By Derek Lawrence
May 19, 2021 at 04:30 PM EDT
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Mekai Curtis has the Power now.

The 20-year-old actor is set to lead the latest entry in Starz's most powerful universe, stepping into the shoes of 50 Cent for the prequel series Power Book III: Raising Kanan. That fact was a secret from even Curtis until his final audition.

"I knew it was Power, so that was the thing I was excited about," says Curtis, who got his start with Disney shows like Kirby Buckets. "I didn't care, I just wanted to be on Power. So when they told me, "You're going to play Kanan," I was like, "Oh! Okay, all right."

Following the groundbreaking success of Power and sequel series Power Book II: Ghost, Raising Kanan travels back to 1991 and follows 15-year-old Kanan Stark — a "kid trying to figure out who he is in life," says Curtis, and a far cry from 50's cold-blooded fan favorite who met his demise in Power season 5.

Uber producer 50 Cent, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, won't be seen onscreen, but serves as Kanan's producer, narrator, and theme-song performer. Joining Curtis in the cast is Omar Epps (Juice, House) as Det. Malcolm Howard and Patina Miller (Tony winner and Madam Secretary alum) as Raq, a drug queenpin and Kanan's ride-or-die mom.

Power Book III: Raising Kanan
Credit: Cara Howe/Starz

Ahead of Kanan's July 18 premiere, EW chatted with Curtis about learning from 50, seeking the advice of Power and Ghost star Michael Rainey Jr., and delivering "a Power that you haven't seen before."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before being approached for Kanan, what was your relationship with Power?

MEKAI CURTIS: I was a fan. My parents actually were the biggest fans and I kind of was sleeping on it for the first two seasons, but then I came around and I've been hooked ever since. So when I got the call to be a part of the universe myself, I lost it for a second.

So you get the call, you're all in on the show at that point, but, besides your fandom, what made you want to pursue being young Kanan Stark?

I literally had no knowledge that I was playing Kanan or it was Raising Kanan until my chemistry read, which was my last audition. Up until this point, we were using code names. I knew it was Power, so that was the thing I was excited about. I didn't care, I just wanted to be on Power. So when they told me, "You're going to play Kanan," I was like, "Oh! Okay, all right." [Laughs]

That's amazing. Not only do we want to hire you, but also you're going to be playing the younger version of one of the show's most popular characters. How closely have you been working with 50 then? I know he has been a big champion and supporter of Michael Rainey Jr., so has it been the same for you? I have to imagine there's no better resource than the OG Kanan.

Oh, that's factual. The relationship between me and 50 has been great. Ever since the jump, he's just always been there. He's always got stories, whether Kanan was doing something that kind of resembled something he was doing when he was younger, or little nuggets. Between the, I think, 7 or 8 other shows that he's got in the air, whenever I get a chance to sit down and chop it with him, I take it.

Power is so big, the fans are so passionate, and 50 was so memorable as Kanan, so you're obviously excited to get the role, but then did you ever get hit with a sense of pressure going into it as well?

Absolutely. For me, I think with pressure, I rise to the occasion. So when I really found out, "Yeah, you're going to be playing Kanan," the first thought I had was, "Alright, how do we take such a giant character that people have known and loved and take that same essence to the beginning of the character? How do we keep the integrity of what 50 and [Power creator] Courtney [Kemp] built with this character and storyline?" And also give the fans something new and some totally new insight into this person.

Have you had the chance to talk with Michael at all? I don't know if there's like a young Power support group or text chain or anything.

Yeah, we got to hang a couple weeks ago. Gianni [Paolo], who is on Ghost as well, invited me out to hang with them. So we got a chance to chop it up and talk all things Power, all things life, post and pre-COVID, how that's affected being on-set. He's been a guiding light, because he's kind of the OG of this [franchise], so I've been looking to him for how to move in certain situations.

Considering we have all seen who Kanan became, there's a bit of a template there to work from. For you, bringing this younger version to life, how much did you study what 50 did on Power? Were you trying to replicate any part of that, or were you actually aiming to do something completely new?

I feel like I did all of the above. I went back, I started watching Power again, just to see the mannerisms he has or certain cadences or whatever, certain relationships that might pop back up with what's happening. Just trying to get his dialect and his movement down to bring that essence to the character, while also establishing that this is like 30 or so years in the past. So it's keeping that essence but also reverse-engineering it to give myself room to grow with the character to eventually get to where 50 had Kanan.

So then tell me about this version of Kanan. What is he like, and how does he differ from the Kanan we've come to know?

I think younger Kanan differs from older Kanan in terms of the instinct and the feeling of what Kanan stood for. What he does has always been there, but I think there's a little bit more wisdom and understanding that comes with being in the game and the life that he's in. Where you're going to find Kanan when we catch up with him in Book III in terms of his overall mindset is he's a 15-year-old kid trying to figure out who he is in life. He's trying to figure out how to move and adjust and be there for his family while also being there for himself. So that's a lot of what you'll get to see Kanan go through and struggle with in this first season, compared to how you find him so cool, calm, collected, and a little more ruthless when we find him in the original Power.

