Terrence Howard is in Los Angeles for only a handful of days, having come from a movie set in Canada and preparing to head to Memphis, Tenn., for an MTV promotion for his new film, Hustle & Flow. He is overbooked to the point of absurdity; when he mentions an additional appointment scheduled for this evening, even his publicist chides, "Three meetings, Terry?" He is also carrying on several conversations at once with people coming in and out of his suite, asking about movie posters (for Crash and Hustle & Flow), trade ads (touting his performance in the TV movie Their Eyes Were Watching God for an Emmy), and which Hollywood players had requested screenings of Hustle (Prince, Martin Scorsese, Ice Cube, and Quincy Jones). Several times during our interview, Howard has to excuse himself—twice to take phone calls from other reporters, once to have a heated conversation with an actor friend who is concerned about a potential project. After their lengthy discussion, Howard looks downtrodden. "I think I just pissed off one of my best friends," he mutters. "We've known each other for 14 years, he believed in me. And now…I didn't screw him, but they're trying to make too many things happen, and I'm not in a position to make happen right now. But what he doesn't realize is, the more people want you, the less available you are."
And right now, everyone wants Howard. After years of toiling in projects that either wasted his talents (Biker Boyz, his role as the young A.C. Cowlings in The O.J. Simpson Story) or hinted at the greatness within (Ray, The Best Man, Lackawanna Blues), Howard suddenly finds himself at the peak of his career with two critically acclaimed and high-profile projects. Still in theatres is Crash, in which Howard plays Cameron, an African-American television director struggling to maintain his identity in a world of overt and subtle racism. As Cameron slowly loses his cool façade, Howard's raging performance provides some of the most powerful moments in the film: In a pivotal moment, he stares down his carjacker (played by rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and cuts him in half with one simple statement. Up next is writer-director Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow (see sidebar) in which Howard captivates as DJay, a Memphis pimp struggling to make it in the music scene. The film, which won the Audience Award at Sundance this year, is a gritty unflinching look at a life less ordinary, anchored by Howard's intensity and charisma. His DJay is frequently unsympathetic and downright unlikeable, yet somehow the actor makes us care about his journey.
It's easy to see why Brewer and producer Stephanie Allain pursued Howard so ardently for the role. In person he is effortlessly charming, with a slow, smooth voice that reminds you of listening to a great jazz musician. He looks at you when he speaks, sometimes to an unnerving degree; it's easy to see why Bridges wilted under that steely glare. But he is also shy and polite, and clearly overwhelmed by all the attention. Asked if this attention is strange to him, he smiles slyly. "Yeah," he admits. "I don't know how to talk anymore. I used to be very eloquent, but I've lost all of that." Asked if he's enjoying this whirlwind of attention, he hesitates. "I am," he finally says, noting his only regret is having to turn things down. "I would love to go and see and meet and talk and be a part of everybody's films. But I'm not in a position to do that."
Back Stage West: Did you have any idea when you were making Hustle & Flow it could result in all this attention—for the film and for yourself?
Terrence Howard: No. I was just doing a favor for Craig and Stephanie. They were standing behind me so much and had so much faith in me. I thought it was going to be like a workshop, where you can get into something and be daring because it ain't going nowhere. It was going to be a movie we did, and I'd call Craig one day and say, "Hey, you got a copy of that thing so I can take a look at it?" I had no idea. When they said they were applying to Sundance, I was, like, "Well, they're out of their mind. Sundance is going to look at them like they're crazy." I didn't know the quality of it. They said Sundance had already told them after watching it that it would be a part of [the festival]. Then I got nervous. But when I watched it at Sundance, I saw how tastefully they had put the movie together.
BSW: Is it true you really didn't want to play the role of DJay?
Howard: Well, you've got to imagine: [Craig and Stephanie] approached me and said, "Hey Terrence, I got a great script for you." I was, like, "Well, what's it about?" They said Craig wrote the script for me, but on the first page when they're describing the guy, he was described as "dark skinned," and I was, like, "You didn't write this for me. Can the pimp game right now." Then I read that the guy was a pimp that wants to be a rapper, and I was, like, "Freeze, hold up!" We were here at this very hotel. I was meeting with Stephanie, and I had my three children swimming in the pool. I was still in the water with my babies, and I came up to the edge, talking to her while I'm swimming. She said, "It's a pimp that wants to be a rapper." I was, like, "Take a look around you right now. Do I look like I'm anywhere near that frame of mind? To climb into that headspace, I would have to leave my children behind, and they need me now."
