The former star of Power talks Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, growing up in the South, learning to juggle everything from music and poetry to sports, mentoring some of the biggest athletes in the world—and why life hurts more if you don’t try.
LEO: Nice to meet you Omari, thanks so much for getting on with me, I appreciate it.
OMARI: Thank you, I appreciate it. I’m running crazy, I’m playing Papa, man. This virtual has got us double dutying. All of us are playing teacher. But I appreciate my moment of getaway with you. You’re my R&R for the day.
Well I’m happy to hear it. So let’s start with the movie, it’s really a lot of fun.
Oh, thank you, man. Thanks for saying that. It’s a hell of a ride, ain’t it?
It is. When somebody calls you and says, “We’ve got a zombie movie”—that could go a few different ways. As an actor, what’s your first thought when you hear that?
They didn’t sell it as such, which was good. He sold it as a Zack Snyder film—and that’s an easier sell right? So, I read it. He did say that the character they were interested in me playing would be flushed out, but I still thought that I’d be reading a script that had that character in it. Well, I read the entire script within two and a half hours, and there was no sign of Vandarohe anywhere in the script. Nowhere in the script. So I said, “What am I looking at?” But the long and short of it is, I think that they sent out sort of a skeletal script, so that people didn’t start talking about it, including to the actors they were interested in.
Ultimately, I talked to Zack Snyder, got on the phone with him, and he really broke down the zombie portion of it, and what he wanted the zombies to be, how he wanted them to come off. He felt that they could be perceived as different. I got to know his zany brain, and all of the mechanical parts of it, and how he processes—equally included in that, and this is a compliment, the maniacal parts of his brain—and [we talked about] the fun stuff that he wanted me to do as Vandarohe. Then he gave me a script, and [at that point], Vandarohe was all over the script, and he made Vandarohe super cool with that incredible freaking chain saw. And I was all in.
When you approach a character with such a pay-off, do you approach it differently knowing that you’re gonna have such a big moment?
It’s interesting. You hear these actors say that they don’t watch their product or watch films or TV show that they do, and it’s always made me sort of… I’m not one of those guys, and I’m always a little curious as to how an actor can say that, because that denotes that you have no interest in watching your teammates. [Laughs] People’ll be like, “Oh, I don’t go back and watch my films.” I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re basically giving a big ass middle finger to every castmate you’ve ever had.” It doesn’t make any sense to me. So from that perspective, analogous to that, you kinda know you’re signing up to be part of an ensemble, and more imperatively, you’re signing up to tell a story, and so I keep the story at the forefront—and that becomes paramount for me.
It doesn’t necessarily matter whether I’m saying yes to a character with less of a pay-off. If I like the script, the story, and particularly the other cast that are surrounding my character, and the other characters surrounding my character, then I’m okay. So I’m not really that guy going, “Ok, I’ve got to approach it differently….” But I’m definitely into pacing, if that makes sense. So I feel like a viewer, and I’ll make myself the viewer when I’m reading the script. I feel that [the audience] should earn these moments, these seminal tentpole moments, and so I definitely talk to the director about pacing. We don’t need such kaboom, to use onomatopoeia as an example—or shebang—in the first freaking 45 pages, if we know that we need to get something from my character in page 65.
I do look at it in that way: the bigger picture and the pacing of it. Particularly if I know that the director has interest in me being in a next installment, which Zack definitely told me, “There is a possibility that you would be in a further installment.” So for me, it then just becomes about introducing the world to Vandarohe in the most subtle but also prolific way I can deliver him.
Do you feel a different kind of gratification working on a lighter project like this, as opposed to something where you have to dig a little deeper—such as with a show like Power?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve done a paramedic show, a cop show, all these different shows—and I’ve definitely heard real life paramedics, firefighters, and cops state, “We laugh a lot.” And I imagine it’s because of the gruesome territory that you’re stepping into day in and day out. So on the the set of Power, we laughed all the time—as Omari, when they would say cut. Now obviously, that’s relegated to a day that I don’t have to be as methodical. Sometimes, as a character, as duplicitous and complex as that fucker was—excuse my language, but don’t excuse my language [laughs]; there’s moments where I’ve felt like I had to remain in method, and I couldn’t really get out of that place.
Now with a project like this, when you know you can be of levity a bit more, there’s an excitement from an eight-year-old perspective; that eight-year-old that all of us get paid to play. As much as we get paid for all of the mess and dirt that we come to the table with, we are paid for that child at heart, right? Tom Hanks mastered it. Robin Williams, rest in peace, mastered it. We’re all paid for that eight-year-old. When you know that everybody is going to have a little bit more fun than with the heavier project, the approach is that of throwing your hair back and going, “Hey, let’s rock”—in a very different way, than you’re doing in another project.
Did you get to spend any time with the zombie jaguar?
