shadow and Act: Can you let our readers know where they can find out about the workshop?
Shadow and Act: Can you tell us about the events that led you from UGA to the San Diego Chargers?
OH: I tore my knee my senior year in college. My speed went down a little bit. However, despite all of this, I worked out with the juniors and seniors at UGA to get into the league. I also worked out with Furman as well. So, my options were pretty much the Falcons, Pittsburgh, they tend to take Georgia players, and San Diego. I ended up at San Diego on their developmental squad. The developmental squad was their non travel squad. My coach in San Diego was Bobby Ross. Who used to coach at Georgia Tech. In high school, I was also recruited by Bobby Ross. Pretty much, although I had slow speed, and an injury, I was given a shot at San Diego, because of my relationship with Bobby Ross. I had known him since I was 15 years old.
Shadow and Act: So, you were on the teams’ developmental squad. What was the outcome of that?
OH: I was cut from the Chargers.
Shadow and Act: Did getting cut from the team make you move forward with acting on a professional level?
OH: I began to ask myself the question, “What does God want me to do with my life?” And you know what Masha? I kept on hearing the voice of God saying if you are going to be the minister that your mom mentioned… then you have to act. My pulpit is acting.
Shadow and Act: Your mother thought that you’d be a minister?
OH: Yes, she did.
Shadow and Act: At this point in your life, you find yourself in San Diego, but not playing professional football. Why didn’t you move to LA and begin your career?
OH: I moved back home to Atlanta. I did travel back and forth to LA a bit with my college girlfriend at the time. But from Atlanta, I made the move to New York. I’m all about not cutting corners. I come from stage; my experience had been on stage. So, thus, I went to New York. Once there, I studied at the Beacon Theater during the day and performed during the night at various hole in the wall theaters. I struggled so much.
Shadow & Act: I know that you mentioned that you’ve always written poetry, but during this time in your life --- did your writing increase tremendously?
OH: My poetry got so heavy during that time. I was always writing stories.
Shadow and Act: Did your poetry lead you to acting?
OH: Poetry has in a way been my bridge to my acting career. I had so many questions about my life, so I took to poetry to express my questions. I had questions about politics, family relationships, and more. There was this time, after I had left New York, and had come to LA, when I rode my motorcycle near CBS studios. There was this spot where homeless women would sleep, and I stopped my bike in front of the area, and I just wondered. I remember there being this huge Oscar De la Hoya billboard above these women, and at the time he was the champ, a hero. Then I looked at this one woman sleeping, and wondered what kind of hero was she? She had to of once been a hero at something. That day, I wrote my poem directly to this woman. She was sleeping underneath the billboard.
Shadow and Act: Did times like that make you the grounded?
OH: Yes, it did.
Shadow and Act: How are you managing your family and your Hollywood career?
OH: It’s difficult. I just came back from Georgia, doing the Peachtree Village International Film festival as their ambassador, and my Moms and Pops were there with me. I asked them to walk the red carpet with me, and initially my Pops said no. But, it’s a weird thing, because I invite them into my life, and then I am quick to be told that I have changed. It’s a balancing act, especially with my mother. I have a hard time communicating to her that I am learning how to manage this celebrity thing. I mean I use my acting to put food on the table. Many nights though, to clear my head about everything, I get on my bike, and ride around California.
Shadow and Act: You ride to clear your head and to think about life?
OH: To think, and sometimes I don’t want to think. I love the peace that I get from riding. It allows me to get my life together in my head, and it allows me to digest before I have those talks with my family. I don’t want to force my lifestyle down their throats. I cannot juggle this lifestyle alone. My mother said that they need to have a course entitled Hollywood mothers 101. I told her though, before you even get to a course like that, you need to make a choice to fully support your child. I actually need help from my family.
Shadow and Act: In New York, who were your acting teachers?
OH: Kenny Leon from the Alliance Theater referred me to a teacher at the Beacon Theater. I forget the teachers’ name. I met Kenny when he came to speak at UGA.
When I moved to LA, I started at the Playhouse West. I took classes with Jeff Goldbloom. I remember James Franco was around during that time. Scott Caan, James Caan’s son attended classes at Playhouse West too. So, from Playhouse West, where I studied the Meisner technique, I then went to Gloria Gifford for training at the Beverly Hills playhouse. I ended my ongoing training with Ben Guillory. He played Grady in The Color Purple.
Shadow and Act: That name sounds familiar.
OH: He was the dude that Shug Avery married. Remember her saying some stuff like, “ I’s married now.” Remember that? [Laughter]
Shadow and Act: Yes, I remember! Did you train with anyone in New York that you have co starred with on a project?
OH: No not really. I mean, Anthony Mackie was living in New York at the time. And we both starred in my first major project, “Sucka Free City.” But, mostly, the actors I met on my way into the industry have been out here in LA. I knew Jeffrey Wright was in New York, and I later worked with Carmen Ejogo on Sparkle. But I did not start my career with them. I remember meeting Jeffrey at this event in DC honoring Cicely Tyson.
Shadow and Act: Let’s talk more about Sucka Free City. Spike Lee directed that project right?
OH: Yes, Spike directed it. It was a project shot for Showtime. The project ended up being screened as a TV movie on Showtime. It was supposed to be a television series. I felt like it was basically a project that was Showtime’s answer to HBO’s The Wire. But it went beyond specific races. In this project you had all different types of racial gangs in San Francisco. It was about gang life. You had the Asian gang, the black gang, and then this white kid, played by Ben Crowley who moves into to all of that and navigates the gang life. I played Dante.
