Scene stealer

He broke through in "Ray" and "Crash," and now he's stepping front and center -- and earning raves -- in "Hustle & Flow." Is it any wonder that Terrence Howard is feeling so darn giddy?

Topics: Movies,

Scene stealer

Terrence Howard is an incredibly happy guy. And he should be. He’s spent more than a decade acting in relative obscurity, taking smallish parts in biggish films like “Dead Presidents,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Big Momma’s House,” starring in a couple of quickly canceled TV series (“Tall Hopes” and “Sparks”), and making at least one awful career choice (he turned down John Singleton’s “Shaft” to play Muhammad Ali in a made-for-television movie). He appeared in dozens of films — a recognizable face, but not attached to any particular name. Then he landed in “Ray,” playing Ray Charles’ friend and music partner Gossie McKee (and demonstrating his musical talents), and then in Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” and that’s when everything changed. As Cameron, a successful black director who suffers the indignity of watching a racist cop feel up his wife, Howard’s performance was one of the film’s most memorable, both for its emotion and its restraint, and suddenly not only did he seem to be in every new film, you also remembered his name.

Now Howard, 36, has his first starring role, in the independent film “Hustle & Flow,” out this Friday. In it, he plays DJay, a Memphis pimp and drug dealer who goes through a midlife crisis when he reaches the age at which his father died. Realizing that he’s always wanted to be a musician, DJay uses his hustling skills to put together a demo tape to give to a rap star (played by Ludacris) who may or may not be DJay’s childhood friend. But while the suspense involved in the buildup to their meeting keeps the film moving, it’s Howard’s performance as a low-talking, streetwise pimp desperately trying to express himself through crunk that is the film’s real pleasure. It’s Howard’s performance, too, that earned “Hustle & Flow” the Sundance Audience Award and a heap of advance buzz. In the New Yorker last week, David Denby wrote of Howard, “His self-mocking performance is so ironically refined and allusive that one might think that Duke Ellington himself had slipped into an old undershirt and hit the fetid streets of Memphis.”



Howard had two other films at Sundance, too: the HBO film “Lackawanna Blues,” and a comedy called “The Salon.” Additionally, you can catch him soon in the upcoming Singleton film, “Four Brothers,” as well as “My Life in Idlewild,” a Prohibition-era musical.

But while Howard has every reason to be happy, I didn’t expect him to be quite as giddy as he was when we talked by phone. I had assumed that, as with most interview subjects, I would need to put Howard at ease, but to my surprise, it was he who spent most of the interview trying to get me to relax, smile and be happy. Over the course of our too-short interview (repeatedly interrupted by Howard’s publicist, working overtime to keep the busy actor on schedule), Howard gave me some of his theories on life and art, and even showed off his music skills.

Howard: How are you today?

Good, thanks. How are you?

I’m learning to be good.

You’re learning to be good?

Yeah, it’s a process.

Well, you must be a little happier these days, with all the attention you’ve been getting.

It’s the whole process of learning to be good that makes you happy. It’s the journey that makes you happy, not the destination.

Sure. Where are you calling from now?

Why did you say “sure”? That “sure” didn’t sound too honest.

No, I think you’re right. It’s the process.

Yeah, slow down a little bit. This is going to be fun.

OK.

I’m in New York right now. Flew in yesterday from L.A., where I was with Jay Leno. And he did the most wonderful thing on his show. The way he introduced me was, “I guarantee you this guy will get nominated for an Oscar this year.” And then at the end of the interview, he said it again. He said, “When you get nominated I want you back here.” And that was beautiful, so how can I not be in a happy place?

And I just heard “Lackawanna Blues” was nominated for an Emmy.

Yes it was. I’d like to send out congratulations to Ruben [Santiago-Hudson]. Ruben did such an amazing job in writing that. And it was directed by George Wolfe — that was his first, his first-born child in the cinematic world.

You’ve been acting for more than a decade, and now you’re suddenly all over the place. How does it feel, having waited for this moment for so long?

Well, it’s funny, I don’t get a chance to see it, like I missed “The Tonight Show.” You get so tired, and you’re just moving from place to place. But what is wonderful is that it’s the reporters I’m taking to, more than anyone else, who are informing me that people are talking about me. And that’s wonderful, that people are taking notice of you, like your life is significant and means something. Like you were supposed to be born, and that makes you feel wonderful, that you’re supposed to be here.

