Killer, drug kingpin, husband with a girlfriend on the side, and built like Black Superman—now that’s a man without a confidence problem. But that’s James "Ghost" St. Patrick, the alter ego-packed protagonist Omari Hardwick portrays on the Starz crime drama Power.

Hardwick’s real-life story is very different. He discussed his own dance with power recently between bites of his pasta, chicken and string beans lunch following his EBONY cover photo shoot in Brooklyn, New York. Though his character embraces his relationship with power, and even abuses it, Hardwick says he didn’t really know his own true authority or feel comfortable with it until recently. His decision not to push the envelope the way St. Patrick never fears doing came early, while he was growing up in Decatur, Georgia. And it took the show to push away those boundaries.

Advice the actor received from his attorney father and his "Black Catholic" mother conflicted and collided uneasily, as do the worlds of St. Patrick’s alter egos. As a kid, Hardwick, 44, dreamed of a professional sports career after receiving a football scholarship from the University of Georgia. But when his mother told him to hide the muscles he had developed for the sport, he ended up hiding much more of himself instead. He feared being too strong and confident, even though he wanted to be and was, in some respects.

"I had moxie and confidence as an athlete, but I was masked with 60 other athletes on the football team," Hardwick says. When not playing a leading role, "I was masked by 50 other people on the set."

When the now-sex symbol looked in the mirror to brush his teeth in the morning, Hardwick would think to himself, ‘There’s a lot in you, man.’ Then the proverbial angel and devil would appear to haunt him. Should he go with all he thought he could be, which is what his father advised? Or should he take the advice of his mother and be modest, not get too full of himself and keep things low-key?

His mother’s message was the one that reverberated most, even making him want to turn down the star part in Power initially because he didn’t think he could carry a leading role, partly because he didn’t know what else it would bring with it.

It took his wife, Jennifer Pfautch, to pray about his predicament and to persuade him to take the role, he says. Until the series, Hardwick says, he was much more confident standing with some daylight between himself and the spotlight. "My father would say to never apologize for the gifts you are given, but I had a Black Catholic mother who came with the guilt that comes with that," he explains. "I was also the second kid [in the family], so I was good at leading from the No. 2 position," he adds. "I had to think bigger."

After a professional football career didn’t happen, Hardwick went hard into acting—paying for acting classes by working many jobs at once. He was a substitute teacher and coach at Campbell Hall, an Episcopal day school in the Studio City area of Los Angeles. He sold women’s shoes at Nordstrom, worked catering halls and did security gigs "when I still had 200 pounds of football weight on me."

He says he wanted to be an actor but as a journeyman. "When people started saying, ‘He’s going to be huge,’ it scared me," Hardwick admits. "I wondered what that would entail, what responsibility."

He thought he was ready to go Hollywood and big-time when he landed a role in a series based on Spike Lee’s 2004 television movie, Sucker Free City. So he quit his jobs and calls what happened next "ironic."

The Lee job came the same day Hardwick turned down an offer to become a firefighter, which he had pursued "as a backup" if acting didn’t work out. The pilot for the show was made and Sucker Free City was set to be picked up, but a lawsuit blocked it from going forward. Hardwick found himself broke and jobless. He lost his apartment and severed ties with his manager. His car became home for more than four months, and he showered at the YMCA.

"I thought I was cool," he says, referring to his outlook on his financial situation. "I wasn’t doing student films but a substantial project. We thought it would have become a version of The Wire, so it was ironic my moment of homelessness was post my first real [acting] job. I said, ‘Shit! … I just got rid of five jobs.’ In California, you need a car to go on auditions, so I wrote poems to try not to lose my sanity. … There were a lot of quiet moments alone," he adds. He had been writing poetry since he was 14. "I was not only trying to figure out my next gig, I didn’t have a roof over my head."

Some help came from an unexpected source. When Hardwick couldn’t make the payments on his car lease, Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta, gave him $1,500 so it wouldn’t get repossessed. He had met them through their eldest child, actor John David Washington, for whom he had served as a mentor. Unfortunately, "the car got repossessed, ultimately, because I couldn’t sustain it," Hardwick adds.

Soon, the roles began to come in. His film and television credits include Beauty Shop (2005), Miracle at St. Anna (2008), For Colored Girls (2010), Sparkle (2012) and Being Mary Jane (2013–2014). Also, this year he appeared as the leading man opposite Meagan Good in the romance drama A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night, directed by Qasim Basir, and fans can see him in Sorry to Bother You, out in July.

When he got back on his feet and his acting jobs got back on track again, Hardwick repaid the Washingtons, and they framed his check.

Some of the people close to Hardwick saw him as a natural lead player all along.

Larenz Tate, who plays Councilman Rashad Tate on Power and considers Hardwick one of his closest friends, was not aware he had avoided playing lead roles; however, he knew Hardwick’s tortured character in Power represented some type of change for the actor.

"I just knew it was a transition for him because Omari is a very grounded, humble person," Tate says. "But to me, Omari is truly a leading man and is truly one of our leading men of today. I respect him as an actor, and when he comes to play, he comes to play hard. James St. Patrick is such a complex character, but [Hardwick] truly encompasses his character in the role."

According to Tate, if Hardwick had a problem embracing his power, he’s done a good acting job of concealing it. "You wouldn’t know it at all, but if there are any insecurities on his side, he doesn’t present them," Tate says, who is happy his friend is doing so well. "I know he expects a lot of himself and really rises to the occasion. He loves to be directed and wants to understand his motivation—that really represents a true actor."

Power creator Courtney A. Kemp thought Hardwick would be the perfect lead for the show from the start.

