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 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, “I’m the producer, I hired you, I’m glad you’re here. Just do your best, show up, don’t make a fuss, and we’ll all be good,” but instead she gave me way more gems than that and I’ll never forget that.

And then there was the moment when we went to watch the [Detroit] Lions play the [Atlanta] Falcons in Detroit. I come from a football background and she knew that and I’m from Atlanta and she’s from Atlanta, so we were the only ones in the box cheering for the Falcons.  There was one time she just got so excited and accidentally cheered for the wrong team and they caught her on the megatron cheering for the wrong team, but she didn’t care. She was just having a good time. To just hang with her and watch her be excited and grounded and watching football, it was really dope and a refreshing moment for me to to see her so low-key and so grounded know the real “Whit,” as Derek [Luke who plays Sticks] called her. humble and and having fun.

EBONY: Of course, being able to see Whitney’s last performance and watch her sing the very fitting song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” in the film is a great draw. What are some other reasons audiences should pack the theaters this weekend to see ‘Sparkle’?                 

OH: Right now, with everything that’s going on in society, it’s a time where I think we need to be focused on family a lot more than we are. That’s what this movie is all about, the redemption of a family who is trying to figure it out. I think what’s most important is family. It’s not money, it’s not material, but it’s just love and even if that love comes in a dysfunctional manner like this movie displays, I want families to go see this, share it and sit in a theater and enjoy it together as family. That’s the main impetus for me is that families go in together and just enjoy it.

And there are just great performances here. Carmen Ejogo is going to surprise a lot of people. You’ve got Michael Epps who really does a different turn [as the troubled “Satin Struthers”]; people haven’t  seen him like this. Derek [Luke as “Sticks”] is as classy as ever.  They keep calling him the young Sydney Poitier. Tika [Sumpter as “Dee”] just really rocked it and Jordin as a rookie, for her to be on stage with Whitney and hold it down. These are performances that are going to go down as great performances and if they enjoyed the original, they should enjoy the ‘remix.’

You can watch Omari in ‘Sparkle,’ in theaters today and follow him on Twitter @OmariHardwick.

Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog Follow her on Twitter @DCDistrictDiva.