He next stars in the upcoming musical drama Sparkle alongside a bevy of talented artists such as Jordin Sparks, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Cee-Lo, and Whitney Houston, in her final performance. The actor portrays Levi, who moves to Detroit and gets caught up in the Motown musical scene of the 1960s. I recently had the chance to speak with Omari Hardwick about his experiences working with such a diverse cast, and much more. Take a look at our conversation.
I know that a lot of times, actors don't exactly know what they're going out for, or who they will be starring with. I was wondering if you knew the whole time that Whitney Houston was attached, and if that altered your expectations or not?
Omari Hardwick: That's a cool question. Yeah, I did know immediately that she was attached. Actually, I think I caught wind that Jordin was attached first, and Whitney shortly after that. There was just a moment of anticipation and excitement about getting a chance to work with her, and whether or not she could pull off what I think she very beautifully pulled off.
The film centers on these three sisters coming up through Motown in the 60s. Can you talk a bit about how your character Levi fits into the story?
Omari Hardwick: He's attached to the older sister, played by the very talented Carmen Ejogo, who goes by Sister. He falls in love with Sister. He's very excited about being this kid who was in the military and trying to find his way from Kansas City to the big city of Detroit. This girl is interested in him and he's very excited and gets a sense of swagger, if you will. All of that comes crashing down for him, when she turns her attention to Mike Epps' character. He doesn't necessarily go into a downward spiral, but he definitely makes some choices make him very different from the beginning of the movie.
That's quite an arc.
Omari Hardwick: Yeah. To go back to your first question, I might have felt more excited for that opportunity, not just the opportunity to work with these actors, many of whom I've worked with before or knew personally. For me, I'm always looking for the opportunity for a character that challenges me and lets me play two for the price of one. That's what I was most excited about for this one.
It's always great to see Mike Epps. He always has such an amazing energy.
Omari Hardwick: That's a good word choice for that, definitely an amazing energy.
I believe this was shot in both L.A. and Detroit. Can you talk about how much was shot on location?
Omari Hardwick: Actually, we were only in Detroit. There were parts of L.A. shot upon completion of the movie. I think Derek (Luke) and Jordin (Sparks) shot some stuff on the bridge in Pasadena. That was basically an appendage to my character's arc, but no, everything was in Detroit. We got there in early October, and we remained for 40 or 50 days. We left in the middle of November. It was a beautiful experience. I had been to Detroit, via theater, years ago. I visited the University of Michigan, when I was recruited out of high school for football, but I hadn't been there since doing theater there, when I was 24 or 25 years old. It was great to go back. The soul is still very resounding. I hit the streets and jogged everywhere, wrote poetry. I just had a ball. I went to a lot of the cafes and listened to jazz and blues late night. I definitely did Detroit, and I've probably been back there five times since we finished.
The city has such a unique vibe and look to it. Were there areas that they didn't even need to dress up for this time period?
Omari Hardwick: You're right. There were some things that didn't need to be aged at all. You talk about Cliff Bell's, where the girls do their opening number in the movie, and a couple of other theaters where they do their ending numbers, all of that stuff was set. My character's first date with Carmen's character was at Coney Island, which is a cool hot dog stand, and we basically shot it like it was. There were pictures to the left and right of us, people who mattered to the city and mattered to the restaurant, and they were still up. There wasn't a lot of set dressing that had to be done on a lot of the locations.
That's great. The 60s was such a cool time period for a lot of different things. Were you excited to get into some of these 60s clothes?
Omari Hardwick: Yeah man, definitely. I was so excited about that. We had (costume designer) Ruth E. Carter doing it, and I had worked with her prior to this. She got down and her whole team of wardrobe assistants were just phenomenal. She set us up very quickly. I know she was nominated for Malcolm X, but I think this should afford her a nomination as well. I'm lucky because I have two granddad's still living, and I'm 30-plus years of age. I have two grandfathers who are still on this Earth, and they might be most proud and excited about seeing me in those items of that era.
Can you talk a bit about just the aura of Whitney on the set? I believed she executive produced this as well, and this was intended to be her big acting comeback. Can you talk about sharing the stage with her, and what she really brings to the production?