You’re filming two movies (“Animal” and “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”), and you’re also in two that are about to be released –

Yes, I just finished “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” and I’m so happy. We worked so hard, and it was like being in Cirque du Soleil. You know, you’re prepared to do the work required of you, but it’s strenuous work, so you’re hoping that you make it through another show, and that it will turn out beautiful and people will appreciate it, and that nobody slips and falls and breaks their neck. It’s so nice to be relaxed again.

Are you relaxing now?

Yeah, I flew in last night, got in at 2 o’clock, just ordered some breakfast, woke up at 10. It’s good. Played a little guitar, then just had a friend stop by and that was wonderful, and I’m just being refreshed, and I’m talking to you now!

I’m just curious how you fit all this into your day. You have two movies that are about to be released, and you are in three films that were just at Sundance. And you’re flying all over the place, doing press for “Hustle & Flow.” Have you discovered some hole in the space-time continuum that allows you to live 40-hour days, or what?

(laughs) No. I heard a poem a long time ago that said, “You’ve got to make the times your own, you’ve got to save the OK times for the times when things aren’t so good, and enjoy the good times.” So that’s what I’m doing right now. There’s a little bit of good time in everybody’s day. How’s your day?

It’s going very well so far, thank you.

Yeah, I like the smile, I can hear it.

(short laugh)

But that laugh wasn’t complete. C’mon, I can hear you smiling; it’s a nice feeling. The smile is the gift that keeps on giving, right?

Right.

I know this might sound like a lot of game to you, but it’s not! This is how everybody is supposed to talk to everyone, like friends, instead of as if we were strangers.

That’s probably a good rule to live by.

Think about it.

OK, I will.

I can hear you smiling again.

(longer laugh)

Now that’s a nice laugh. I like that one.

You’ve done big Hollywood productions, and now you’re doing tons of small-budget independent films. Was that a conscious switch?

The studios, where these big budgets are, the average film costs $40 million to $60 million to make — that’s a lot of people that’s got to be responsible for other people’s money, and they have to go by formulas. They can’t have any anomalies inside the formulas. So the actor doesn’t really get a chance to expand out. It’s a rehearsed format. Whereas with independent filmmaking, that’s a workshop, that’s where you learn how to expand out, because the stakes aren’t so high — since you’re not trying to scale across a span 100 feet up and 200 feet across. You’re only going across a 10-foot span, 3 feet up in the air. So you take chances, and it’s wonderful to take chances, even if you make mistakes, because it won’t kill you.

That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now: I’m learning right now, trying to figure out how to be good at this, and for that you just need a lot of practice. So if you can do eight independent projects in a year, that’s eight small film companies that you’re gaining from. It’s like class for me, but I can’t afford to take classes because I’ve got to feed my family. [Howard has three kids.]

John Singleton has compared you to James Dean, saying that, like him, you are “malleable, organic.”

Oh, that’s beautiful. Will you thank him for that?

OK, sure.

In the article you can thank him. Because that’s what you don’t hear too much. I’ve realized there are five phrases we need: “Thank you,” “Please,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do to help,” and “I love you.” Those five phrases are just great! So tell him I said thank you.

OK. But speaking of James Dean, you have something else in common with him. You play a lot of rebels (a pimp in “Hustle & Flow,” a bootlegger in “My Life in Idlewild,” etc.) — or at least criminally inclined guys with something to prove.

Are you saying I’m the bastard child of James Dean and Marlon Brando? (laughs)

Well, maybe! What do you think about that?

That’s cute! Both of those cats, they were determined, like Jack Johnson, to live their own way, and you’ve got to love them for that.

So are you determined to do things your own way?

You have to be. And that’s the artistry of life, because now everyone gets an opportunity to watch this masterpiece going along his way and to figure out how the strokes were made. That’s cute, too!

You also seem to be making a habit of working with rappers — Ludacris in “Crash” and “Hustle & Flow,” Andre 3000 in “Four Brothers,” and 50 Cent in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” What’s it like working with people who aren’t professional actors?

