EXCL: A Candid Chat with Terrence Howard


Terrence Howard appeared in movies and television shows for over ten years before he was “discovered” in 2005 with prominent appearances in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow and Paul Haggis’ Crash. Receiving an Oscar nomination for the former and a SAG Ensemble award for the latter helped Howard get his hands on the brass ring, but seeing the gold and silver rings on the horizon, he knows that he wants to stay on the ride until he gets them. Richard (The Matador) Shepard’s darkly comic East European travelogue The Hunting Party might not be what gets him there, because he’s sharing top billing with Richard Gere while playing “Duck”, a news cameraman who returns to Sarajevo years after the war and gets roped into the plan of his shell-shocked former partner (Gere) to try to find and capture the warlord responsible for so much carnage.

A week later, he appears in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, playing a supporting role to Jodi Foster, but his featured role in next year’s Iron Man will probably bring Howard that one step closer to being a household name.

Two years after having a year any actor would kill for, Howard continues to be humble, modest and gracious, a true gentleman who knows what he wants in life and knows that he’s going to have to continue working hard to get it, which is where his head was at when ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to him for the first time since his banner year about all of his upcoming projects and where he sees his career going.

ComingSoon.net: This must have been a really good script because Richard’s a good writer, but what was it about the character or his situation that made you want to do it?
Terrence Howard: The initial title got me, “Spring Break in Bosnia.” I thought there was some irony associated with it. I was thinking there was going to be girls running around, and he told me it was about a group of journalists who go in search of war criminals, and it’s our vacation, and then they changed it to “The Hunting Party” which works. I’ve asked around what people thought and they liked it. It was the title that drew me in. It struck a chord with me, and then knowing Richard Shepard had written and would direct it, and he directed “The Matador.” As a director, he chose some very interesting angles. He doesn’t necessarily start with the close-ups. He tells the story nice and evenly, and allows to grow and develop and moving closer to his characters and to work with Richard Gere. How many people can actually say they’ve worked with one of the greatest movie stars of our century?

CS: He’s mentioned that the title wasn’t even something he came up with, but that it was just a working title the producers came up with.
Howard: That’s why they got rid of it then. Thank you for that info.

CS: I think he said it was a combination of that and the thought that having “Bosnia” in the title might turn some people off. I was also talking to him about “Duck” being this cameraman in the trenches who turns around and gets a great job back home, but then goes back to help his friend. Was there any insight you had into that?
Howard: No, it’s like being an actor, you can read one of those… like initially, I started with all these crazy roughhouse characters, and they give you the easier characters as time goes by, and all you gotta do is plug in, dial in, you know, they just want to see you. They don’t care what you’re doing. They just want to see you, so I’ve got all those choices, but sooner or later, you get up and say, “You know what? I want to challenge myself. I want to be a contender again. Stop giving me these fixed fights.” That’s where I think Duck is at. He’s had too many fixed fights, and he doesn’t even put on the shorts when he fights anymore. He doesn’t do any warm-up in the dressing room, and he just goes up there, he knows it’s fixed. He looks at the guy and slaps him or taps him in the right round and they fall down. That’s not a fulfilling life.

CS: Richard Shepard was also talking about why your character decided to go back and help his friend to go after the warlord. Just to be able to sell that and understand what Richard’s character was going through, were you able to draw something from your own life?
Howard: Hmm… who in my life is like that? That’s my uncle. Richard Gere became my Uncle Nathan, who I spent a great deal of time with, but he sold me out on a couple things, made some real bad choices. He’s called for a number of years and I haven’t called him back. Do I need to? Do I think about it a lot? Yeah, I do, but he betrayed my friendship, and when he became a threat to my own life and future, I had to walk away from him. That’s what I drew from with me and Richard’s relationship.

CS: Do people actually come to you with a part and say that you should do it because people “just want to see you”?
Howard: No, they don’t, but it drives me away from more projects when some producer or director says “I know you can kill it!” If you know I can kill it, then I have no business doing it, ’cause it’s not a challenge and I won’t discover anything new. Apparently, you expect me to do a Terrence Howard impersonation, and I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know what Terrence Howard does, and that I’m trying to figure out.

CS: I talked to you two years ago when you were having that great year with “Hustle & Flow” and “Crash.” Has it been hard to be at this level but still remain true to yourself at the same time?
Howard: Well, this level is trying to move to the next level. That’s what’s happening. For some reason, as human beings, we keep trying to get to a higher place and station in life. I want the respect that Denzel and Will Smith get now. I want the respect that Brad Pitt has, and when I have that, one day I’ll probably want the legendary status of Clark Gable, and then you keep working for that and then you want a funeral like the Pyramids of Egypt. You always want something else.

