I just think we’re given this old soul that makes us very aware of how life is but a brevity of a moment. That shit is so quick.

It’s a little known fact that Omari Hardwick, a former college football player-turned-star of the hugely successful TV drama Power—currently in its fourth season and renewed for its fifth—is heavy into poetry. The 43-year-old Georgia-native went as far as to tell DuJour magazine at the beginning of Power’s run, “If you smash the athlete together with the poet, maybe that’s the actor.”

Hardwick is going back to his love of words with his second album Later Decatur, a follow-up to 2002’s Return of the Poet, due later this year. So much ambition, this guy: The do-it-all type also runs Bravelife Films, mentors pro athletes, and—speaking of his five-year goal to Interview magazine in 2016—wants to write children’s books. Then there’s the small business of acting, too.

In Ric Roman Waugh’s Shot Caller, Jacob (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a financier and family man, is one fatal DUI accident away from being put behind bars for ten years. Once inside, Jacob aka Money—cue the handlebar moustache and the tattoos—finds himself caught between rival gangs and carrying out their dirty work, which ranges from shoving a drug-filled balloon up his ass to shanking. Upon his release, Jacob joins his white nationalist “brothers” in their gun-running operation to continue the charade, while keeping Kutcher (Hardwick), his proby, off the trail.

Anthem sat down with Hardwick to discuss his upcoming album, inhabiting roles on both sides of the prison cell with Power and Shot Caller, and Charlottesville and the state of America.

Shot Caller hits select theaters and On Demand on August 18th.

Hey, Omari. You got your boots?

Say what?

You got your boots?

Oh yeah. [Laughs] That’s funny. Me and my grandfather say that. Ironically, on this album I have coming out, I made a song with Evan Ross, Diana’s son, called “Chilly Boots.” I had one grandfather call me Chilly as a kid and the other one gave me boots every Christmas. Over the years, we would ask each other if we had what we needed by saying, “You got your boots?”

I thought it was a neat shorthand. So when you’re on a show like Power, which is hugely successful and demands a lot of your time, you must be incredibly choosy about the projects you take on outside of that. How did you know that Shot Caller was right for you?

First and foremost, it would be the activist in me meets the desire to play the very opposite of what I’m playing with Ghost [on Power]. The genre—or the framing of the movie around criminality, as it were—is not any different than what I’m playing with Ghost, but the genre is more specified in dealing with the culture of incarceration. Ghost goes through a part of that culture in season four of Power, but prior to that, it was just about criminality. The film speaks to what I’ve always been a part of, which is outreaching to kids from juvie hall, man. I’ve been doing that for years and trying to take, you know, preventive measures so they don’t necessarily continue as lifers and make a career out of criminality. That spoke to me. That activism is my passion and in my blood.

Kutcher is the antithesis of Ghost in the sense that he’s chasing down criminals. I made him a hunter. I made Kutcher this bearded man and I gained 50 pounds of my football weight back. It all jumped out on the page. Ric [Roman Waugh], the director and now friend, which I’m so honored to say, just did an incredible job. It’s what he did on Snitch and Felon, but adding a more scary element with this film. It’s just that much better and those films are already good. He told the proper, correct story. As a guy who comes from enough of the inner city, and having had run-ins with friends and family members that had to go get locked up and be isolated from the world in prison, I know when a prison movie is false—bullshit. And he nailed it. He gets the nature of it. The volatility, and all the things that go into vulnerability and the tears at night when the world is a prison. His script was one of those great if-these-walls-could-talk stories. It was amazing.

I loved your talk with your co-star Jon Bernthal in Interview magazine last year because it has the intense intimacy that would never exist between a subject and a journalist, unless they were very close already. In that piece, you guys talked about the importance of curiosity—being “dangerously curious in acting.” What’s been going through your mind lately?

That’s it, that’s it. That’s awesome. That’s a great question, bro. A great set-up and shout-out, too. Absolutely. I have Jon to thank for that. It’s funny because Interview asked me to do the same thing for a friend. I played a criminal in Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay’s film, and I ended up interviewing my castmate and dear friend Emayatzy Corinealdi for Interview.

To answer your question, I feel like it was a long time coming that I wanted to do this because, obviously, such a big part of my life was in being a football player. That was one of the roles that has escaped me. I’m extremely curious about telling a very unique football story. I gotta figure out how to make it happen while I’m still physically capable. I had my second knee surgery during season two of Power, but I’m still holding up pretty good. I’m very curious about, you know, maybe a football player dealing with some real mental illness and not necessarily knowing what to do with it. We haven’t necessarily seen that from the football perspective if you think about it. We’ve seen Will Smith playing a doctor who diagnoses it, but… Junior Seau was brought to the San Diego Chargers as a free agent and then cut, and he was a beautiful and wonderful advocate of the NFL and a phenomenal Hall of Fame player who we know now is no longer with us. I’m curious about that. Having been punch-drunk as a football player with my share of shots and head injuries, I would love to play something like that where you see the complexities of a football player trying to navigate life and the world around him, and looking fuzzy as hell, literally and figuratively. And the people around him not knowing what the hell’s going on with him.

I’m equally curious about playing Gil Scott-Heron. I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. I had the rights at some point. He was a great advocate of humanity in a very civil rights way. He was a poet and this incredible American and, I think, an icon. I’m also curious about playing a homeless man. That’s really interesting to me: to take a guy that navigates life after having decided to be homeless. I learned a lot of homeless people actually have a choice not to be and they make the decision to remain homeless. Right now, those three things are really champing at the bit in my brain in terms of producing projects, some of which I will be in and some of which I will not. I’m also producing some projects about female-driven stories that I don’t wanna reveal yet that I’m curious about. Again, I won’t necessarily be playing in it, but those three really whet my palate at this point.

