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Power trip

Omari Hardwick is the true heart and intense soul of ‘Power’

Omari Hardwick has approached this whole Hollywood business the way he handled himself on the field as a defensive back on his way to becoming one of the All-Time Georgia Football Lettermen at the University of Georgia. As a Bulldog, he prevented wide receivers from catching the ball. As a rising Hollywood star dashing into the third season of the hit show Power, he’s intercepted a fairly big challenge, and has scored an impressive touchdown. And then some.

“Ghost,” Hardwick said, “is one of my favorites. It was just a gift to get him.”

Ghost is the complicated character he brings to life in Power, which last year became the most popular original series in Starz’s 21-year history. As the season was ending, the show drew a record 6.9 million viewers each week, making it the network’s most highly watched original series on record — a huge number for a network with 23.3 million subscribers. By comparison, the second season of Outlander, another hot show on the network, averaged a little over 1 million viewers during its second season. Starz now surpasses Showtime with subscribers, making it the No. 2 pay cable network in the business. Power, a show that features a large African-American and Latino ensemble — including Naturi Naughton (as estranged wife Tasha) and Lela Loren (as his lover Angela Valdez) — helped power Starz to a huge deal with Lionsgate. Outlander does tend to grab the headlines, though.

“That’s what’s been great about Power … there’s a lot of fanfare that comes immediately for certain shows. Power was a beautiful, slow build.” –Omari Hardwick

Right now, Hardwick, 43, is his own human highlight reel. Every time he graces the screen as James “Ghost” St. Patrick, an “elite New York City drug dealer desperately trying to get out of the game,” Hardwick’s hooks go deeper into viewers’ hearts. His star is rising and his life is evolving. “This is the first time I’ve felt this level of loneliness in my whole life,” he said. “For me, life changed at 38 years old. I was in the process of making a family when I was making a big, big name for myself.” Hardwick has been married to former publicist Jennifer Pfautch since 2012, and they have two children. “I definitely feel like I’m on my own island at times — with the most people around me that have ever been around me.”

Hardwick’s own character is just as complex and interesting as the one he portrays on Power. He’s a guy who dominated on the football field in college, and went on to play for the San Diego Chargers — and after physical training was done, he ran over to the poetry lounge to perform. There was no staying inside the box for him. “If I could show all of my colors in five hours in a day, then you might have it,” Hardwick said.

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Courtesy of Starz

But at last, he’s a leading man — a title that should have been bestowed on him after his performance in Ava Duvernay’s 2011 I Will Follow, in which he co-starred with Salli Richardson-Whitfield and earned some of the best reviews of his career, and again after 2012’s Sundance darling Middle of Nowhere, another Duvernay-directed film in which he portrayed a complex inmate trying to figure things out with his wife Ruby, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi. “He is the only actor that I’ve worked with twice,” Duvernay has said of Hardwick.“He [has] an openness you don’t see in a lot of black actors now. They have to be hypermasculine and you almost never see the vulnerability.”

Truth is, Hardwick should have been a big star even before the Duvernay films. He’s been working in stuff like 2012’s Sparkle and 2010’s For Colored Girls and showing up in guest roles on everything from BET’s Being Mary Jane to CBS’ CSI: Miami and NBC’s Crossing Jordan since he started acting on film in 2001. Not that he’s not complaining about the snail’s pace in Hollywood.

“Omari has a unique combination of athleticism, talent, power, intelligence … a sense of real purpose. He was raised right.” —Courtney A. Kemp

“I’m aware that people who are running up to me are oftentimes not necessarily knowing who Omari is,” he said. “They want a picture so that they too can feel that rush of what it feels like to be famous … I’m humble enough to know,Yes, but it is true love.’ So when a fan gives me a level of true love in a unique, creative way … I hear it loud and clear … and I thank God for it.”

Timing is everything. The Savannah, Georgia-born Hardwick was at the top of show creator/showrunner Courtney A. Kemp’s list to take on the role of Ghost. Kemp is the mastermind behind the show. She’s the person who will still sometimes go and sit at a Starbucks and eavesdrop on conversations to help bring authenticity to the very real way her characters speak on Power. “Omari has a unique combination of athleticism, talent, power, intelligence … a sense of real purpose,” said Kemp. “He was raised right. Omari is a man, you know what I mean? He’s not a boy, and I think there’s a lot that goes along with that. This is the right part at the right time. James Gandolfini is someone that I think of … After years of slaving as a character actor, he becomes a lead that is the right part at the right time.”

Everything Hardwick has done before now has led us to Ghost. And as we head into Season 3 after a Season 2 of deception and intrigue, Hardwick’s character is ducking and dodging the law, an estranged wife, balancing his relationship with his lover and his children, and trying to stay alive. Ghost is the character this moment needed to happen with. It’s attracting Hardwick attention in Hollywood. Ghost is multilayered, complex, intriguing, and Hardwick’s portrayal makes him captivating. “My college roommate used to say, ‘Omari, yours will be a marathon run,’ ” he said. “And I think that that’s what’s been great about Power … It was a beautiful, slow build, but for a long time, we were grassroots, and word of mouth.”

And though social media has tested him before, Hardwick credits that world drumming up the support — and eyeballs — for the series. Fans began consuming it On Demand, binge-watching the first season and eating up the second season while it was happening live. Fans are likely to watch the show live this season — word is out just how good it is. All of the characters in this series are flawed — Angela Valdez portrays an assistant U.S. attorney who is determined to take down the biggest drug dealer in New York City, but once she figures out that it’s the same man she’s in love with, of course things becomes complicated. Hers isn’t the only character grappling with a life that makes whatever us civilians go through look like peanuts. It’s the reason that the show’s executive producer (and co-star) Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson thinks the program works so well.

“We tried to make [the characters] as human as possible,” said Jackson. “And people have compassion for people when they see them under circumstances that they know are real situations. They’re living with excess. They’re — financially — as free as a bird. [Ghost and Tasha] have a lot of money from illegal activities and then they start to look around and want to invest and do things from a more positive perspective … [but] there are so many dead ends.”

Thing is, Hardwick has never been a one-note person. He pulled off being a football player, a brother in a notable socially-oriented fraternity, being a poet and daring to dream about launching a Hollywood career. His dream project? A biopic of famed poet Gil Scott-Heron’s life. Hardwick officially acquired the rights to develop his life story last year. Scott Heron’s Me and the Devil is even on the Power soundtrack. Maybe all of this stems from his family background. In the 1970s, his father, an attorney, was wearing dashikis and rocking an afro while attending Holy Cross with future Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. His grandfathers — both still living — were college graduates from Savannah.

“They ended up getting their master’s,” he said of his grandfathers. “To see those men do what they did … and they did it in a Jim Crow, boycott-clad life. They didn’t make excuses. They never blamed The Man.” He said he never grew up hearing about what white people won’t give black people. “My father … would say to me, ‘Don’t you for one day apologize for all the gifts that you have.’

Hardwick had the blessing of watching his family members live and be black and be great at the same time. “They would sort of just be like, ‘It’s Omari,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “ ‘Let him figure it out.’ ”

Hardwick is doing just that.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment writer at The Undefeated. She can act out every episode of the U.S version of "The Office," she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.