Omari Hardwick was unsurprisingly stoked when his team handed him pages for a new screenplay from Zack Snyder. The innovative director was setting up an original action-packed heist movie called Army of the Dead that involved zombies taking over Las Vegas, and wanted Hardwick for the role of Vanderohe. The only catch was his character didn’t have a line of dialogue in the script.
“I was a little confused, but once I got on the phone with Zack, he explained it all to me,” Hardwick tells Men’s Journal. During that conversation, he learned his castmate Dave Bautista was originally meant to play Vanderohe, but was written into the role of Scott Ward, who acts as leader of the motley crew, instead. “But what he did assure me was he was going to be a character I didn’t want to stop playing.”
The re-write also gave Hardwick an opportunity to help formulate the identity of a chainsaw-wielding, zombie-killing philosopher. We spoke with the actor about creating his character from the ground up, hanging with the cast in New Mexico, and putting on 20 pounds of muscle.
How Omari Hardwick Became Vanderohe for ‘Army of the Dead’
Men’s Journal: The release of this movie has been massive, but in a different context than most blockbusters. What’s the experience been like?
Omari Hardwick: The reception has been very humbling. A lot of people have been reaching out—childhood friends, great directors, producers, even Shaquille O’Neal. I probably feel how Gerard Butler felt during 300 as far as production and working with Zack [Snyder] goes. Going into the roll out of this movie, I’ve thought about my colleagues like Chadwick [Boseman], Michael B. Jordan, and John David Washington. It’s a funny moment for me because unlike those guys, my movies are coming out at a strange time and I’m not able to celebrate in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Sure, we don’t have a gangbuster rollout, but the movie itself is going to be that gangbuster. I think it’s kind of nice that in some ways this release will be a little more intimate. This is not an introduction of Omari Hardwick, but it’s definitely a reintroduction. There’s a large part of my fanbase who would like to see me play Ghost for the rest of my career, but I think these movies have made it clear to them I’m spreading my wings and I have a lot of tricks in my bag.
What were your initial thoughts on how Zack put this movie together and the world he created?
Sports have been such a foundational place for me, and because of that I always think of the team above the “I’. In regards to Army of the Dead, it really works because there’s such a large team, such an amazing ensemble. Zack did such a great job of making each person their own individual character. He gave nuances and traits that were unique just to them. That was very special. So from a production and storyline perspective, going into this project I knew it was very special. The way Zack told this story is so beautiful. The zombies are kind of the backdrop. At the forefront of the movie are these broken characters who are not only in search of money but in search of themselves. That’s even so for Zeus, the alpha zombie played by Richard Cetrone. Leave it to Zack to create such a world.
Do you remember where you were when you first read the script?
I was on vacation in South Florida at the time, and it was Mother’s Day. My agent told me he really wanted me to take a look at something. He told me Zack Snyder was at the helm. You know he had me at “Zack Snyder.” [My wife] Jae told me to go for it. She comes from the world of producers, so she knows what it means when someone says a script needs to be read. But there’s not one trace of my character in the script at all. I mean I’m at page 75 thinking, I guess he comes in a little later.
Since there wasn’t much on the page at the time, how did Snyder explain Vanderohe to you?
Snyder said Vanderohe was simply someone I’d never want to let go of—that once I played this guy, I was going to want to hold onto him. Does that mean a sequel? I don’t know. All I know is he was right.
That chainsaw is pretty epic. What was it like holding it?
I got to set a few months after that conversation, and I realized the chainsaw was part of the call sheet. I felt like it was a cast member. I think it will be implanted permanently into the minds of not just zombie geeks, but everyone else. You’re not going to forget that chainsaw.
Speaking of call sheets, what was it like working with this cast?
Connecting with Bautista, it was like two athletes talking about their lives with sports. He shared with me that he didn’t come up with the foundation I had, having played football as a kid. He said he came into being comfortable with his body and using it properly later in life. Even though he was this huge figure in the wrestling world, he didn’t feel truly comfortable until now. I saw the vulnerability that came with that, and also respected his ability to get open with a guy he just met. I realized that is why he’s so appealing on screen, because of those qualities.
It was interesting to go from working with Theo [Rossi] on American Skin to doing this movie right after. Theo and I kept talking about our futures and what it looked like. It was interesting getting to have that kind of conversation even though we’ve known each other for a while. I respected the maturity and class of Garrett Dillahunt. He was that cast member that really made me feel anchored. He just has that. I don’t know exactly what it is, but he just has it.
And of course I loved getting to know all of the amazing women. I knew Ana [de la Reguera] previously from Power, but it was great getting to meet Ella, Nora, and Huma, who unfortunately I didn’t get any scenes with. But Zack really put together a crew I enjoyed getting to know, and not sure if we would have been brought together in another circumstance.
Coming from a sports background, did that factor into how you prepared for the role?
I gained 20 pounds for the role. I think I may have done myself a disservice, because now people are asking if I’m okay because I did it like that. Now I’m back to my playing weight. I like that people are starting to know me for building characters from the inside out. But for the first time, I also focused deeply on that external element for Vanderohe, and made the decision that this guy needs to be a lot bigger.
Some of that was so Dave Bautista didn’t feel like an odd man out, because he’s such a large guy. I knew I could get my arms big, because they never really go anywhere. My arms tend to stay big, but I just needed to get everything else big. I communicated with Phil Heath, seven-time Mr. Olympia, about how to put on the size. I told him I didn’t want to take any supplements. I wasn’t interested in that method. He just told me I had to eat like crazy, and that it wasn’t going to be comfortable. I used him as a director for that element of my life, as much as Zack Snyder was directing me in the movie. He would give his blessing as long as I was eating the volume of food I needed to and getting in the proper caloric intake.
I was eating so much red meat to enhance my natural creatine. He also had me decrease the cardio. Since the temperature was over 100 degrees in New Mexico, that was going to help. He told me to keep walking on the treadmill instead of sprinting. I got to where I wanted to be in just about 20 days.
Did that training happen on set too?
Definitely. There were incredible military guys and special operations crew that came with Zack and were there to make sure we were doing things properly during those gun fight scenes, as far as entering a room, clearing the room, and exiting. That was good exercise and movement to be learning. Between that work I would do pushups with the heavy chainsaw on my back. Everyone was helping me out. Matthias was bringing me food. Nora was telling me it was time to eat. Ella was doing the same. But that’s what it takes to achieve goals like that.
Army of the Dead is now available on Netflix.