I didn’t, no, because that was not an actual zombie tiger when we were filming that particular scene. It was a stunt coordinator who had a puppet of sorts. I thought we were in a freakin Sesame Street episode. He just had a puppet, and he was like, “Here I am. Oh, I am vicious now, oh I’m roaring at you, oh I’m coming towards you now [laughs].” It was one of those days of levity, where he was like, “Fuck it, let’s all just laugh as much as we can.” Kind of crazy. So then to see the film and to see that, you know, the Siegfried freakin’ tiger—you’re like, oh right, Zach’s genius, man. Zach’s genius at play again.
How was it shooting on a set that kind of recreated Vegas in such a post-apocalyptic way?
It made me wonder what it would be like to have shot in Vegas. Because we were in New Mexico. You know, the adage that’s most velcro to the place is ‘whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, but in reality no one ever really leaves Vegas. You forever have your memory of Vegas. So it would have been interesting, especially for those of us who have been to Vegas, to have shot there versus not.
To answer your question, the set creators and designers were just a team second to none because they created enough of that, that if you had actually spent time in Vegas, you’re able to close your eyes for a brief moment, and go, this does feel like it could be… So in many ways it was almost cooler, because we had to actually recreate it versus being there. Those temperatures were parallel to what would have been in Vegas—105 every day. I mean, I was losing weight, but I was supposed to be gaining weight… [laughs].
There’s such a life to Vegas, so it’s interesting to see a set where that life has been taken out of it.
My brother—biologically an uncle, but raised as our eldest brother—he actually was killed in Vegas, which is crazy.
I appreciate that. He was killed at the end of ’06. I always say that the desperation of Vegas is so high, because there’s so much money to steal. He actually was killed in a robbery. So there’s that desperation we speak about, and the interesting thing about it is that that Vegas thing makes you not walk around with, you know, your head on a swivel. You kind of are too carefree, which is dangerous. Vegas can kind of lull you into this “Oh, it’s all great, the lights…” It’s an interesting place. To brilliantly write the story to be set up in Vegas, that’s definitely a character on a call sheet to me.
One of the things that strikes me about you is the breadth of your interests as an individual. Poetry being one. From what I gather, it’s something you started really early.
The better parts of probably eighth grade, ninth grade. A lot of times it was definitely writing from a commentary perspective which I felt in the neighborhood I was being raised in. I grew up 15 minutes South-East of Atlanta, Georgia.
You were in Decatur.
Yeah, Decatur, which sees the lights of so many kids now. A lot of hip hop heads—from Savage to JID. Obviously, Lil Baby is from Atlanta. I think DaBaby is from Atlanta. And obviously Andre and Big Boi and Ludacris and T.I., whom I was raised with. So I was very close to T.I., all of those guys, everybody. ‘Cause Atlanta wasn’t what it is now. It’s very Hollywood now. But at the time that I was being raised there, in my opinion, it had that sort of breadth that you speak about, or bandwidth, that maybe wasn’t seen—but we knew it existed.
Now it’s seen, and now it’s sold more like LA and more like New York, or South Beach. Chicago, if you will. But Atlanta was almost a great secret. All of the New York kids were moving in. So music was the first thing for me. I was breakdancing. I did start to gain a little bit of a muscularity, that then made it make sense that I would go into sports. Sports became so heavy that later was the moment of me doubling back to music—obviously later, later. But within doubling back on the music, in that moment and all of the athletics, in between that was always the therapy called poetry.
But, again, it was eighth grade that I really started kind of writing about the community, what I felt. Maybe I stared a lot as a kid. I definitely remember my older brother would say, “Omari, stop staring so much [laughs].” I remember just staring a lot and perhaps was very precocious enough and curious enough that I would write about it. And then of course, you go to high school, and that was an interesting time. I went from a predominantly black if not all black Decatur, at the time. Because once that moment happens—in Atlanta at least, and other places in the South and the Midwest—the white flight happens. Blacks move into a particular neighborhood and whites take off. So Decatur definitely had more diversity when I moved there as a kid, but by the time I was a teenager, it was just pretty black.
So I went 45 minutes Northwest Atlanta to a predominantly white high school—with maybe 13 blacks when I got there, if that. And then very much excelled in sports and whatnot. But I met a girl, and her name was Crystal, and Crystal became my high school sweetheart. And I think when I really started writing that poetry, it was about a girl. Matt Damon at the end of Good Will Hunting, what does he state in that letter to Robin Williams? He says, “I had to go see about a girl [laughs].”
I think poetry is something that now is resonating in a way that it didn’t previously with people, or hadn’t for a while.
