This Sunday, July 17th, Starz’s critically acclaimed series “Power” returns for its third season. With Ghost officially out the game, and Tommy stepping up to reign over his collapsing drug empire, it looks like nearly everyone has gotten what they wanted. But at what cost? With Ghost and Angela’s relationship out in the open, Tasha must begin coming to terms with being on her own. Even more troubling, the rift between Ghost and Tommy is irreparable. The violate hustler must decide if he really has what it takes to put a bullet in his oldest friend’s head. After all, “Ghosts Never Die.”
Ahead of the season premiere, I sat down with actors Omari Hardwick, Lela Loren, Joseph Sikora and Power’s creator and showrunner Courtney A. Kemp to discuss how the series came together, the evolution of its characters and Kemp’s towering position as a Black female showrunner.
On Creating “Power”
Courtney A. Kemp: 50 Cent and I both are students of “The 48 Laws Of Power”. He and I wanted to both write a story that was about power, so it came together really easily. We merged sort of his story and my dad’s story into the Ghost character, and then we decided to go ahead and tell that story through a little bit of the “The 48 Laws Of Power”, and just how power works and all those things. 50 and I share a lot of similar outlook on the world, but not similar life experience. So that was the other piece of it. I took some of my life experience and some of his as well.
On Writing “Power”
CK: A lot of our storytelling is an algebraic equation so you can really pop out values and move them in. There’s part of it that’s emotional, and there’s part of it that’s a science of writing. So, when you go into my writers’ room, our index cards are on the board by color. For example, Dre is green and sometimes Dre and Kanan’s stories are on green, and sometimes Dre and Kanan’s stories split off so there’s green and a different color. Just like you can move a card for a scene, you can move a storyline. Certainly last year there was a storyline that I had planned for season two, that I could not fit into the show. We had to kill it, which totally sucked because I really wanted to so that, but I’ll do it eventually. It might be a season four thing if we get that far. For Starz, I have to do a season arc pitch. So, for the whole month of May and into June, we run through and come up with an arc for the entire season. It doesn’t really change all that much. I’m like a highly specific meticulous showrunner. I’m not one of those people who are like, “Oh this is great, we just made it up on the fly.” If we’re doing that, it means we haven’t done a thorough enough job. Sometimes I’ll get a script and I’ll realize it’s missing something, and that’ll be a couple of scenes, but I try not to do that because it’s never good. It’s never good to do something at two in the morning when you should have done it a week ago.
50 and I talk a lot at the beginning of the season, and we talk about arcs and we talk about things that we want to do, and it goes from there to the writers’ room where we talk about things. He and I have talked about so many different aspects of this show. Sometimes things that he talked to me about in 2013, I’ll put in the show and he’ll go, “Wow! You remember that?!” My first career is as a journalist so, when you think about it, I’ve been profiling him for the last four years. I’ve really been in this constant conversation about what that’s like, what the drug life is like and those little experiences, but it’s really about detail. So, he’s an inspiration, a muse and a collaborator in all of those different ways.
On Literary & Cinematic Inspirations
CK: Last year for season three, everyone in my writers’ room read “King Lear” and “Richard III”. For season two we watched, “I, Claudius”. The original reference points for the show were “Out Of Sight”, “Shame” and “French Connection”. We love anything that was filmed [in New York City] in the ‘70s because people were doing a lot of free driving so, we used that as an inspiration. “Shaft” as well, and certainly some Blaxplotation, there are a lot of references. This year for season three there’s a scene that was deeply inspired by “Dangerous Liaisons.” It just depends on what we’re watching and what we’re thinking about at the time.
On Beginning “Power” With Tasha
CK: The series begins with Tasha saying, “Tell me I’m beautiful.” I wanted to establish that relationship very quickly. Her first line I think established her immaturity, so part of the story we’re going to tell is about how she matures. You’re going to see a lot of it in season three. Even her reaction last year to the affair was about immaturity. Taking Shawn as her lover was about being immature and being able to be satisfied by someone who was nineteen or twenty. It was really about her feelings of being rejected. But, she’ll grow and she’ll grow as a character so, I wanted to highlight that. I think her journey is one of the most interesting in the series. 50 Cent in an interview that we did together, he said, “I didn’t realize she was gonna be that interesting.” And I thought well, yeah that’s because he’s not a woman, so he didn’t know how I was going to define her. He wouldn’t know what it is to go from being a girl to a woman anymore than I know what it’s like to go from a boy to a man.