She said, "You don't understand." I said, "I do understand. It's a pimp that wants to be a rapper. And none of those are things that I want to play." And I wouldn't read the script, I just wouldn't read it for a few months. Then I finally sat down one day and read it after they left me alone. And I saw this one part in the very beginning where he was talking to [his girlfriend] about how, "I feel like my motor's off, I can't get right," and he starts thinking it's the end. I had the question, "What is it for him? What is it that he was trying to accomplish?" That got me intrigued. It wasn't inside the script, what he wanted to accomplish. He had a dream to do music, but then what? I had to play detective. I'm into math and science, and so I had to find the function of "X" with its relationship to "Y" to find out who this guy was. If I could do that, maybe I could find a piece of myself in it.
I listened to Craig's passion and Stephanie Allain—she stood by me after I said I was going to do it, and the studios were, like, "Well, if you get a rapper, we'll give you money to do it, but not with Terrence." They wouldn't even give them a dollar. I called Stephanie, after I had heard they were turned down the 19th or 20th time, and I was just going to free them up. I said, "Look, I'm not doing the movie. I wish you the best of luck." I wouldn't talk to her for two weeks after that. But she was persistent and she stuck by me.
BSW: You withdrew yourself from the film so they could get it made?
Howard: Yeah, I wanted them to have what they needed.
BSW: Speaking of rappers in films, you've made two movies now in which you shared some intense scenes with Ludacris [also in Hustle]. Yet a lot of actors don't want to work with rap stars.
Howard: I don't know why not; musicians are some of the most truly gifted people on this planet. Not only do they understand language and communication, but they can put it in a poetic sense and deliver a message straight to the heart, straight to the spirit and soul. And it can involve more than just your ears; it can involve your entire being. So if they can translate that into being an actor—'cause an actor talks to the spirit—it seems a natural transition for someone who uses the spirit and the thought process.
BSW: You're a self-taught musician, correct?
Howard: Yes. But I think everyone kind of is. You learn from people as you go along. Most of the truly great musicians that I know of all sat down and created their own style because it's an essence, an urge inside of you that has to communicate.
BSW: Do you think you could have played DJay without having a musical background?
Howard: No, because I wouldn't have had anything in common with him. I know how much I used to want to be a songwriter. I remember I used to go around and sing songs to people, but I didn't know how to play an instrument. The door was shut on me so many times, until I learned to play an instrument and said, "This is it." Knowing DJay had that desire to make his music but didn't have the instruments to make it, I could find the common ground in my life to understand it.
BSW: Was there a lot of improvisation in the Hustle & Flow performance?
Howard: Very little. Craig had such a specific recipe for the meal he was preparing. He was preparing Memphis. Memphis is made up of tradition and long-rooted establishment. It has its own way about it that's existed for hundreds of years, so you can't throw any improv. You can't be abstract in painting Memphis. It was a greater challenge for me because I couldn't just make up something, I had to make what he put together work and find the reasons behind it. It was a great challenge, a great acting exercise for me.
BSW: Both Crash and Hustle & Flow come armed with a surprising sense of humor. Was it hard to find the levity in such serious situations?
Howard: No, because you often find comedy when you're telling the truth. True human relations have levity and laughter. Humor is to make light of a heavy situation; that's how we make it palatable to where it doesn't destroy us. We have to giggle at it, even if it might be breaking your back. That's the work of a great writer and director—someone that can bring all those elements of human communication into a strange and negative world. Because our world is a dark world. Both worlds, where Cameron was locked inside of a place where he had to try and strip off his own humanity just to be accepted in their world, and the same thing with DJay—he had to get rid of his own conscience just to survive in this dog-eat-doggone world. So I took a lot of pride in playing both those people because they had hope.
BSW: How did you initially get into acting? Weren't your mother and grandmother both actors?
Howard: My whole family has been actors, probably for the last 100 years. I know my great-grandmother started acting in the 30s, and her mother was involved with stage, and her father was part of their team, so it was kind of a theatrical group.
BSW: So was it always assumed you would go into acting?