I agree with that—it hadn’t for a while. I think it’s the technological advancements, particularly social media, that’s made it where people are more interested in selling a commercial or falsity about themselves. And poetry, what makes it so great, and perhaps has aided me as an actor, is it’s all about the epicenter of being truthful. If you feel scarred that day, you gotta talk about it; if you feel sexy that day, you gotta talk about it. When you feel powerful, or sexy braggadocious, then you gotta figure out the great skill level of writing something where you don’t come off braggadocious, but equally, we as the audience get that you feel good about yourself that day. Which is an art form in and of itself. With cameras always in front of me going ‘Action’, I would be remiss if I did not say a lot of it has to do with the truth that I’ve found in poetry and what poetry charges you with.
You could say, you know you’re a motorcycle rider if when you fall on the motorcycle, you get back up. Equally, you kinda know you’re a poet if you feel like the room is not only forcing you to be a little bit more raw and truthful, but that you’re embracing it. I think that that’s coming back in, if you will, it’s in vogue to be a bit more raw.
[It wasn’t really about] the pandemic that we went through, you know, it was all the isms. Sexism is still there, racism is still there, homophobia is still there. People still have issues with all of these things that we thought we were eradicating so that we could come together as a people. We actually, for too long now, have allowed for there to be this thing that is dividing us. So I think poetry is a pretty dope art form to kind of bring [people together]. Music does it, and I do so much music. So I amalgamate the poetry with music, I’ve done poetry albums, I probably got about 400 songs now. They will all start to come out; some are poetics, some are rap, some are singing. There’s so much stuff, man.
The theater group that you had created, Plan B, is that something you’re still involved with?
We graduated from Plan B to Los Angels Acting Lounge. We haven’t rocked out in a while, and then of course, once Power moved me to New York, I then sold the LA house, bought in Denver to hide out from fame ’cause fame was starting to beat me up, and then now I moved from Denver to South Florida. But my home away from home is absolutely always New York and Los Angeles. Those can never not be my home because as much as Atlanta raised me, New York and LA definitely made me.
How did you go from sports to acting? Is acting that something you were always interested in? How did that evolution happen?
I definitely got into sports just ’cause it felt so natural, included within that natural space was the competitor. I definitely have always felt like a pretty confident competitor.
When I would do poetry, people thought it was gonna be a particular type of poetry because of the way that I physically looked, and I always thought, “God, let me dial down that however I can.” But you can’t really dial down your physical look. So what I would do is, I would just write. And I found that… when I would get up and say something in front of the class—it wasn’t spoken word competitions back then—but if I did a book report and I read, I started to realize that the reaction of me doing that was the same reaction I would get if I was on the baseball diamond, or on the basketball court.
[Growing up in] a southern black family, they were trying to instill God—not thrusting God down my throat, which was cool, definitely allowing me to find my own relationship with a higher being, whatever that may be—and in finding that, I think I started to not apologize as I got older for all of the things that I could juggle. Not the individual things, but if you put all the individual things together and you walk into a room with them, don’t apologize. A lot of people will get on you and go, “You can only be those two things, you can’t be these seven.” And others will say, “Go be more than those seven.” I started realizing you can’t really win ’cause you can’t please anybody, so you might as well please yourself.
It was probably 11th grade that I was really being recruited heavily in football. Baseball I was really good at too. Basketball was probably my third best sport, but baseball was pretty much neck and neck with my football ability. It was 11th grade that one of my friends went out for West Side Story. Again, there wasn’t a lot of black kids in my high school, so I remember thinking, “But I should go out for that.” And the friend was like, “Bro, you play four sports.” I was like, “Oh yeah, that is an issue.” ‘Cause I was doing track too. So I remember them allowing me to understudy, so the first time I was involved was sort of in watching those rehearsals.
Once I got to college, I would increase the writing of the poetry. I would spit it sometimes even in athletic dorms, maybe it came off like rap, but a lot of the players took to it, and a couple of those guys were like, “Bro, you got something in this art world if football doesn’t work out.”
So they were saying that at the University of Georgia, and then Champ Bailey became very close to me. Obviously, he just walked into the hall of fame two years ago, but he became very close to me, and Travis Stroud, and Robert Edwards. Robert Edwards gave me money when I was broke in LA. All of those guys made the NFL, and Travis and I both tried out for the NFL and then got cut. But obviously, Champ became one of the greatest defensive backs ever to play, and he was my little brother. I’m actually mentoring a lot of these athletes.
By the way, as soon as I started mentoring [these guys], Sony Michel included—and I don’t wanna brag, but I kinda wanna brag for a moment—
Go ahead and brag.
Emmanuel Sanders wins with the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning the year I started [mentoring him]. Golden State Warriors win the year that I started really big brothering Draymond. Kyrie wins and hits the game-winning shot for Cleveland that year. And Sony Michel gets drafted by New England Patriots with Brady. And in his rookie year with New England, New England wins. So all of that was when I first started with those four. But there’s Zach LaVine, he’s like a little bro. It’s so many people.