CS: But what about a career like that of Richard Gere who’s had those peaks but he’s also been able to maintain a very steady thing and remains very grounded.
Howard: Yeah, he’s there, but if he wasn’t doing as much as he’s doing, I’m sure he works a little harder than he did 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and that’s the good side of it. He’s had the peak and now he’s on this plateau and he’s looking for the next peak, and that’s how he at 70 will be like Dustin Hoffman with people still looking to work with him.

CS: Now that you’re doing these studio movies, would you still ever want to go back and do another “Hustle & Flow” type thing, small budget, first-time director, etc?
Howard: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been talking to my agents about. It’s nice to have the safe roles, but sometimes, it’s nice to go on the dirt road, too. You just discover new flowers along the dirt road.

CS: You’ve said that one of the problems is that everyone is trying to use the same formula that has worked before, but isn’t there a danger when you consciously try to break away from formula, too?
Howard: You got the accountants and suits that are being creative, when they’ve never made creative stuff in their life.

CS: I haven’t seen “The Brave One” yet, but in that, you’re playing a police officer again. What’s interesting is that you’re working with Neil Jordan after working with Jim Sheridan, which means you’ve now worked with two of Ireland’s top directors doing rare studio work.
Howard: I’ve been very fortunate, because Jim Sheridan, he championed me for “The Brave One,” and I went up to Neil Jordan at the Chateau Montmartre after making the movie and apologized to him profusely, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t give you what you wanted. I know you probably could have had better success with another actor.” And he was like (puts on an impressive Irish brogue) “What are you talking about? You haven’t seen the movie, have ye? Oh, you need to see the movie. You’re fantastic! You gotta see the movie. I’m going to set it up for you to watch the film.” And he set it up, and I watched it, and I thought my insecurities was just my own insecurities, but it was the character’s insecurities, because of the strange position that my character is in. I realized then that I’m a little more method than I believed before.

CS: Do you find there’s more pressure now that you’ve established yourself that people expect more of a specific thing out of you?
Howard: No, the best thing I do is I take the biggest risk the first day I’m out there and I look like the biggest fool, and then all of the expectations are off of me, and then you begin to build the character, you go and make a fool of yourself and play around and they forget “Oscar nominee.” The best thing that can happen is that you forget that you’re campaigning for an Oscar or that you’ve been nominated.

CS: What was great about “Hustle & Flow” though was that it was so natural, and it didn’t seem like the movie was made specifically to get Oscar nominations like some movies are.
Howard: Yeah, we didn’t make it thinking (that). I was so surprised when that even got any attention outside of the urban circles.

CS: Did you want to do “Iron Man” out of love for the comic books or did you see that as the next step to that next level you mentioned, doing a summer blockbuster type movie?
Howard: Strategically, it was a very smart move to become a part of a franchise, but emotionally, artistically, to work with three people, one of which had already won an Oscar, and literally all four of the main cast have been nominated. To get up there and compare your chops to Robert Downey Jr., one of the most improvisational actors I know. To learn from him. My very first day of rehearsals, I just saw him lay down on the couch while Gwyneth is sitting there and Jon Favreau, and I’m right where you are and he’s just sitting there looking into the wind for his answer, his response. I wanted to learn that level of comfort, and I wanted to learn Gwyneth’s…there’s almost a statuesque gracefulness to her and the assuredness about her, but still her eyes wandering, her vulnerability, to a solid statue. And Jeff Bridges, who you would think comes in with everything figured out, and he’s figuring it out as he goes. I wanted to work with these people and learn from them, and I left that movie and I took that same energy that I learned from Robert Downey into the studio to do my album.

CS: I’ve interviewed him a few times and it’s refreshing to see someone so laid-back and comfortable and not worrying what anyone might say or think of him. It’s so great he got over his problems because it would have been a huge loss if he hadn’t been able to.
Howard: And the loss would have been to us.

CS: I also interviewed Mark Fergus, one of the screenwriters, and asked him what it was like having such great actors doing rehearsals for what’s basically a comic book movie. Is it interesting to do a movie like this that is a potential blockbuster but has such strong actors involved?
Howard: The beautiful thing is these writers were put to the test, because what they wrote was not what we kept. They had to rewrite it again in front of us. “Write it again. No, that’s not it.” Then we would write and they would take what we did and create even more from it. They were literally put to test by fire all in the rehearsal process and while we were shooting. Took four or five hours to the start every day, because Robert is such a perfectionist and his instincts are so finely honed that he can detect insightfully that “this line right here is going to trip us up down the line.” It was beautiful the fact that he had that courage.