Howard: No, I was going to be a neurosurgeon. I had a natural inclination to it. But you know what I feel takes place with people? Generations of families—like carpenters, you take four generations of carpenters, and after time the children become adept at it. Genetically the muscles in their hands are a little stronger, just because that's constantly used, and it leaves a genetic imprint for the next generation. Same with me and acting. My family had emotional capacity. They were very vocal and could flip out and fly off the edge. They were very good liars, which is the raw materials for becoming an actor. Ultimately you find the gift of storytelling is naturally apparent. Then, once you put these raw materials into a refined process, you ultimately get a beautiful thing.
BSW: So when did you decide to pursue it professionally?
Howard: Even though my family was in the business, everybody had to break in on their own. Nobody got grandfathered in. My brother was approached by the casting director of The Cosby Show, and I just asked if I could tag along. I tagged along every time I had an opportunity, and sooner or later they gave me a shot, and that was the birth of all of this for me.
BSW: Without formal training, was it more difficult than you thought it would be when you first stepped in front of the camera?
Howard: There's an artificial timing associated with television, and that was hard. I had no mastery of it, and it was difficult. Actors spend years and eons trying to learn how to be natural in an unnatural circumstance. It takes its time. Fortunately the business is forgiving in giving you a few years to get prepared.
BSW: Are you glad to be having such a breakthrough year at 36, rather than, say, 10 years ago?
Howard: I couldn't have played any of these characters I've played this year or last year 10 years ago. I couldn't have done it five years ago. I just wasn't ready for it. You have to pick up a certain amount of emotional baggage to be able to relate and have a bag in which to dig into and say, "Hey, I've got a little trinket that resembles that emotion a little bit."
BSW: Acting can be such a difficult profession. Have you ever gotten fed up with it?
Howard: Oh, I walked away from the business two or three times. I walked away in '95 and walked away again in '97. But I realized that even though I could get a job someplace else, that thing that drew me here initially was still there. There are people out there who have no business being actors—because they weren't called to it; it's a calling. But those that know that they are actors know it from infancy, from day one. They don't know how it's all gonna happen, but they know it's gonna happen. They follow their instinct. People always ask me, "How do I get in the business? How do I do this?" I tell them, "If you're supposed to be in the business, you will find a way. If you've got to ask me that question, you might consider doing something else."
BSW: How often do you find yourself pursuing roles that weren't specifically written for an African-American man?
Howard: Well, you know, they have their formula in the studio of what they want and what they need, and they have a whole geographic thing set up…. I don't know. Sometimes you have to war against the machine because the machine may be designed to just bend 45 degrees, but you know that if you can get this thing to 70 degrees, it will be a lot more efficient and palatable. It's been a constant battle, but you don't mind the war. That's my job, to make somebody consider me when I wasn't under consideration before. Because you walk inside that room, the reason they're seeing 100 people is because they really don't know what and who they want. And it's your job to convince them that you are what they need. I've found the best way to do that, it's like talking to a woman. If you're all up over her, "I love you, I love you, I love you; date me, date me, date me," she's not going to have anything to do with you. People love a challenge. I know that 99 percent of the people are coming into that room, trying to explain to the producers and directors and executives whey they're the best person for the job. But I go in there, I ask a couple questions, and what I say more than not is, "I wish you the best of luck, I don't think I'm right for it." I get up to leave, and if they stop me and say, "Wait a minute, why do you think you're not right for it?" it means they're open. And when I leave, an hour later, I get a call from my agent. Always.
You know what you can do, and you know what you can't. And if they're headed in a direction that doesn't suit what you're trying to accomplish, then you've got to respect it and walk away. You have to have the dignity to walk away. You can't just try to fit in any old suit. If you're a 44 long, don't try and get into a 38 short. You'll see a lot of people do that, and it's humiliating and embarrassing for the casting director sitting there watching it. Bring some dignity to your game: If it doesn't fit you, don't put it on.
BSW: What about when you really want a role; do you still play it cool?
Howard: Oh, yeah, you still gotta play it cool the best you can. But I've been asked to leave a room a couple times, actually. The director will say, "Thank you," like, that's it—and I'm, like, "No, baby, you can't say, 'Thank you,' to me on this one. Let's talk. Now, if you gotta call security, call security, but I'm going to have these minutes with you." Sometimes you got to woo them. But you've got to know when you can win and when it's something you just can't get.
BSW: Again, congratulations on a really great year.
Howard: Thank you, and one last word out to the readers: I look forward to seeing the young talent that's supposed to come and fill the shoes and spaces that I've left behind. And never, never lose faith in the gift that was given to you. BSW