Shadow and Act: You have a career gap between the years of 2003 and 2006. What were you doing in those years?
OH: I was acting. I took to writing as my medicine to help me stay afloat in this career journey. I wrote about me breaking hearts, and my heart being broken. I wrote about my views whether they were liberal or conservative. I wrote about everything. I wrote about my life. When I did not have paper coming in as green backs, I’d use random pieces of paper for stories. It was like, I got no money, but I have paper to write. So I wrote. My writing was therapy during that time.
Shadow and Act: How did you get back on track with your career after that drought?
OH: I did not have an agent or a manager from like 2004 to 2006. I was getting advice from Denzel and Pauletta during that time in my career. They are like my uncle and aunt. They were helping me on what I should do, and not do, and things like that. I then got with Michael Green my very first real LA agent, and from that moment I got a lot of jobs back to back. I was able to book like three jobs within a few weeks of having him as my agent. With that one agent, I went all the way to the film Kick Ass. I spent like five or six years with them.
Shadow and Act: How did you meet the director of Sparkle, Salim Akil?
OH: I first met him when I was playing this role of a special needs kid at Stella Adler off of Sunset. Robi Reed was at that play. I met him through his sister in law that was at the same theater company. Salim and I have known each other for eleven years.
Shadow and Act: Why has it taken you so long to work with Salim?
OH: Salim actually brought me into an audition for Showtime’s Soul food. But as life would have it, I came to that audition late. I was very late because I was going through a very serious break up and what not. And I remember him telling me that I made Terrance Howard look like a new actor in that audition. He said that I was good, but I’ll always be a character actor and not a leading man if I could not get out of my own way. Instead of backing away from someone that gave constructive criticism like that, I gravitated to him. Since then, Salim and I have been very good friends. When he was scouting locations for Sparkle, in Detroit, he called me up and asked me to audition for either the roles of Stix or Levi.
Shadow and Act: During the Sparkle roundtable that I did with Salim, he mentioned that Mike Epps was his first talent hire. Where were you in that hiring mix?
OH: If Mike was first, I was probably last. I mean we are so close, so in his mind I was probably first. But studios go through various processes in bringing on talent. They care less about talent, and more about bankability. So, with me, they had to work through all of that. I believe that Carmen was brought in right before me. She had submitted a taped audition, and won out of hundreds of submissions.
Shadow & Act: You’ve weaved a career well between independent films and studio films. Is that part of your career strategy?
OH: I love doing both. What was interesting about Sparkle is that Mara wrote it perfectly. She wrote it like an indie film. And it looked like an independent film; it had great grit to it. But it was a studio film. And I believe that one of the platforms is that what you get from working on studio films, and not always what you get from working on independent films.
Shadow & Act: I first saw you in Ava Duvernay’s independent film I Will Follow in Atlanta. Then I saw Middle of Nowhere at Sundance. Your performance literally jumped off screen! You’re a great actor.
OH: Thank you. Middle of Nowhere comes out in theaters on October 17th.
Shadow and Act: Your career also benefited greatly from For Colored Girls. Tyler Perry has a really loyal base of supporters.
OH: I did not necessarily have an interest in working on any of his projects, but it was that film, that role, that I wanted.
Shadow and Act: Have you encountered any major career disappointments recently?
OH: Well, I can tell you that I just found out that I will not be brought back on for Kick Ass 2. I am really disappointed with this news. I have zero explanation as to why I was not brought back for the sequel. I don’t do drugs and I am a nice person. They gave me no explanation as to why I did not get the role. The reason why people don’t get called back to sequels is because they did badly in the original. But with this project, I had good feedback, people liked the role. Donald Faison is in the sequel, and he thought I was on board. I gave four years of my life traveling back and forth from London for that role. And at the time of its filming, I had a son that was passing away. I’d go to London and not stay overnight, and fly nine hours to LA to handle that commitment. I have sung the films praises in interviews without confirming if I was in it or not. I was also filming Dark Blue at the time. Both were unaware that I was doing both projects at the same time. It’s impossible for me not to be upset about not being cast in that project.
Shadow and Act: Well, if you look at great careers, the so called setbacks are actually set ups. What projects do you have coming up?
OH: Thank you Masha. I have the BET original scripted show Being Mary Jane with Gabrielle Union. I’m not on the show the whole season though. Then I have A Pure Life, with Vera Famiga and Elle Fanning.
Shadow and Act: In closing this interview, how do you feel that your southern upbringing has helped you navigate through Hollywood?
OH: Now that I am approaching a career, were I am fully in the Hollywood world. I sing the praises of Georgia more than ever. The new Atlanta is more like Hollywood, and when we were in Atlanta as kids, I was blessed to see blacks with an identity outside of Hollywood. So in a sense, my upbringing has allowed me to create a life where now that I live in Hollywood, I know that another world exists outside of where I now exist.
My priorities are leaning more towards family, and I credit my southern upbringing to that. I was raised in the church as well, and God plays a big role in my upbringing and my life. I remember as a boy, seeing men open doors for women and I just always remember all the memories. I spent many summers in New York as well, but it’s Georgia that I remember all too well.
Once again, we thank Omari for his time and forthrightness. It was greatly appreciated.
You can see him in Sparkle, which is currently in theaters; up next, catch him in Ava DuVernay's lauded sophomore feature, Middle Of Nowhere, in October.