On Becoming Ghost
Omari Hardwick: I grew up with a doting and an affectionate father. My mom was not affectionate. So, if you take that actor and put him in Ghost, 6.9 million people are going, “What is that thing we’re looking at? That’s different.” The character is already written narcissistic so why not bring in another element? However, I can’t bring it in if I don’t possess it. It does feel like the critics came on and people are going, I didn’t expect this to be as deep as it is.
On Becoming Tommy
Joseph Sikora: I would say Tommy more than any other character that I’ve played, but then again, I’ve lived with the character longer than any other character, is that the character really takes on a life of it’s own, and I’ve really learned to trust him. Courtney, our show’s brilliant creator/ storyteller gave me these wonderful bones to work with, and then collaborating with Omari and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson who is such an accessible executive producer; he obviously comes from those streets that we’re trying to portray. By this third season, Tommy is very lived in. However, the decisions that I made before we called action on episode one are all still applicable. The character hasn’t changed. That man who was created at that point, is still the guy that we’re seeing today. We are now just enjoying different aspects and details of this person. You become a bad guy by never thinking that you’re such a bad guy. That’s when you get into trouble by coming off false, and that’s how you twist your mustache rather than just being a human being. I think that’s a big fault that people often fall into, and that’s when I turn off my television. I definitely thought about some guys that I met and ran into in my youth, running around the streets of Chicago. It’s a pretty interesting place. I always call them, “men with death in their eyes.” They always seemed to have corny jokes, so that was an aspect with Tommy that I wanted to make sure was there. People can often fall into a two-dimensionality of it, or try to be angry or scary and that’s not really how people act in my experience. Also, there is that silly quality of Tommy; when he’s the bacon thief, or when he’s playing with the kids, or when he’s playing his video games. I think that’s one of my favorite things to explore with Tommy, the full roundedness of his humanity.
Tommy vs. Ghost
JS: Tommy is ride or die by himself. Tommy is, “These streets saved my life. I owe the streets everything.” On the other hand Ghost is like, “These streets have nurtured me in a way that I can actually utilize this intelligence and information and savvy to legitimize this stuff, and that’s the way of the world.” Tommy feels like that’s actually a separation, that Ghost is actually a sellout, and that he is giving up on the thing that gave him a personality. It’s interesting, when Ghost says, “We’re gonna die.” Tommy says himself all the time, “We’re all gonna die!” So that’s why he’s going to live.
Can Tommy Kill Ghost?
JS: As an actor, I had to find the place and I did find the place where Tommy would kill Ghost, because Tommy would kill anybody. So that place had to be discovered and be alive. Now to get there, that’s the journey. That’s what we’re going to watch Tommy do, and understanding where that place comes from. Also, Tommy is smarter than what I think people give him credit for. But, he will get from A to Z even if he has to shoot every letter in between. Or, he might just jump there. Sometimes it’s a very direct route without being super finessed. But he’ll get there. I think that’s what people enjoy about Tommy, not just his loyalty, but also his stick-to-itiveness. I tend to try to believe characters when they are in those moments of passion, but I think Tommy said something very truthful when he told Ghost, “You were my brother, but my brother is gone.” They can never get back to where they were. Never. No. It’s the old expression of a man can never walk into the same river twice because it is not the same river, nor is he the same man.
On Ghost & Angela
OH: The question is, do they really know each other? They were fifteen when they really knew each other.
Lela Loren: There’s a lot of fantasy happening. That’s the irony of season three; they are starting to really be confronted with that. The thing is, they’re still trying to hide certain parts from each other, but they are in such close quarters that they are going to see how the sausage gets made. (Laughing) And then, they’re going to have to decide if they still want to eat it.
OH: From Angela’s perspective, Ghost is made from slaughter.
LL: It’s slaughter and actually, the thing that is very troubling to me about Ghost as a person, is this reverence of status, money and the dollar. That’s something that you see in society. It’s, “Oh, I want to get to the top of the ladder.” But, what’s the point of getting to the top of the ladder if it’s an oppressive ladder? Just because you’re at the top rung doesn’t mean you aren’t oppressed. It’s pretty lonely up there.