Well, what people fail to realize is I didn’t have any training coming into the business. I was just a singer/songwriter. I crashed a few auditions, got some spots, but then the only reason I did [the 1992 TV movie] “The Jacksons: An American Dream” was so I could meet [co-executive producer] Suzanne De Passe and people from Motown and the Jacksons, and sing these songs for them. So I was once just a musical artist. But then because of being an artist I was able to play in any field — any artist can draw a picture on a page or win an Oscar. So I give all these guys a shot, and their artistry will grow the more they learn the rules of this medium.

What kind of music do you play?

Want me to play something for you?

Sure.

(Can hear him picking up his acoustic guitar and start strumming, first a fast, jaunty tune and then a ballad. Sings):
Would you marry me
Would you always be
Be my everything?
That I’ll ever need
Would you hold me tight
Fill up all my life
‘Cos you’re my everything
That forever brings
Because you take me
To the very top of the world.

I just make up stuff, have fun.

That was great.

Are you smiling again?

Yeah, I’m smiling. So obviously that’s pretty different from crunk, which you had to sing for “Hustle & Flow.”

Not too different, man. It’s all music.

Did you study Memphis crunk to prepare for your role?

I just hung out and listened to the music. And you allow yourself to be affected by the environment. Like if you’re a piano player in a room where there are only trumpets, you’re going to have to figure out some form of expression in that language. So it was more like that — once I understood the language, I could play with it. Remember what Einstein said, about how everything is relative? That transcends the scientific realm. So if you understand one thing about one thing, you understand one thing about all things!

Publicist: This is going to have to be the last question.

Howard: Can we have two more minutes?

Publicist: Yeah, you have two minutes.

Howard: Thank you! (to me): Sorry, I’m making friends!

I have so many more questions to ask you.

Well you have many more opportunities to interview me — after “Hustle & Flow,” depending on how the hype turns out, then for “Four Brothers,” then we have “My Life in Idlewild” —

OK, but for this one, let me try to get in a few more. Let’s talk about your character in “Hustle & Flow.” For a drug dealer and pimp, DJay seems like such a nice, decent guy. I mean, if I were a $20 hooker, I’d want a pimp like that. I have to admit that, as much as I liked DJay, it made me uncomfortable to sympathize with a pimp. Was that part of your or [writer/director] Craig Brewer’s intention, or was that just me?

I was just playing his life, and however it was going to be interpreted, it would be interpreted. After I saw [the finished film] I realized, they kept the scene in the church. [In the film, DJay runs into an old friend, Key, a recording engineer, and follows him to a church, where Key records a gospel singer.] And I didn’t realize the significance of that scene until it was over. That was the first time DJay had been to church in 20 years, since his father died. And he had cut off all communication and his entire relationship with God and allows himself, this natural child of God, to become something ugly. He became the prodigal son, finding his way back to the stream. And that’s why people like him.

You once said, in a 2001 interview with the New York Times Magazine, “If I was white, I would be huge.” Now you’re getting huge — so have you cracked the race line, or have the rules of Hollywood changed?

Well, when I said, “If I was white, I would be huge,” I meant white as being able to be painted any color, in any picture. And now that they’ve erased the margins of color for me, as far as having a backdrop, now you can paint anything you want. So I can expand even more now. It’s a system of trust — they learn to trust your work over time.

So you don’t think it’s just become easier for black actors to —

No, it was never racial. There was no racial tint to it. But I had to learn back then, because I’d make these long-winded statements that fit together as a picture, but someone would just use a small piece from it, and not use the entire picture.

OK. Well, I also read somewhere that you’ve admitted to being bad with women — are you getting any practice these days?

No, let the 20-year-olds chase down the women. I spent many years growing up, so I’m just happy to be balanced again with my family.

Ebony magazine called you “Hollywood’s ‘hottest’ heartthrob” — that’s got to have stirred some changes in your love life.

I think the “hottest heartthrob” just might be the sensitivity and the vulnerability that people seem to see in me. And that’s what makes the heart move — sensitivity. And with all the heat and attention being on me right now — I see it all in a real good, not some sexual, way.

What would be your dream role? Who are you just dying to play next?

I don’t know. I’m looking to play a father. Just an average man.

Publicist: OK, thank you.

Well, thanks for talking with me.

Howard: Thank you. And remember, everybody’s your friend.

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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