An Elegant, Criminal Ghost: Omari Hardwick on Poetry, Power and Black Women Behind the Camera

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Last month The New York Times published an article on the process of “ghosting” out of relationships. If you’re a hip-hop fan, the sight of that word in the headline of a Times article might be both surprising and thrilling. “Yo shorty, I’m Ghost,” is a line I remember hearing in Belly—it’s something you say, if you’re Nas, for example, when you’re about to leave—and now almost 20 years later— it’s in the Times. It’s fascinating when something that is unique to black culture begins creeping its way into the mainstream. On the one hand, there’s always the issue of cultural appropriation (or cultural smudging, as Azealia Banks once put it). On the other hand, it’s a simple reflection of universality. We are all drawn to much of the same—cool words and phrases, music that speaks to something inside of us, and captivating storytelling. Power on Starz has all of this and more—with a unique antihero at its head, who’s somehow simultaneously elegant, criminal, and desperate to ghost certain aspects his life.

Omari Hardwick’s James “Ghost” St. Patrick might be reminiscent of the ghosts of beloved characters past. Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, and Don Draper come to mind when you consider this smart, tough, charming protagonist, who’s often done in by his own desire to escape the one thing we all, universally, cannot escape—the past. It also doesn’t help that his past is very much his present, and as he attempts to leave behind his drug dealing lifestyle (and some of the people who come along with it) to go legit, he struggles in the space between those two worlds. Some of us mourning the loss of the Draper/Whitman show are finding solace in James/Ghost, and his story, which is similarly bold and sexy (although a touch more gangsta).

Paste caught up with Hardwick to talk about his background in poetry, Season Two, and the incredible black women directors, producers and showrunners (like Ava DuVernay and Courtney Kemp Agboh) who’ve helped shape his career.

Paste Magazine: I know it’s been a while since you first read the script for Power, but can you talk about your early impressions? Was there a particular scene or moment that stood out to you as unique?
Omari Hardwick: When I initially got the script I felt like my character was quite fleshed out, in terms of a pilot episode. Obviously, he was not one-dimensional. He was more like three or four-dimensional, with three characters in one—Jamie, James and Ghost. That stood out to me immediately. My only concern was whether all the characters would be fleshed out the same way. I just had this notion that the show would go on for a lot of years, and that there’s a lot of story to be told. And if that happens, it can’t just be told through the eyes of one character.

And that’s been the biggest thing for me—seeing how all the individual characters are fleshed out, all the way down to someone like Ruiz, played by Luis Antonio Ramos. So it definitely makes me proud, that I’m leading such an ensemble and not a one-man show so to speak.

In the pilot episode the moment of standout was obviously when James goes from club guy, where he’s wearing his jeans and his coat—his armor of being James and masking parts of who he really is—and he’s told by Sinqua Walls’ character that he needs to get downstairs because Tommy’s doing something. The scene follows me downstairs into the cellar that’s under the club and I have to get a guy to stop withholding information so that we can find out who’s been hitting our criminal organization. And, of course, there’s me putting a bullet straight in his head, and then acting like nothing happened—making that transition from being a monster, back to being a captivating, elegant citizen. That stood out to me. You have a lot on TV, and it felt like a compliment, that they wanted an actor who would be able to pull off such a transition, not only in that episode of course, but throughout the story this guy is constantly transitioning.

Paste: I imagine that your career has been honed, in a way, by some really incredible black women directors and showrunners.
Hardwick: That’s so true.

Paste: You’ve worked with Mara Brock Akil, Ava DuVernay, and now Courtney Kemp Agboh. Can you talk about some of what you’ve learned over the years and how you bring those lessons to Power?
Hardwick: We are a total of our sum parts, right? I came from a family of very strong women—black women. And if I go back as far as my great grandmothers, there was always that love and the ability to be nurturing. Then I grew up in a household where my father was the one who was more affectionate with me. I was definitely a Daddy’s boy. As I’ve grown into adulthood I’d say my Mom really helped in terms of me approaching these directors, because she was very loving, tough. She didn’t wear a lot of emotions on her sleeve. I’d say my artistic bent definitely came from my father, who was a trial lawyer. And if you’re smart you know that a trial lawyer isn’t that different from an actor. He was a poet as well.

So I came from something familiar that allowed me to walk onto these sets and embrace the full regalia of these women. And it’s not just relegated to being black women. There’s Lillah McCarthy who put me on TNT when I was testing for Saved, which ultimately led to Dark Blue. You know it’s ironic—[Save director] Darnell Martin is also a black woman from the Bronx. I was supposed to go out for the pilot as a crystal meth addict, and I turned into number two on the call sheet because Martin said, “He’s not just that.” The character description said “John Goodman type, 6 foot, three inches, ex-football player.” (laughs) Obviously, I’m 5 foot, 10 inches, African-American, Omari. Now, Lillah’s an Irish woman from New York whose father was an actor. When they were testing me for Saved she kept pushing for me, so she’s been just as influential.

