Omari Hardwick is no stranger to working with legends. The ‘For Colored Girls’ star and former NFL player’s first break-out role was in the Spike Lee Joint ‘Sucker-Free City’. His ‘Middle of Nowhere’ director, Ava DuVernay, just picked up the Best Director Award for the film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (and was the first African American female to snag the honor). Now, Omari is co-starring as “Levi” in one of the most anticipated films of the summer, ‘Sparkle,’ alongside Whitney Houston.
Of course, the cloud hanging over the film is that its star and executive producer is no longer with us and cannot witness the most stirring acting performance of her career. Houston died just three months after filming wrapped on the remake of the 1976 musical drama where she played the disapproving mother of budding singer, Sparkle (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks). Omari shared with EBONY.com his fondest memories of Whitney on set, his nuanced character Levi, and his reasons why ‘Sparkle’ is a must-see movie.
EBONY: I’ve just seen the advanced screening of ‘Sparkle’ and you did an awesome job as Levi. Sister [played by Carmen Ejogo] just breaks your heart and you play heartbroken very well. How much of that performance was drawn from real life?
OMARI HARDWICK: Thank you. You know, I think anybody who has been in relationships has access to heartbreak -- I don’t think we have to go far to find it, whether we inflicted the heartbreak or whether we were the recipient of it. I’ve definitely had my moments in relationships where I’ve been able to say yes, I have been heartbroken, my heart has been broken. Since 16 or 17 when I started officially dating to my present age of post-30 so that part wasn’t really that hard. I’ve never done the picture-in-a-box thing [Omari’s character gives his girlfriend, Sister, a ring box with a picture of a diamond ring inside of it as a gift] that is not something I can relate to readily [laughs].
But I thought that scene was one of [screenwriter] Mara Brock Akil’s most flawlessly written moments that stood out to me and when I saw moments like that in the script, I knew I definitely wanted to do this role.
EBONY: There are so many very big plot points in the remake that are completely different from the original. Your character, for one, is definitely more nuanced and fleshed out and plays a bigger role in this version. In another interview you did recently, you called the ‘Sparkle’ remake a “remix,” of sorts and that seems so fitting. It’s like a true, 90’s R&B remix where artists would create two wholly different takes on the same song instead of today’s trend of just having a rapper jump on the track and calling it new. Even still, did you watch the original at all to prepare for the role?
OH: I did not. I watched it as a kid, I was probably 10 or 11 years old, but no, not in the last 20 years. Once I was cast, [I decided] I wasn’t going to watch it at all. I think, just like you mentioned, with me referring to the film as a song that’s been remixed, I think it’s just really, really difficult to do a great, classic song justice if you over-hear or over-watch the performance from the original performer. Then it’s hard to bring your authentic individuality to it. I wanted to stay away from that and just be able to flush Levi out but do it in a way where I was free of any kind of preconceived thoughts or notions of how it should be played and just kind of individualize it.
EBONY: You’ve said that Whitney was the life of the party on set.
OH: You would think there was a lot of joking [with comedian Mike Epps] on set, but really, the funny person on the set was Whitney!
EBONY: What were your fondest memories of working with Whitney?
OH: There were two things, really. Five days before production began we all went out as a cast. [‘Sparkle’ producer] Debra Martin Chase and Whitney both pulled me to the side and had a really, really big conversation with me about where they saw me going and what they expected from me as a young leading man. Particularly Whitney, she really imparted her thoughts as to why she felt that I was going to be at a particular place as an actor in the next 10 years or so and challenged me to match wherever she felt God was saying I was going. She just encouraged me and it really stood out to me that she was so giving so quickly to me when she didn’t have to be. She could’ve been like,