A little more ruthless is a nice way to put it. And having seen a bit of Raising Kanan so far, it would appear that some of that ruthlessness will come from his mother Raq, played by Patina Miller. That relationship is so crucial to this story, as, after all, she is the one doing the titular raising of Kanan. How would you describe that bond and its impact on him?

His mother is his world; he'll do anything for her, he'll do anything for his family. She's at the head of it all, so whatever she needs done or wants done, he'll do whatever he can to make sure his mother's good, his family's good. One of the biggest themes that you're going to see throughout the show is a mother's love for her son, a son's love for his mother, and what they're willing to do to protect each other.

There's a few people that I was excited to learn were going to be on the show. No. 1, Omar Epps. I mean, who doesn't love Omar Epps?

He's the GOAT, man.

He's been incredible for going on three decades now. So what's it like getting to work with him?

I just sit back and watch whenever I can. He's been around so long and he's done this so many times, so whatever tidbits and information he might have, I'm always listening, watching, observing how he takes on scenes and what his process might be for that certain situation. It's been enjoyable.

Power Book III: Raising Kanan
Credit: Cara Howe/Starz

Speaking of enjoyable, Joey Bada$$ is also in the cast, and he was so good anytime that he popped up on Mr. Robot. I'm intrigued to see him here in what appears to be a very different role.

Joey's another one. Getting to work with Joey is super dope, because he's an incredible artist, an incredibly creative mind, and an incredible person. There's always good vibes when he's around, always jokes in-between scenes, and just chopping it up and having a good time. He's good people. It's really, really dope. I truly enjoy my cast.

Even London Brown who was one of the funniest parts of Ballers!

It's a loaded cast. It keeps you on your toes.

I also didn't realize ahead of time that young Jukebox was going to be such a big presence, which will give us some further insight into that adult relationship we saw on Power between her and Kanan. I know it's a little tougher than on Ghost since that is set right after Power, but should we expect some crossover in the universe?

I doubt it. I don't know if [Kanan creator] Sascha [Penn] and [Power creator] Courtney [Kemp] have those superpowers. I'm sure they've got some sort of spell somewhere to make storylines and timelines crossover like that. [Laughs] But I think we're going to be stuck right in the '90s with this one.

My dream scenario is that we connect with how the Power series finale ended with a flashback to young Tommy, Ghost, and Angela. But then I went back and checked, and, unfortunately, they were in 1996 and this is 1991. So I guess we have to wait until like season 6 of Kanan.

Yeah, it's going to be a couple of years. That's kind of how their storyline unfolded anyway. It was a couple years that Kanan was in the game and understood his world before he even ran into Tommy and Ghost.

Courtney and 50 had their choice of so many different stories to tell after Power ended, so what do you think it is about Kanan's origins that made this one worthy of further exploration?

What I think makes it most worth telling is, like I said, Ghost and Tommy learned everything they know about the game and the business from Kanan. Kanan was their senior, he brought them into the fold and showed them what they were doing. Another interesting thing is a lot of people notice the connection that Tariq and Kanan had in terms of the sympathy that Kanan felt towards Tariq when a lot of the world wasn't really rocking with him like that. So people were interested in seeing what makes him tick in that way, especially that last scene we saw of Kanan — why didn't he take the opportunity to do what he had ultimately set out to do when he started getting close to Tariq? But he flipped it on its head and left everybody confused. So I think with Book III we'll really get into why we saw him in that light in his ending days.

That's really an interesting point that I hadn't even thought of, because having just seen the first episode of Kanan I feel like it explains a lot with that Tariq and Kanan relationship. He probably saw a little bit of himself.

There's definitely some resemblance. I think Kanan actually said that in an episode of the original Power. He's like, "I see myself in you."

Great job, Courtney, planting that seed and paying it off!

Oh yeah, she's incredible at what she does.

In summary, what would be your message to Power fans on why they should check out Raising Kanan and what they can look forward to if they do?

I think Power fans should check out Raising Kanan just because Raining Kanan is dope. That's it, end quote. [Laughs]

Not a bad way to go out.

To be completely honest with you, I haven't really thought about that part of it. I just know that with Raising Kanan you're going to get to a Power that you haven't seen before. I'll start with the '90s. It was just a different time period; the clothes, the music, just the overall atmosphere, and mindset were a lot grittier and grimier. You don't really get to see that sort of thing on TV anymore. That's one thing, sitting down and talking to Sascha, we want to stay true to what that time was, even in our lingo and the way we talk and how certain words weren't really big then or they meant a certain thing then so we try to stray away from them. There's just a certain charm that I think the '90s has that everybody should experience. I'm kind of a '90s fanatic in a way. I feel like I should have been born in the '90s but I was literally one year off. Every day I step on set I literally step into a time machine.

Power Book III: Raising Kanan premieres July 18 on Starz.

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