In visiting the set of Sparkle, the music-centered film set in 1960s Detroit, one of the more interesting conversations took place with Omari Hardwick. The actor plays Levi, a member of the church’s choir and friend to the sisters who start a girl group similar to The Supremes. Hardwick, who’s previously been seen in Kick-Ass, The A-Team, and For Colored Girls, has a fascinating backstory, having almost played for the San Diego Chargers and being an active poet. In my conversation along with other journalists on set in November, Hardwick generously discusses how he prepares as an actor, the challenges in doing press for films, and how he bonded with his fellow cast mates. Speaking before her death, he comments on working with Whitney Houston, giving light to a less-readily seen side of her, while speaking about her with great reverie. Our time spent with Hardwick was quite absorbing; his candor and sense of understanding of the balance between his craft and the industry around him is reflective and unguarded. Hit the jump for the full interview and here’s my set visit.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the film, here’s the trailer:
HARDWICK: Everything…I started out—it was ironic because when I got on the plane in LA, before boarding the plane I met a guy who was actually limbless, and he invited me to a Tigers game. So, upon me arriving in Detroit, he kind of held me to it, so I went to a Tigers game with him. He sort of set out the precedent for my Detroit experience, and then I got out in the streets, and I ran. I usually run in the hood, ’cause that’s what life is to me, so I ran, past Heidelberg and down Cass and past Midtown and did the whole thing and, I actually got a poem out that day, so that kind of set the tone of my Detroit experience.
But it’s gone from that all the way to hanging out with the legendary president of the Detroit Pistons and Joe Dumars and his beautiful family. So I’ve really done Detroit. It’s been great, yeah.
Can you tell us about your character, and can you explain if you have any kind of similarities in your own personal life?
HARDWICK: Well Levi, yeah, there’s definitely similarities. When you start out on a project as an actor, you know, you approach the character from the standpoint of maybe writing a list—even if it’s a mental list that you make—of the adjectives that the character has or that character possesses. And, oftentimes, you know, there’s a list that might include one to ten adjectives that this character has that you don’t—as Omari, as the actor, and I think, with Levi, there was definitely five up front.
And maybe the similar adjectives that stand out in my mind are his commitment to his family—for him in this movie, his family being Derek Luke’s character and Stix and just the loyalty that he has. I come from a family of boys and men, and a younger sister, but was raised with three other brothers, so, I think that was a natural thing for me to naturally adapt to….I didn’t find it very challenging to do that. I think the other thing is, there are a lot of layers to Levi, and Mara Brock has done a very good job as the writer of maybe exploring more of those layers and adding more texture to this cat.
And I think that…you know…I was a kid who was raised on Motown classics, but I like Elton John, too, and I listen to Bonnie Raitt, and then I listen to Tupac all day, so there’s such a dichotomy between me, and [the dichotomy between me and being] a former athlete. But, yet, when football season was over at the University of Georgia, I was on stage doing a Shakespearian play or, you know, playing Lyons in August Wilson’s Fences, so there’s such a dichotomous nature to me, and I think Levi has that, but not only has it, but more of it in this version of the movie than in the prior version, so, yeah, it’s in me. There’s enough Levi in me in there.
Can you talk to us about what it’s like working on set with Whitney Houston? I mean, she’s this icon; she’s an actress; she also is the producer of this film, so what is she like when the cameras aren’t rolling, and what’s the experience been like for you?
HARDWICK: She’s crazy. (Laughs). She’s silly. You know, for me, it’s ironic because…I think about everybody in the movie, and I think about the baby: obviously, the pubescent subject is Jordin, right? And she’s this 20-year-old wide-eyed bushy-tailed, doesn’t-even-know-if-she-should-ask-for-more-takes [girl]. That’s who she is. And then you got Derek and I who’ve done some work, you know. We’ve done work, but in many instances, for me of course, I just came off of working with a legend in Janet Jackson [in For Colored Girls] so, when you think about the range of Jordin all the way to the highest, person or persons of experience on a project…in this one—it being solely Whitney Houston and what she’s done just in terms of for us and not only for us, but for entertainment purposes—she’s changed entertainment. I think, in 2011, it’s a very different Whitney than what we would get if we did this movie ten years ago, obviously.
She’s been very transparent, you know, kind of like the way [we’re talking right now]. It’s been interesting, because we’ll have lunch, and some of the most dynamic conversations that we’ve had up to date have been off camera, like you say. Yesterday, I leaned into her neck, and I was asking her to sing “You Give Good Love to Me.” And so I asked her to sing it, and I started humming it and doing it no justice, obviously, (laughs) but, when I was humming it, you know, she just went to a place, and she said, “Omari, that’s so long ago…”
So it was, you know…it was just…there’s such a beautiful mystery to her, even though what is out in the world seems to be that of non-mystery. We all have that access to what she’s done, and who she is, and she’s been transparent to us and been very much an aunt figure, a big sister figure, a mother figure to somebody like Jordin—but, by the same token, still maintaining that sexy 1980’s mystery that we don’t have enough of anymore.
HARDWICK: As a black man…I think about my grandfathers when I approach roles and when I’m thanking God for getting these roles—and they both fortunately are still living, and so my father’s father is 84, and my Mom’s pops is 85—and I grew up in a very urban area of Decatur, Georgia. But I had these black powerful African-American men who were very much of the cloak that Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther King] dealt with, and they wore that cloak, and they wore it proudly so, you know, I think maybe one of the greatest compliments that I ever really received was an interviewer who said, “You remind of the men of yesteryear,” and it was a great comment. I was thirty-one years old, so this is four years ago, or five years ago when they made the comment, but for me, I think when I look at a character like Levi, I think a lot of actors—if they don’t come from that foundation or that base of having those black men that make them proud, and make them understand a little bit more fully who they are before they’re auditioning—I think they might approach the character in a very…monolithic way, in a very myopic view, in a very “this is who he is, this is the line, this is all I’m going to let the Negro be.”
And I think, for me, because I had such a range of what a black man was, you know, from graduating with post-graduate degrees all the way down to reminding me that, at any day, at 15 years old, I would be pulled over when driving a car— I think I approach those characters way more multi-layered than the text has them to read or has them to be.
So…every character from that standpoint I try to make as fat and as full as possible even if it’s supposed to be a linear character. [I think I approach every part with that edge and that darkness] but when a white American male plays a part, and it’s got a little bit of edge to it, literally, the journalist in the world of media says, “Oh, it’s edgy.” And, when we play it, it’s intimidating! (Laughs) And it’s dark! And it’s aggressive! And it’s abrasive! So, I definitely don’t shy away from the reality that there’s a deep brow here, and there’s darker skin than a white guy playing roles that I play or a raspy voice. I mean, I can’t change who I am.
But at the end of the day, I can always change the betrayal of the character, if the character was supposed to be betrayed in just one particular light. I think you can play it in so many different lights, by making them as educated as possible while being as edgy as possible, you know, just playing between that.
HARDWICK: That’s funny. We ask Whitney for help on that. (Laughs) We get permission, right? I I got a lot of training off of For Colored Girls, (Laughs) ’cause there so much estrogen in that. (Laughs)
I think, by nature you know, I’m very attracted and I gravitate toward the very strong girl who can watch a ballgame, but who’s also extremely feminine…So, I’m watching Monday Night Football with the youngest piece of estrogen on the movie (being Jordin). You know, she’s got a Pops who played football. I came from a life of attempting to play for the San Diego Chargers and play the season…so I think the most effective way is to figure out individually with each girl what you have in common with her.
And, so my conversations with Tika [Sumpter] are very different than my conversations with Jordin. So, ironically, we were at a Lions game, and I started teaching. The whole first half, Tika asked what football was, and I said, “You didn’t even date a ballplayer?” She said “Yeah, I dated them…I was a cheerleader, but I had no concept of what was going on.”(Laughs)
So there’s this, you know, beautiful sister who got no concept of football and has definitely been around virile, testosterone-filled athletes, so it’s like—it’s a little confusing. And then you go over to Jordin who’s this American Idol image, right, and still not that far off in terms of being the beautiful person that she is. But there’s way more than meets the eye when it comes to her and all of them, and so there’s been that. And then you get, of course, the London-bred Carmen [Ejogo] who is very artistic, and I’m really artsy-fartsy and weird. I mean, you know, like an artsy athlete, and I’m a poet, and…I’m weird to me, so dinner with Carmen has almost been from that angle.
And then dinner with Whitney just feels like I’m back in Decatur [Georgia]. I mean, I think you just individually try to figure out how to open the door for them, the figurative concept of it. Let them in, and then you kind of adjust, you know what I mean? They’re the women, so you just kind of–you let them do what they do…
You spoke earlier about Whitney Houston may not having been the same person ten years ago than what she is today. You had an amazing year last year with the A-Team and For Colored Girls and I Will Follow and all the other projects. Do you feel that you’re a different person in your craft today than maybe a year ago before those projects?
HARDWICK: Absolutely different… and we kind of talk—it’s funny, because we talked about it yesterday at lunch with Whitney, and we were talking about how, you know, three years ago I was hiding in work…and so you kind of sometime…you know, you’ve been told your whole life, “Be careful what you ask for…be careful what you wish for,” and they mean in a way of like, once you wish for it or ask for it, you might not necessarily know in what way it’s going to come. And so for me, I had gone through so much pain and so much tragedy and so much…so much stuff…and so I was just burying myself in work, and I found that when I left the set—and like you said, it was rapid succession; so it was two seasons of Dark Blue while juggling Kick Ass with Nic Cage in London while doing A-Team in Vancouver—and then coming back and doing For Colored Girls and episodes of Chase where I had to be the craziest dude in the world…and then go do the red carpet and smile for people like you guys [journalists] in New York for the opening of For Colored Girls…so there’s so much on this that you have to be at…
But, really truly, you have to be at this thing, at this place, at this…fortitude that’s behind your eyes. If people look deeper, they could see a lot of stuff that’s brewing which is not quite healthy, and, [because] artists and athletes are very similar, we get this beautiful opportunity to make the unhealthy look healthy…’cause you get on screen, and you just kind of do what you do. And you look larger than life, and you’re playing these heroic figures, but you’re playing them, you know? The real heroes are somewhere else dealing with it in a very real way, and you’re just kind of like pulling on from experiences that you’ve had that make it look like you’re really a soldier who’s in pain, but the pain that I was personally going through had it where work had become such a drug for me.
And I did not have enough wisdom at the time in terms of keeping it really balanced and knowing that at the end of the day, it was just that, you know? It’s just a job, and by nature, I’d try not to—it almost can sound pretentious to actually say this, so I’ll preface it with I mean it in the most humble way possible—but I try really hard to not make this thing bigger than it really is. You know what I mean? I came up with a mom who’s teaching special education kids and making nothing in terms of her pay, and then we get adorned. Nowadays, we don’t make the money that Denzel and Tony made, but we get adorned, and we get followed, and we get asked these questions as if we’re these great people when kids don’t even really know who we are.
So that can become a very twisted thing, the concept of celebrity and fame, and I think that prior to those movies that you speak of, I probably did not have a real balance of ‘the business side of Omari Hardwick’ and ‘the artist side of Omari’, and I think now doing a project, I’m able to kind of merge the two together and step out and kind of look at it as “that just is business.” And I show up and do this [interviews], but maybe it’s a little bit more imperative for me to come to Detroit and let my presence be known in Detroit, versus just playing a character in a movie…so I try to keep the character as minimal as possible, but still serve Salim and everybody else. And I think I’m doing better now than I would’ve three years ago with that, but good question for sure.
You said that when you got here, you jogged through the hood of Detroit and wrote a poem. Do you write often while you’re out here, and if so, has any particular moment inspired a piece of work?
HARDWICK: I’ve been writing for years, you know, and when I get to a particular place, city, or different locale, I find myself first of all being challenging by those that love me to write more. I’ve heard it often said by very, very close friends, they’ll say, “Omari, you know, you’re a good actor, but you’re an even better writer…” and so maybe my preparation as an actor is to get out on page—not just in a journal type of fashion, but in a poem type of fashion—the breakdown of the character that I’m about to play, and not necessarily writing it from Levi’s perspective as if he was writing it, but just in terms of the arc of who this guy is, maybe the arc of Sparkle as a story.