It's no big secret that television "diversity" these days often means casting a black actor as the incongruous best friend of the lead actor in an otherwise all-white world.
Joseph Sikora's Tommy Egan in the Starz drama Power is the flip side. He's the white best friend in an otherwise almost all-black world.
Sikora gets the irony. In fact, he says with a laugh, "I'm playing the white best friend again in my next project," Jacob's Ladder with Michael Ealy.
But on Power, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET, Tommy Egan isn't the good-natured sidekick who rarely gets much of a story of his own. Tommy's right there in the heart of Power, and without him one of the best shows on television would be very different.
Nor is Tommy the admirable white guy, like Alec Baldwin in Mississippi Burning and dozens of other shows, who nobly saves mistreated black folks.
No, Tommy is a mean-eyed cat in a show full of psycho-killers, a status confirmed two weeks ago when his impulsive act of ultra-violence created one of those scenes that makes everything stop while the characters and the viewers try to absorb what he just did.
Tommy Egan is the running buddy of James "Ghost" St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) (above). Their backstory is unfolding gradually, but Tommy grew up on the shady side of the law and got most of his education on the street.
When Power launched, Ghost and Tommy were jointly running a drug distribution network with different personal goals. The elegant, polished Ghost wanted to make enough money to open the high-end nightclub his father always dreamed about. Tommy wanted to make money, period.
"Tommy isn't the kind of guy who thinks about what he'll be doing when he's 60," says Sikora. "He knows that in his line of work, he'll probably never get there. So he's looking for more immediate rewards. To Tommy, every day is a gift."
But for now, Tommy and Ghost are linked.
"They're two sides of the same coin," says Sikora. "What Tommy lacks, Ghost has, and vice versa."
In a world where almost no one trusts anyone else, Ghost and Tommy trusted each other - until late in Season 2, when they fell out.
Ghost wanted to go legit, quit the drug game, settle down with a family. Tommy wanted to keep the drug deal going. Each feared the other was going to screw it up.
The last few episodes have brought them back into a common world, but perhaps with a new edge.
"They're both on journeys of self-discovery," says Sikora. "But between them, they're not just having a little dispute. This is serious. The question is can it be rectified, and I think it can't.
"They're both going to use what they know about each other, and that's almost everything. It's like a male/female breakup, where someone says maybe we can still be friends. Can they? Or will they just fall back into old habits?"
Forgiving is tough in the life-or-death world of Power, where Ghost's attempt to break away from the drug world is complicated by the fact his mentor Kanan (Fifty Cent) just got out of prison and wants to get back into the game himself.
Trusting anyone on Power can be dangerous.
"It's the KRS-One line," says Sikora. "If you're soft, you're lost."
Still, Sikora's Tommy isn't just a cold psychopath.
"Tommy's different when you see him in a family situation," says Sikora. "Like with Ghost's wife (Naturi Naughton, above) or the kids. He does regular things. He's completely different from when he's on the street."
Tommy is also funny, on a show whose storyline doesn't leave a lot of openings for laughs.
There's a scene early in the third season where Tommy is auditioning potential new drug clients, and in each of the scenes he's stuffing his face while he negotiates, talking between bites.
"Sometimes Tommy is the comic relief," says Sikora, whose own comic resume includes work on Adult Swim. "But he doesn't think of himself as funny. The important thing is never acknowledge your own joke."
Still, the heart of Tommy's story and in some ways the heart of the show is his relationship with Ghost, which Sikora says is complicated enough that he's still piecing it together himself.
It helps, he says, that "Omari and I are friends outside the set. We know each other pretty well, and I think that shows in the scenes between Tommy and Ghost. It looks like we've known each other all our lives.
"I'm so grateful to work with Omari. You can tell these guys have a real understanding of each other."
Writer Courtney Kemp set Tommy up nicely, Sikora says, and then he filled in some of the other colors.
"I developed a backstory for Tommy, with Omari," he says. "We drove through Queens, to the places where Tommy grew up. Fifty took us to his old neighborhood and we talked to some of the people there."
Power finishes its third season Sept. 25 and it's been renewed for seasons four and five. That's a long time for any character on this show to survive, including Tommy Egan, but Sikora says the best friend shouldn't be underestimated.
"Tommy is smarter than he thinks he is," says Sikora. "In the past, Ghost would tell him, 'This is your part.' Now that Tommy has been putting together his own operation, he's feeling like 'Hey, I know these things. I was learning from Ghost all those years.' He just has to rely more on finesse."