So the mentoring matters to me. But people wonder, how does he get with these professional athletes? I think it’s because those guys are at the top of their game, so what they want to do is improve their game, not by getting someone to talk to them about their game, per say. They want to figure out the game of life. Which is a whole different barn of gain. So my whole life was about figuring that one out. I would use sport to do it. To answer your question of why sporting was included early in my life. I think that from a spiritual perspective, God knew that mine was a marathon, to quote Nipsey Hussle. Mine was a marathon. And I think He knew I needed all of these things in that bag to aid in that marathon.
Mentoring is something that seems very daunting. Just the ability to do it, but also the amount of time that that kind of commitment takes up. What would you say to someone who wants to give of themselves in that way, but doesn’t have the time to do so in the way you have been able to?
Well, it’s ironic, I would answer with the way you asked it. I would first and foremost say, what appears to be a lot of time that I have is actually not a lot of time that I have to give to mentoring. So I would say, I have figured out ways. There are certain things that you have to set up. Under the umbrella of Jason Taylor’s Foundation here in South Florida, it’s been 15 years or we’re approaching that, there has been the Omari Hardwick bluapple Poetry Network. And what we always thought immediately was: get pens in kids’ hands, instead of things that shouldn’t be in their hands—guns included, idle time included. Idle time in the hands of kids turns out bad for the kid and the kids around the kid.
So that’s a set up that took some labor, some exhaustive efforts. We had to really get that going. But then delegation, I would say delegation a pretty substantially-sized program, who you delegate to is massive. My next project is only two weeks from now in terms of when I report down to them yelling “Action” as the first day of work. So I have reminded certain people I’ve delegated to within that space—I have reminded these teammates—that you’re about to not have Omari. You had me two weeks ago, I did the slam poetry for the youth poets. I made my presence felt. I said what I could, pre and post in my speech, and I am always available.
Lest me really, really needing to be in method for a particular character, lest that, I’m always available via social media, via this, via that. And sometimes that really is just a DM—and not DM in the way that we know the songs to be speaking about DM [laughs]. There’s been a dude who hit me about a song I put out, and he was like, “Yo, acting’s your thing.” And you know what, that day I felt like going back at him. And in going back at him, I said, “You know that’s bullshit, you know you rock with the music. Stop doing that.” We talk, we talk, we talk, we exchange, and it came out—and I knew it was gonna come out, he tells me “I do music, dawg.” I said, “I knew you did music.” He said, “How’d you know?” I said, “Because I know what I’m good at. And by the way, music preceded acting for me. So I know that you did music, and what I really knew was that you probably were really good, but it didn’t work out for you. And so how dare I use my stage and platform as an actor, to all of a sudden do that, which you couldn’t get going—when you weren’t an actor, but you were all balls to the wall music.” And he said, “Yo, you crazy, bro.” And I said, “I know. That’s why you like my work [laughs].” And what ended up coming of that is this really dope ass friendship, and I’ll call him out, his name is Reason, and he’s super gifted, and now I’m all over him about putting his music out.
If you’re diving into a world where all of those little things that we did in those programs, where—even if you weren’t in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, you know that thing when you stand there and you have to close your eyes and someone’s behind you, and you have to have faith and trust that they’ll catch you. You gotta equally have faith, as much as you are asking them to dive into your arms and say, “Hey, I can aid your life?” Young kid broken, young woman being bullied, whatever it may be; athlete who’s trying to figure out—not how to get the next three million, but how to become a bigger person? If you have faith that they could fall into you, and you could grab them… and you can kind of always mentor them even if you’re physically not around them. That’s what I would say. Mentoring is this pervasive thing that sort of floats like a spirit, once you invite it into your life and you’re willing to do it. Denzel does the Boys and Girls Club of America, but to me, his spirit is always about that, whether he’s showing up or not.
What do you say to someone who has a passion and hasn’t really found that will to be able to showcase it to other people yet?
I would say it’s so much more painful to have all of that remain in you for years to come than to get it out. I would say to that young lad, all the way to someone who is 70 years old, who still wants to dive into that bucket list that they wrote years ago, “I wanna try this. Why can’t I try this?” I would say, from the eight-year-old to the 80-year-old, it is way more painful to keep that shit in. It just is. It’s so freeing. That pain is sexy. Mary J. Blige had a career ’cause she had pain. That’s what works. And so, I would just say, try to get it out even if it’s to a small venue. Whether that be, “I wanted to be Misty Copeland, but I was afraid.” “I wanted to be the next Jackson Pollock”—let’s keep it in a minority space—”John Michel Basquiat, but I was afraid.” “I wanted to try basketball when everybody told me my body was more built for football, but I was afraid.” It’s way more painful to not try it, is what I would say.
CHECK OUT OMARI
As Vanderohe in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead
As James ‘Ghost’ St. Patrick on Starz’ Power
As Sergeant Marcus Williams in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass
As Mr.— in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother YouI