On the show, Hardwick plays a man attempting to cut ties with the drug world, where he is known as Ghost, and become legitimate businessman James St. Patrick, while trying to rekindle his relationship with his high school sweetheart (who calls him "Jamie"). "I certainly knew he had some trepidation in taking the role," Kemp says. "He wasn’t sure about the subject matter at first and wanted to sit down with me to see if the anti-hero would be true throughout or exploitative."

Kemp wanted him to take the role because she believed no other actor was capable of handling a character that required such a depth and range of emotion, personality and style. "I needed someone intelligent, handsome, sexy … capable of extreme violence, and he was as scary on camera as he was smart on camera," she says. "Omari was on the top of my binder. He was the first person who had all of those things. He was handsome, fearless and showed a vulnerability and range. The guys strong enough to play Ghost couldn’t play St. Patrick, and those elegant enough to play St. Patrick couldn’t play Ghost," she says.

The show’s creator is confident Hardwick will become a household name, and his wife says it’s all part of God’s plan. "I wouldn’t say I convinced him to take the role [in Power], per se," Pfautch explains. "His soul knew it was time to embrace what God had for him careerwise, and in order to do that, the role of Ghost was the next step in that process. I honestly said very little; just enough to remind him of his call and his purpose."

Kemp agrees that Hardwick is destined to do big things. "There’s no question to me that Omari is one of the greatest actors of our generation; he plays the parts of a murderer, a businessman and father. He’s done everything in this part, and it’s just the beginning of what he can do. Omari affects Ghost, and Ghost affects Omari," she says, adding that Hardwick’s character will be stretched even more.

Hardwick says, "The show has been good for me." He has been taking the lead off-camera more and more as well, comparing himself to a modern-day Harry Belafonte by using the power of his heightened platform to effect change in a country where he says many Black men are "broken."

Despite being in his 40s, Hardwick has a strong following of 20-somethings, likely because of his badass sides on Power, and the fact that he’s attractive and looks much younger than he is.

At the same time, the actor says his own doubts about his power can surface when he questions what he can really do to make sure the Eric Garners, Trayvon Martins, Freddie Grays and Michael Browns are among the last in their tragic group. He says there’s not a lot of difference between what happened to these and other young Black men and the lynchings that occurred back in the day. "I don’t necessarily know if there’s ever really been a ‘now’ versus ‘then’ [in America],” he opines. “I think it has always been very edgy and sticky, to say the least. Sometimes, it still feels like we’re back at the Blacks-only water fountains and not sitting on the stools that we want to in a diner, though not in every city."

In the matter of racism, being a star doesn’t matter, according to Hardwick; if you’re a Black person, you can have a problem. He says he was pulled over by cops while in Canada filming, just because he was driving a nice Jeep Cherokee. He also got the whole nine yards when he was stopped in LA by cops who said they thought he fit the description of a murder suspect. "I was stopped in the front yard of my $350-a-month apartment; handcuffed, with a gun to my head … shoving knees on me …," Hardwick recalls. "That’s why I speak up for injustices."

He adds he was tremendously impacted when President Barack Obama said Trayvon Martin could have been his son.

There have also been attacks on Hardwick and his wife, who have been verbally assaulted on social media for their relationship because she is White, causing him to go on a public rant against their haters. He says, however, that he’s over addressing that specific issue for the time being, though he still finds racism, overall, frustrating and perhaps too deeply rooted to overcome. The couple had their first date when he was a struggling and homeless actor, and they married in 2012. They have two children.

Regarding the social media criticism of his wife, which included jabs at her looks, the Power star says, "That’s just weird. There’s nothing to really break down on that. Do we really think there’s a god up top matching people together because of their color?" It’s "ungodly" to think that way, in his opinion. "That’s a disrespect of God. There’s a lot of ignorance. … Flyness has no color to it; beauty has no color to it; power has no color to it."

Hardwick doesn’t believe America will ever accept everyone. "It would be blasphemous to say things haven’t changed since our grandparents, but we have very bloody waters in our own backyard and we’ve never really cleared it," he says. "It’s an interesting time in our society. I feel strides have been made and we can get back the yardage we’ve lost, but I don’t know if we can get that for all sides and all religions."

Still, Hardwick says he’s doing what he can to make some things better. "I was always involved in giving back to the community, and I always felt I could give back in time, not necessarily money," he explains, emphasizing that time spent with his children and with other young people is more valuable to them.

The Omari Hardwick bluapple Poetry Network is an after-school spoken-word poetry program free to students in Florida attending Broward, Dade and Palm Beach County schools. It was created with former NFL player Jason Taylor and another friend of Hardwick’s, Seth Levit, and Broward’s school board.

Through the Real to Reel film competition, Hardwick helps celebrate aspiring Black filmmakers who are at least 21 years old. The winner receives a private screening of their work and $10,000.

When not acting or being an activist, Hardwick still writes and performs poetry and works on his music career. His musical accolades include a catchy single, "50 + 0 = 500," written with Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, who is part of Power’s cast and an executive producer of the show.

Hardwick says he’s very much into stepping things up these days, and he intends to keep it that way. He doesn’t plan to go out like some other actors who hit the top, then ended up broke and on the bottom. He says producing and directing will be his insurance policy.

Adds Tate, "As a friend, it’s nice to see him going to work and doing his thing—a leading man coming from a supporting role."

Photographer: @dennisleupold
Creative Director: @thecourts
Photo Producer: @biancagrey
Stylist: @ashleypruittstylist
Barber: @staycaked
Groomer: @anitagibsonfilmz