CS: I got to see the footage at Comic-Con a few times and I have to ask because it got me curious… did we actually see a glimpse of War Machine there for a second? Are they going to already start playing up that aspect of your character?
Howard: Ummmm… (chuckles and thinks about how to respond) War Machine is a very intricate aspect of the future franchise of this thing, but this movie is centered more around the creation of Tony Stark turning into Iron Man.

CS: That seems logical, but the fact they’re bringing James Rhodes into the story so much earlier than they ever did in the comics, I was curious whether his future incarnation might be hinted at or it would all be saved for the sequels?
Howard: Yeah, we start getting into it. We start getting into it.

CS: Do you feel at this point in your career you want to slow down or take some time off? Are you able to do that or do you want to keep working as long as you keep getting steady offers?
Howard: Would I like to slow down? Yeah. Do I have that kind of fortitude? No. I haven’t even plateaued yet. You can’t slow down until you reached the top of that hill, then you can look around, but if I was to stop now, I would do a disservice to myself.

And here’s a couple more things about Richard Shepard’s The Hunting Party and shooting on location in Sarajevo from earlier roundtable interviews we did with Howard:

CS: What attracted you to doing a political drama like this?
Howard: The moral responsibility. Unfortunately, I’d heard about the Sarajevo incident, the Bosnian conflict, in passing. I didn’t know to the extent that we portrayed it in the film, and we even watered it down a bit in the film, but the seriousness of that issue is wow!

CS: Did you get a chance to spend any time with the guys on which the story is based?
Howard: Yeah, they smoke many cigarettes. (laughter) We talked a LOT.

CS: Did you lug around a camera to get the feel for it?
Howard: I’ve been around a camera for 20 odd years, and a lot of the films I’ve done had been independent and it’s been seeming in a war zone, because we’ve had to do it almost guerilla style when we shoot some of these things. A lot of the independent films, the actor ends up being the cameramen, because you have a small skeleton crew. That wasn’t that new to me, but that’s all in fun, but to do it for real. To try and capture some of the reality of the harshness of life, that’s difficult.

CS: In another life, could you ever see yourself doing that job or would there be any attraction to you in the danger or adrenaline rush of being in that unsafe situation?
Howard: No, it’s not my way at all. I believe in standing up and taking risks, but as a father of three children, to go out there and film something else, I think my children need me at home to raise them a little more, and let someone who doesn’t have the responsibility to raise children go and capture that footage.

CS: What was it like shooting over there considering that the crews were probably a bit more primitive than you were used to?
Howard: Well those cats seemed a little more civilized. They have it together, they know to get together and have breakfast. They know how to be human. We’re a little more sophisticated. We have the technological gadgets and all of that, but I remember their faces and the hint of deep ground coffee on their breath. I’ll always remember that, and the sobriety of life that springs only from rising above tragedy.

CS: How was the reception to you as Americans?
Howard: Well, they were a little upset. I mean, we were a little slow on pulling the trigger on coming to help, and there’s a political arena that unfortunately we danced through. That’s what delays us. It would be nice to go back to the days of just being heroes and going in and doing what’s right for the sake of what’s right. I think the people had a lot of apprehension about that, but they never showed it in their eyes, because they knew it wasn’t us that were responsible, the same way they recognized that some of their leaders should have taken a more forceful role in their own salvation ahead of time.

CS: How has the city of Sarajevo come back from the war and the tragic incidents?
Howard: I mean, the people smile. People laugh. They wake up every morning to prayer, but the buildings still carry the scars. Some of the windows are still broken. Some of the giant potholes in the street remain from these huge shells exploding, but they did something beautiful. You know that scripture in Isaiah 2:4 about turning your swords into plowshares? They’ve got these huge shell casings, some a foot tall five inches wide, some two feet tall, the same casings from which these bombs exploded above their city, they’ve taken these and carved them with how Sarajevo used to look and polished them, and they sell these. I bought a lot of them. That was the most beautiful statement that we shall overcome what has taken place with us.

CS: Do you think that people might watch this movie and see connections to what’s happening in Iraq and how they’ve caught Hussein but not Bin Laden?
Howard: Yeah, they have to. They have to take into consideration and think who else we need to go looking for. Some of those people are still in office.

The Hunting Party opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 7, with plans to expand over the next two weeks, while The Brave One opens on September 14.