"I've always maintained my integrity," Terrence Howard once said. "That's more important than anything. Being able to face yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, 'I still see me there. I don't see a dented version of me.'"
God knows that the Oscar nominated star of Hustle & Flow has a past that would have more than "dented" a lesser man. He didn't play the title role in the 2008 blockbuster Iron Man, but it seems he has an inner strength that is more than a match for the metal suit that co-star Robert Downey, Jr. wore in that film.
"The reason that I'm an actor, or an artist," he says, "is ultimately because I'm trying to paint a self-portrait, and the most complete and beautiful self-portrait that you can. My future's about trying to be a better man. My future's truly about trying to be a better human being."
Howard's past provided him with more than enough justification to ridicule such high-minded goals. Born Terrence Dashon Howard in Chicago, Illinois on March 11, 1969, both of his parents were biracial.
"My father was half-white and half-black with sky-blue eyes and wavy hair," he recalled. "The last African person in my family may have been, I don't know, three or four hundred years ago. Since then, I've been made up of everything from French to German to Indian, Spanish and Chinese. All these exist in my family."
Shortly after Howard was born, his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio.
"Cleveland was hard for me," he said. He describes the racism he encountered in the city as "outlandish." At age five, Howard, whose green eyes, red hair and light black skin made it difficult for him to find acceptance "from the black side or the white side," began carrying a knife for protection.
Howard's father was no more indifferent to skin color than the rest of the town.
"He hated whites and told us to be cautious of them. And of blacks he said 'You can't trust them.'"
As his son would years later, the elder Howard carried a knife, and he would make headlines putting it to lethal use in December 1971. Waiting in the line at a downtown department store where he took his children to visit Santa Claus, he responded to a white man's racial slurs by stabbing him to death. Found guilty of manslaughter, he served 11 months in prison.
Through his parents' various marriages, Howard had ten siblings, but instead of finding security in such a large family, it only accentuated his feelings of isolation. He claimed he did not speak until he was four years old, which the educational system took as a sign that he was not as bright as his peers and in need of remedial classes.
"I knew how to speak," he said. "I just didn't."
What he did do is observe, a skill that most actors regard as essential to their craft.
"I was watching everything," Howard said. "I was always super-aware."
He would later tell an interviewer that he could also "control my dreams because I'm used to living in my own head."
Once his parents divorced, Howard bounced-back and forth between Cleveland, where his father continued to live, and Los Angeles, where his mother was struggling to launch an acting career. His grandmother, Minnie Gentry, however, was a successful stage actress in New York, and Howard would visit her in the summer. It was his grandmother who inspired him to act.
At 18, he moved to New York with the intention of pursuing a theatrical career, but first he enrolled at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to study chemical engineering.
"It was something that I was very much into academically because I wanted to know how things worked," he said, but he also "knew where my heart was at, and I always wanted to act."
He dropped out of college shortly after landing a role in an episode of comedian Bill Cosby's phenomenally popular sitcom. It was only after the show aired that the novice performer discovered his appearance had been snipped out during editing.
"I was furious," he recalled. The next day he went to the star's dressing room to demand an explanation. "(Cosby) didn't seem to appreciate that too much."
Later, as he became more successful, some observers would suggest his headstrong attitude may have hampered his career, but he expresses no regrets.
"You offend me, I will call you on it," he says. "I don't care if you're the head of a studio or a P.A. on the set."
Or, for that matter, himself.
Of his performance on The Cosby Show, he now says, "I never sucked that bad in my life. I was loud and I just didn't know anything about telling the truth. But now I know it's about being honest and surrendering to your craft. It's not brain surgery. You got the lines. Understand them. You're just a paint brush. Understand where the director wants you to go."
More sitcom work followed, as well as appearances in music videos for the likes of Ashanti and Mary J. Blige. In 1995, he landed his first big-screen role in Mr. Holland's Opus with Richard Dreyfuss. The same year he appeared in Dead Presidents. There were roles in The Player's Club, The Best Man, Big Mama's House, Angel Eyes, and Hart's War, but it wasn't until 2005 that Howard made the kind of impact on both critics and the public that can change a career.
"I was so overwhelmed at Sundance when I saw those people and they're giving the film a standing ovation," he said of Hustle & Flow's screening at the legendary film festival in Colorado.
Produced by John Singleton and directed by Craig Brewer, the film cast Howard as Djay, a pimp with aspirations to be a rap artist, but, as Peter Travers observed in Rolling Stone, this was more than a "pimped out Rocky," but "explosive entertainment" with a "breakout star performance from Howard." Roger Ebert was also impressed, noting that Howard's triumph was in making his character something more than an urban stereotype: "He never cheapens him, or condescends." In concluding his review, Ebert said, "Every good actor has a season when he comes into his own, and this is Terrence Howard's time."