In Shot Caller, Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau]’s character plays this charade of being a white nationalist in order to survive. It’s obviously coincidental that the movie is coming out right on the heels of Charlottesville, but isn’t it inevitable that the film is extra charged as a result?

That’s so true. People ask, “Did you ever think we would see a black president?” At 43 years of age, I could say, “Yeah. Yeah, possibly.” My grandfathers didn’t think so. Luckily, they both got to see it. It wasn’t them thinking he would be a bad president. I think Obama was a very solid to, one day, a very very good president. We now live in a place where reality and truth is needed more than ever. I don’t think I will ever live to see racism eliminated. I just don’t see it going anywhere. I don’t. I think as long as the world goes around, there will always be a level of insecurity and fear from human to human, and racism will continue to fester. The insecure and fearful person will always take issue with somebody else’s skin color, gender or whatever. It will just always exist. As you said, it’s a coincidence the film is coming out right now. Charlottesville can always happens.

We have a president [Trump] who is definitely the most insecure human that I’ve known or heard of since I’ve been living. I don’t know him personally, but I think he’s the most insecure human ever. Does that mean he’s not bright? No. He’s very bright in certain ways. Does that mean he’s not ambitious? No, it doesn’t mean that. Does it mean that, at times, he hasn’t been a very good person or a good father or somebody that you’d be interested in talking to about selling your business to or shooting the shit about anything? No. It doesn’t mean any of that. What it means is that something’s happened in his life that made him operate at that level of insecurity—at a level that I, for one, have never seen. His level of lying, his level of fabrication, his inability to say, “Oh, my bad.” He can’t even say that. I teach my 2 and 4 year olds “My bad.” It’s unreal.

How do you personally define power as a positive? In your everyday life, what would make you perk up and think someone is very powerful in the way of admiration and respect?

Compassion. And that goes two ways. I don’t think one can find compassion in another human being until they have compassion themselves. Does that mean not having any regrets? No. I’m sure there are levels of regret. People can become very stuck in a rut where they don’t get past certain things, like things they’ve done wrong or things they wish they could take back. This generation has made the concept of keeping things movin’ crude. You really need to get right with yourself before keeping it movin’. Really figure out while you’re brushing your teeth who you’re looking at in the mirror. If that compassionate person goes off in life and expects the same out of the next person, I think that’s an extremely powerful human being. I think there’s a lot of power in people that don’t only want themselves to grow, but want other people around them to grow as well.

As you mentioned earlier, you have an album on the horizon and it’s called Later Decatur. What can you tell me? I’ve heard some media outlets describe it as a spoken word album.

So I grew up in Decatur, about ten minutes southeast of Atlanta. It’s about all of us wherever we grew up and not necessarily being able to say, or even not wanting to say, goodbye to from which we came but still saying see ya later. God has different wants and desires for me and I gotta go to this city or this country, or I gotta go be more than the family I thought I could be… I’ve got some things I gotta do. Later Decatur is about my journey away from Decatur and what life has brought me. I made it a trilogy so it’s a three-part album. It’s definitely way more than poetry. It’s got R&B, folk, and I’m singing in it and bordering rapping at times as a poet and a spoken word artist. I’m always gonna be that and I’m always gonna be true and honorable to that: a poet. It’s a collaborative effort with an incredible R&B vocalist, folk vocalist, soul singers, and MCs from Big Daddy Kane to Method Man and Common. I mean, it’s unbelievable. I’ve been very blessed.

When is this due?

You have Later Decatur part one coming out very soon and then part two a little later in the fall. In the beginning of spring, when work wraps on Power season five, I’ll put out part three. It’s gonna be amazing—45 songs. Thank god I have a very strong woman at home who believed I should get everything out of me that God put in me before I die. Her level of security and selflessness told her she needs to let this man go do this album in the same season he’s probably got the hardest term playing Ghost yet. A children’s book will come out pretty soon as well, hopefully Christmas time.

I was wondering about that children’s book. You really follow through with your plans.

My wife said, “Do a children’s book.” She’s a former publicist so her brain was, “Get as far away from Ghost as possible because you’ve obviously proven to the world how good you are at playing it.” Obviously, you still have that doting nature to Ghost. He’s a father and he’s into his kids. But J [Hardwick’s wife Jennifer Pfautch] thought, “Flesh out all of these things that are Omari.” Now—that doesn’t mean that everybody wants to see those other things. Some people just wanna see me play Ghost as an actor. They literally think that I’ll never have another job in life. You got friends that just don’t want to relate to any other guy outside of Ghost. As a publicist, her perspective was, “Therefore, show all those colors to you,” because the world only wants Ghost at times.

You’re very real and no-nonsense. Benjamin Bratt is like that, too. You ask him, “Why this movie?” and he’ll straight-up tell you, “Because I have to put a roof over my head and I have a family.” Meanwhile, on that call, you can hear his kids running around in the background.

He and I are similar. We became very close [on Shot Caller] and learned that we can trust each other. Jonny Bernthal is similar. I just think we’re given this old soul that makes us very aware of how life is but a brevity of a moment. That shit is so quick. You can always be kind and as my pops used to say, “It costs nothing to smile,” but it just doesn’t behoove me to have a conversation and promote a project and be fluff. I didn’t get into the business for that. I’m okay living inside my skin—not living in a mansion that was bought by selling myself out. I’m just not great at that.

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