Omari Hardwick: For me, and I'll speak for you because you're obviously post-23 years of age, but anyone 23 years of age and up, we are definitely fans of a person who is larger than life, when you talk about Whitney Houston. We grew up on her music, and on her aura, as you say, and this thing stars bring that you can never put your finger on, but they have, the intangible. I don't know many people on my radar that I could put next to her. I could count them on one hand, for sure. To then be jettisoned into this reality of working with her, I don't think I will necessarily know the impact that it had, until perhaps maybe halfway revered by my own kids in the way that the world has revered her. Just to have my own children, one day, give me that adoration that the world, myself included, has given her, I don't think I will really know what it meant to be on the same stage with her. As an artist and a businessman, I just jumped in. I just go. As an athlete, you don't think about the fact that you're playing across this wide receiver. If you're a quarterback, you don't think, 'Oh my God. I'm throwing to Randy Moss.' You do know that you're in the company of greatness and brilliance. As a producer and as a woman wearing that hat, we were at one of those lounges where they play jazz and blues, these 20-year-olds playing jazz and blues, which makes Detroit special. They're not doing rap or rock and roll, they're doing blues and jazz at 20 years of age. We sat and Whitney gave me an hour of wisdom on where I needed to be, where she saw me going, what she knew about me, what I should watch out for. The era is different. It's the computer age, and you have to sell yourself differently. It was about an hour of wisdom, about a week before production began. She felt like an aunt to me. She was just beautiful. I said it in other interviews, but she was full of butterfiles. What I mean by that is it was more like if we know that the caterpillar one day becomes that thing called butterfly, it felt like you were aware of the transformation she had in life prior. I will say that, in sharing the stage with her, on the set of Sparkle, there was a transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. As the days ensued, and we worked more into those 40 or 50 days of shooting, I saw her get way more comfortable with the characters, way more comfortable with the cast members, way more comfortable with wearing the producer's hat.
You have a couple of intriguing new projects coming out like Bolden! and Middle of Nowhere. Do you know when these are coming out? Can you talk about your characters in those?
Omari Hardwick: Absolutely. Bolden!, since you mentioned that first, that was done, literally five years ago. A couple of us were brought back for a silent film in the same movie, that was supposed to prelude the movie. We have still not had any kind of information on when that movie will drop. It was done by Dan Pritzker, who is from the Hyatt Regency family, and very much an artist. He wanted to do exactly what he wanted to do before we put this out. Now, in my opinion, I don't think that he thought it would be a five-year thing, but I can't wait to see it. It's beyond the 60s, it's like 1930s. Middle of Nowhere was at Sundance Film Festival. We shot it last July, and Ava DuVernay, the ridiculously-gifted ex-publicist marketing guru, now director, she did it in July, and we had it in Sundance in January. In less than seven months that movie was showcased and she won Best Director, and that will drop October 12. My character in that one has been incarcerated, literally and figuratively. He is an incarcerated husband, and I say figuratively incarcerated because he's trying to maintain this young household in an insecure way that leads him to making decisions that are definitely not done in the way that a secure man, who has freedom to make very manly decisions, would make them. He thinks there are things, objects, that will make his wife happy, and it backfires on him. You find him in jail, but the movie really takes off when the love story of this man, now incarcerated, and his wife, on visitation, have to carry out their love and affinity. They aren't able to be physical, because they're literally at a visitation table, yet, through eyes and verbage, they are enough to show the viewer how to communicate that love, that they physically cannot manifest. She leaves the jail every day, for four years, but decides to remain the wife, and not to move on with her life, when I'm the character that's basically begging her to move on, because I know what's happening in jail. It's a beautiful story. It's another indie to add to my list, while trying to juggle the Kick-Ass' of the world at the same time.
What would you like to say to fans of yours, fans of Whitney's, or just fans of the 60s in general, about why they should check out Sparkle in theaters this weekend?
Omari Hardwick: Because of the fact that we did a reprise of a movie that was done before, and, first and foremost, in my opinion, fans should always give the remix a shot, right? I definitely like the first albums, but if they remix an album, I think it's at least worth listening to, even if it's about laughing at it and saying, 'I don't know what they were trying to attempt.' I think that, without the laughter, hopefully, I think fans will get a better remix, or a remix that has added to the first film that we saw. I think it gives them an opportunity to have a piece of Whitney. I don't want them to go in thinking that they have to judge Whitney with this large ruler or barometer of whether it was an epic performance by her, but they should just go in looking at it like this is an opportunity to be close to her. What we have as artists is the immortalization opportunity that others don't have, because our work is lasting, it's there forever to view. I think for those who truly miss Whitney every day, I think they just need to feel close to her again, and this movie will allow that. In feeling close to her, you'll feel close to other actors and actresses and themes that will do Detroit justice, do the era justice, and, hopefully does the writer, Mara Brock Akil, and the director, Salim Akil, a lot of justice as well. Just give us a shot.
That's all I have. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you, Omari. I really enjoyed it.
Omari Hardwick: All good, brother. Good luck with you.
You can watch Omari Hardwick as Levi in Sparkle, arriving in theaters nationwide August 17.
Sources: Brian Gallagher, Photo: JOE DEANGELIS
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