Howard's had indeed arrived, and his performance received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. Upon hearing the news, he remembers "jumping up and down on the bed like my 10-year-old."
Although Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for Capote, the best picture prize was awarded to another film in which Howard appeared that year, Paul Haggis's Crash. It was a controversial choice for the Academy. Not only had the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain been heavily favored to win, but Crash was trashed by more than one prominent critic as a hackneyed, sanctimonious commentary on racism.
The film topped Roger Ebert's 10 best list, but many sided with Jami Bernard in The New York Daily News who branded it "too pat, the tugs on the heartstrings too insistent."
To Howard, however, the film "felt real." As a record producer who clashes with a racist cop, Howard remembers "trying not to cry. I was trying not to be afraid. And I caught myself in a moment trembling. Does this person really live inside of me? I couldn't wait until they said 'Cut.' I couldn't wait until the director let us off the hook and let us go home that night."
Howard's intensity prompted director Haggis to observe that his star's "nerve endings are so close to the surface, and he accesses his feelings so easily. They are not distant memories, and when pulls on them, it's electric."
Few of Howard's films have since have had the impact of his grand slam of 2005, but the electricity that Haggis witnessed was undeniable even in a supporting role.
Get Rich or Die Tryin' echoed Hustle & Flow in its depiction of a rap artist, but though this time the story was inspired by the life of the film's star, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, it was far less effective. Howard played 50 Cent's manager, but, as Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety, when "he explodes on the scene an hour in, he forcibly reminds us what a real actor can bring to a role."
Howard was better served by Pride which told the inspirational story of Jim Ellis, who coached a ghetto swim team to victory in the 1970s. For the role, Howard "felt like I was training to be an astronaut or something because I spent anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 yards a day of swimming. To put that in perspective, it's 28 yards across the pool, so you're talking about 150 to 200 laps a day. Your shoulders are tired. Your spirit is tired. You hate water."
Less memorable was The Hunting Party with Richard Gere that The San Francisco Chronicle called "a complete bust," adding that "Howard is, as always, an appealing presence."
In Neil Jordan's The Brave One, he was cast opposite Jodie Foster at the actress's request. Roger Ebert found the stars "perfectly modulated in the kinds of scenes difficult for actors to play, where they both know more than they're saying, and they both know it."
As an artist, he believes "you can stroll into any venue you want, as long as you take your time to learn the etiquette of that venue." In 2008, he ventured into two new venues, the recording studio and the stage.
"I think they were hoping for a rap album," he says of the record company's reaction to his album, Shine on Through, "but I prefer real instruments to machines and simple, light melodies." At heart, however, he admits to being a "country buff" and his future plans include a biopic of African-American country singer Charlie Pride.
In 2008, he also turned to Broadway, headlining an African-American version of Tennessee Williams' classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
"It's taking a lot out of me," he said during a break from the production, "but it's the stuff I need taking out, a lot of pent-up pain and frustration." That same year, he accepted the role of Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes in the big-screen adaptation of the Iron Man comic book.
Three years earlier, when explaining why he was inclined to pass up an offer to star for director John Singleton in a film based on the Luke Cage comic book, Howard said, "I want to make more serious-minded films, and I want to deal with the truth, and not so much fantasy."
But of Iron Man, he said, "There ain't no fantasy there, not when you're working with Robert Downey, Jr." Acting opposite an actor of Downey's caliber, he explained, was a chance to "see what you're made of."
As the obstacles he's overcome would indicate, Terrence Howard is made of strong stuff indeed, but he believes that "people who have had the most traumatic experiences in their lives, they're able to relate to more experiences and can translate that to the rest of the world." He also believes that being "spiritually oriented" has made him a better actor.
"I firmly believe in what the Bible set out: that God's kingdom is the real kingdom," he told New York magazine. He finds himself drawn to the Jehovah's Witnesses, the subject of a documentary that aired on PBS's Independent Lens for which he serves as host.
"In my heart, I wanted to be a Witness," he said, but is aware that "I like doing my thing, my way. If it wasn't for the smoking of cigarettes and all . . . I would be a Witness."
Instead, he is another kind of witness: an actor who brings honesty and conviction to every role, and tells us the truth.
"In every person we meet there's this little piece of God in them and that's who you talk to," he said in explaining his approach to Djay in Hustle and Flow. "You've just got to tell the truth about who he is because each and every one of us has both a noble and a demonic side."
--by Brian W. Fairbanks