OH: I’ve decided to play him, not necessarily as you see him. I think that makes it super cool that you see him only that way. My thought is that the way that [Ghost] justifies and validates the desire for divorce is that Naturi Naughton’s Tasha has made me adhere to that. Part of Ghost wanted to fly free. I’m playing the guy from the perspective of, had it not been for the demands that come from Tasha, then Ghost could have just been James. It could be completely wrong, you might talk to Naturi and she will say something completely different. It’s awesome for actors not to know all of the answers about someone else’s character. I don’t want to know everything about how Lela is going to approach Angela.
LL: It doesn’t always match up.
OH: Exactly, so you’re left thinking, what is this actor going to bring today? I’ve always said, we’ve figured it out too early if we figure it all out before the whole series ends.
On Becoming Sex Symbols
Omari Hardwick: I think it’s being comfortable in your skin. I think I’m a conduit or bridging age if you think about it. I was born of a baby boomer generation, but I’m twenty-years the senior of the millennials. I’m forty-two years old. Between Grandpop and Pops, I had a lot of strong men in my life, and that does a really cool thing for young boys. I ran from part of that sex symbol thing that I didn’t think was great, which was not being taking seriously for what I also possess beyond that. I was running from a part that I now have embraced. You can’t play the characters that Paul Newman and [Robert] De Niro and Denzel [Washington] brought to light if you don’t have the depth that they have. The generation that I come from of Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio and Wood Harris and Larenz Tate; it’s been some sexy men. And, I don’t have a problem embracing their sex appeal. So perhaps that’s what is being projected. Women root for boys that are men’s men.
Lela Loren: I think I was a late bloomer classically. Boys didn’t even start to look at me until I was twenty-three or twenty-four years old. It is hard to imagine, but it’s actually real. One of the positive things that comes from being a late bloomer and a nerd is that because I wasn’t allowed to be cool, at some point I stopped trying. I was just like, “Fuck it”. That frees you up to be yourself. This might sound trite but there is also really truly that aspect of loving yourself. I had a lot of angst and self-loathing when I was a kid; I was really dark. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more lighthearted. People say, “You just have to love yourself.” And I’m like, “Let’s take the ‘just’ out of it.” It was actually something I had to learn, I had to be taught. I had to find the other women and men to teach me what that process looked like. Then it’s a practice.
On Tommy & Tasha’s Friendship
JS: I think Tasha had an amazing turn in season two. Naturi Naughton did an amazing job this season. She’s always been great but, boy what a presence she has. The relationship between Tommy and Tasha, which is now strained and broken apart, where is that going to go? It’s a level playing field, but it’s very rich soil so there are going to be new plants growing out of that. However, they are going to be different plants than we saw.
On Tommy & Holly’s Relationship
JS: They’re both fighters. I think it’s a very interesting and human way that these two people have met. I think that when we all look back at our old relationships we often find that we were with boyfriends or girlfriends that were very similar to us, because that was exciting. An intellectual is often with another intellectual because they challenge one another. But, you keep bumping heads. However, for those of us who have gotten into relationships later in life begin to say, “You know what, I need a yin to my yang to have a bit more balance.” So yes, there’s not a lot of balance in that relationship, but it’s exciting to watch. Lucy Walters who plays Holly and I have a great shorthand; a great rapport and trust with each other as actors. So she does her thing, I react to it and I do my thing, and she reacts to it. I think what we have is kind of this visceral, fun, sexy, and violent relationship where you never know what’s going to happen. But we also have a like-mindedness for Tommy and Holly to win, and it’s going to be a great Bonnie and Clyde story for this season.
What’s Next For Tommy?
JS: I don’t feel like Tommy has ever been under Ghost. One of my favorite desserts is the classic black and white cookie, and I’ve always felt like that’s how Tommy envisions their relationship, as a black and white cookie. Now Tommy has to be the whole cookie. The veil has also been removed from Tommy’s eyes so as we get into season three, Tommy’s fear of having to set all of this up and do all of the work, making these decisions gets revealed. So, there are extra pressures with that coupled with the ultimatum of having to kill Ghost, and how to take care of that while running and growing the operations and expanding. It’s exciting. It’s a huge journey for Tommy this year. What old habits are bad for him and what old habits are good? This is real trial by fire. I think that Tommy is going to need to utilize his friends in the streets because there are more enemies then he even knows about, and that will be revealed in this season. People are not who they seem, people are not who we thought we knew from season one. They have secrets that they are hiding that will come out.
