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Talking with Terrence Howard

Kam Williams
Talking with Terrence Howard
Actor Terrance Howard says he enjoys playing “the conflicted soul, the complicated human being.” In his latest film, “Dead Man Down,” he plays crime boss Alphonse Hoyt.

In 2006, Terrence Howard received an Academy Award nomination for his lead role in the John Singleton-produced “Hustle & Flow,” and the song he performed in the film became the first rap song ever to receive an Academy Award. That same year, he was also a member of the all-star cast of “Crash,” the Oscar-winning Best Picture.

Maintaining a powerful presence on the small screen as well, Howard won one of his three NAACP Image Awards in 2006 for the HBO film “Lackawanna Blues,” directed by George C. Wolfe. His love of acting came naturally through summers spent with his late grandmother, the celebrated stage actress Minnie Gentry.

Howard began his showbiz career on “The Cosby Show” after being discovered on a New York City street by a casting director. That chance encounter helped him break into feature films, and soon he was cast in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

Among Howard’s most memorable work are scene-stealing performances as Cowboy in “Dead Presidents” and as Quentin in “The Best Man,” the latter earning him an NAACP Image Award. His other film credits include “Four Brothers,” “Idlewild,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” and “Red Tails.”

In 2008, he made his Broadway debut in a revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” co-starring Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones. A self-taught musician on both the piano and the guitar, Terrence’s musical talents were displayed on the big screen opposite Jamie Foxx in “Ray.” Also in 2008, Howard released his debut album on Columbia Records, “Shine Through It,” which he wrote, produced and performed on.

Here, he talks about his latest film, “Dead Man Down,” where he plays crime boss Alphonse Hoyt opposite Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace and F. Murray Abraham.

What interested you in “Dead Man Down”?

Being able to work with Niels [director Niels Arden Oplev], given the work he’s done. Some of those Swedish films [such as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”] were breathtaking. And he has an interesting style that mixes traditions of old with the allure of mystery. And I’m impressed with his Shakespearean approach to storytelling. It’s always about these relationships which become unwound. I was also interested in working with Colin [Farrell] again. We made “Hart’s War” together back in 2002, and I’ve always appreciated his artistry. So, I jumped at the chance to continue our friendship.

The cast has a lot of other big names, too: F. Murray Abraham, Noomi Rapace, Isabelle Huppert…

And everyone in there came to play. Everyone!

How did you prepare to play Alphonse Hoyt?

I got a process, a perm in my hair. [Laughs] That was my preparation.

What type of character do you enjoy playing the most?

I like the conflicted soul, the complicated human being. I’ve never been a perfect man. There’s always been a choice between right and wrong, and no one does a single thing for a single motive. There are many motives behind what we do, and when you dig deeper, you create a palpable, three-dimensional individual. I like to search for balance in an unbalanced system.

What advice do you have for an aspiring actor or actress? What is a major pitfall you would warn a newcomer about?

Stop aspiring and just do it! Stop thinking and just follow your instincts. You already know where to go, you just have to trust that you know, and stop asking people for advice.

With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in with an eye toward a particular role.

“Carmen Jones.” I would love to play Harry Belafonte’s role in that.

How different is your preparation for your work in film, TV and theater, and which is your favorite performance medium?

My favorite medium is the theater, but the theater has its limitations. The stage is really for well-established actors who have their money together or who don’t have a family to support. It’s more of an artist’s retreat. But I love the control you have as an actor in the theater as compared to the screen.

Once you’re on film, the director and the editor have the final say about your character, and often at the discretion of the producer and the studio. Television is a little more improvisational, but the stage is the only place where you can tell your story without worrying about editing.

What is your favorite film, and was there an actor you admired growing up who inspired you to pursue acting?

My favorite film would probably be “Cool Hand Luke.” Paul Newman’s performance was a revelation. It gave me an understanding because I had seen him in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Elizabeth Taylor. I loved the simple majesty with which he told his story in Luke.

Another performance that impressed me was the work that Val Kilmer did in “Tombstone.” That was one of the most brilliant, modern-day performances I’ve ever seen. I [have] yet to see anybody trump that. I also love Sam Rockwell’s work. It’s explosive! It’s a gas!

You have been so prolific as an actor and producer, is there any chance we will see you as a writer and director in the near future?

God only knows what we have in store. Man makes his plan and God laughs. I have aspirations to do many things, but I lack the constitution of discipline to follow all those things through. Time and unforeseen occurrences befall us all.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

I see someone made in the image of God. Unfortunately, I also see too much of man scattered about my face with the insecurities and inadequacies and lack of understanding.

And I see the source of humanity’s purpose in my eyes, and that’s the desire and attributes of trying to be closer to God with love and morality.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

[Chuckles] It’s a little different. I have a pretty remarkable memory. My earliest memory is from about three months prior to being born. I was searching for my own arm in the womb. I thought it was a friend, and didn’t yet realize that it belonged to me. [Laughs]