But in terms of the specific train that is “black woman,” that involves Darnell Martin, Carmen Madden of Everyday Black Man, Ava DuVernay, Mara Brock Akil, Debra Martin Chase—she’s the producer of Sparkle. And once you get to Courtney Kemp Agboh, I realized that I was familiar with that. I was raised looking at women who were strong, and they weren’t really into playing race cards, or playing gender cards. I didn’t grow up around women who were like, “Well, let the boys do that, and let the girls do that.” I didn’t really see that in my house. And my wife and I are raising my daughter with the same mentality, so she’s not afraid to be a doer. A lot of times women are taught that they can’t be doers.

I’ve also had great experiences working with men, but there are these strong women who have happened to be black. They can see these parts of me, and it’s very familiar to them.

Paste: I got to talk with Courtney recently and I asked her to tell me about a moment where you really surprised her on set. She talked about the scene in the Season Two premiere where you finally find Tommy and he tells you about Angela. She was so impressed with your ability to speak volumes without using dialogue—just by giving a look. It got me thinking about you as a poet, because so much of writing poetry has to do with what isn’t said, or the silence and spaces that the writer uses between words. How do you see some of those sensibilities as a writer contributing to your work with this character?
Hardwick: I think it’s tomato, tomahto. The special people in my life that tend to give me artistic advice—and maybe my strong, stubborn Capricorn self hasn’t really thought about this—but, they all say that I wouldn’t be able to consistently be the actor that I’ve been if I stopped writing. For years, Shannon, I didn’t necessarily know what that meant. It’s been a long road for me, and it’s the proverbial Hollywood story of the guy staying in his car with no money, washing up at the YMCA. I was trying to pay the bills with poems, and it was easy to memorize my poems, because I’d be riding my bike in California trying to memorize them before going on stage at a poetry lounge. For me, [poetry and acting] are sort of conjoined.

Speaking of Courtney, she gets frustrated with me. Not usually from me asking her to change the dialogue—I have a high level of trust with her. She calls me a writer, and I’m honored that she calls me that. I’m definitely going to write scripts one day. But there are times when, being a poet, and she’s a brainiac script writer ,my thing’s a little bit different. So, if anything, I don’t ask her to change the dialogue—I ask her to take stuff out. She’s gotten used to it, and she’s okay with it now. In the beginning, you’re not necessarily able to do that. Joe [Sikora] and I, we come from stage [acting]; he’s a Chicago graffiti artist and I’m a poet. For some of the actors, the writers have figured out, “Let’s not over-fill this with words, they will fill in the colors with their facial expressions.” Words become a little bit too much at times, so I trust the poet in me to be able to fill that dialogue.

Paste: Playing Ghost, are there any other popular—or unpopular, or not so well known—characters in TV or film that you might pull on for inspiration?
Hardwick: You’re asking some cool ass questions.

Paste: Good!
Hardwick: The popular ones are all there. It’s obvious—The Sopranos, with James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. Obviously, Stringer Bell [from The Wire], because early in my career I looked at Idris Elba’s ability to play those transitional moments. Michael K. Williams—it’s a little different, but I think he was more like Tommy on the show. In terms of movies, [I look to] what Denzel Washington did with Frank Lucas. But I tend to go out of the box, so I really like to watch the History Channel, and I watch what [Travis Fimmel] is doing with Vikings. I just happened to do a movie with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and I love what he’s been doing on Game of Thrones.

What I wanted, and this is the poetic thought in me, was to make a very urban show be as Shakespearean as possible, as nomadic as possible, as super heroic as possible—even though he’s a guy who’s destroying certain segments of New York with his drug distribution. I wanted it to be something that was way more elegant—even though drug dealing isn’t necessarily elegant. I wanted him to be a character that we don’t necessarily see. And I though that [Agboh] did an amazing job.

Now a lot of people will point the finger and say Ghost has a woman problem. But Ghost doesn’t have the problem of wanting a lot of women. He has the dream of one woman, his high school sweetheart. The other thing he’s kryptonited by—if I can make up a word—is the fact that he wants to go legit. He wants to be clean, and there are people in his life that don’t want him to be clean. So I needed to go outside of the box, in terms of what we see on TV, for that.

Paste: Last season really laid the groundwork for what now feels like an incredibly explosive season. I know you can’t say much, but is there anything you can tell us about what else we should be prepared for?
Hardwick: You know, we live in a world where TV has become this new middle class of film—the $40 million budget for film is now TV. There is such a frenzied, binge-watching, overnight success, addictive, overnight thing. We only come off like “the new crack” because [Agboh] wet the palettes of the people who like this style of show, this genre that we’re telling this story within. The combination of Courtney, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Starz trusting that I was the right lead, gets us something where people are like, “I need more, I want more!”

So this year, you get enough of your palette wet with the stakes being raised. You get consequences and a level of violence that you wouldn’t have seen as much of in Season One. Consequences have to be paid for the choices that we started to make at the end of that season.

Paste: Do you have any other projects in the works that we should know about?
Hardwick: Yes, Shotcaller with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, which will likely be released sometime in the spring of next year. It’s a great film about the prison system, where the prison system is the antagonist. We just finished wrapping in New Mexico.

Paste: I’m looking forward to it, and to more of your work. Thank you so much for this.
Hardwick: Thank you.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.