Lessons Learned From “Power”
LL: Angela cuts off that love in herself really early because it scares her. That’s why she leaves Jamie at fifteen and never calls him back. Instead, she pursues discipline and ambitions and success of jobs. All of that feels like a great antidote, but the truth is that she’s really lonely and starving. There’s that piece of you that no matter how many times you fall in the mud, keep your heart open. Keep love as something that is so important and vital.
OH: That’s really good! For me it’s been and I think I’ve already commented on it; the narcissism. It’s so freaking high in [Ghost]. I guess being a not-selfish middle kid and always having to share… Ghost shares with his three kids and he shares with Tommy a little bit, but he doesn’t really share with anybody else. He even runs from himself at times. You have to be so narcissistic to think you can get away with that successfully. In the Bible it says hubris is excess of pride, and what I learned is that you can’t win. You can’t beat hubris. That gets up in you man and that’s the worst cancer ever. I think he’s a fascinating character hopefully because I’ve made him empathetic enough, stuffing in those Omarisims.
On Judging Angela
LL: You know that’s interesting because when you’re inside the character you can’t judge, because you see her own motivations and her own inter-workings. We have a duality [as actors] where we can step within something, and also look outside of it. I don’t think I judge her morally as strongly as some of the fans do, because I think there’s a lot of pretense towards morality. I find it really funny when women have all of this betrayal over cheating, but they’re OK with a murdering drug dealer. (Laughing) I’m like, “OK there’s some moral pretense here.” The way that I probably judge Angela the most harshly as a woman is some of her manipulations. I always see being manipulative as a weakness. You have to go behind and puppeteer things because you don’t actually have the courage and the bravery to confront it head on. But, it’s fun to play that as an actress. That’s what draws you to acting, you get to play the shadow self, you get to play all of these perspectives that you have inside that don’t have a functional place in this world.
On Being A Black Female Showrunner
CK: Honestly, I feel tired. I think trying to be a mom and a showrunner is exceptionally difficult. I think most of the people that I know who are successful showrunners have a stay-at-home spouse if they have children. I don’t. I have a little person, and she doesn’t understand why mommy has to go away, so I think that’s very difficult for me. When I got pregnant, Michelle King who I worked for on “The Good Wife” said to me, “OK well, you’ll now never be in the right place, from this point forward you will never be in the right place.” What I say to young women who want to do this job, and it’s not very popular, but what I always say to them is, “You can’t have it all, so you have to decide what it is that you want for your life. What is you ideal life, and then drive in that direction.” So how it feels is I am so fortunate to be able to help other women. I am so fortunate to be able to provide an environment that is safe where they will be promoted and taken seriously and all of those things. But at the same time, there’s a price and I pay that price. I think with showrunning you really need that stay-at-home spouse, you really do. I think that’s actually part of it. Now, you have to pay that person (laughing), but I do think there is something to be said for how much work it is. Still to this day, there are showrunner meetings at the Writers Guild of America (WGA), I go in and let’s say there’s sixty people there; there’s five women and two people of color. I’m counting myself in both of those. I’ve been in meetings where I was the only woman. A lot of my meetings at the network, I’m the only woman and that happens more than I’m the only person of color. With this show specifically, I will be in rooms with people of color and there are no women. That happens a lot, and that’s tiresome. That’s really tiresome. So I’m physically tired, and I’m tired in the sense that I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the fact that there are so few of me anywhere. I write about that on the show a lot. I write about the fact that when Angela goes to the restroom she’s alone. One of the things we constructed in season two was that the only way she could get to Holly was when Holly went to the restroom because Angela wasn’t allowed to participate. The men elbowed her out of what was happening even though it was her idea. She seizes her moment in the bathroom, and that was carefully cultivated because there was no such thing as a female space. That was the one female space. So that’s on purpose.
On the Lifespan of “Power”
CK: It’s not up to me. It’s super not up to me, because it’s about Starz and their programming, their schedule, and all sorts of elements that I can’t control. Someone is going to have a great idea that is cheaper than mine. Right now we are a very expensive television program and we’re only going to get more expensive. I think that I walked in and pitched five years, but that’s classic. That’s not about me or about “Power”, that’s what you do as a showrunner. That’s the old school way of doing it. Could the show go longer than five years? Absolutely. Could the show be shorter than five years? If nobody watches season three, it’ll be shorter than five years. I know what the end of the series is. There’s certain characters that have to meet their end in order for the thing I want to happen in the very end of the series to happen. So, those people could die season four, those people could die season five, or those people could die season six. It depends. Also, some other characters ascensions need to happen.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami