Lionsgate is bringing the story of Jim Ellis to the big screen in the new drama Pride
. In 1973, Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), an educated African American, couldn't find work. He was given a temp job by the state at a rundown recreational center in one of the Philly's toughest neighborhoods. When his love for swimming drove him to rebuild the center, he recruited the kids in the area and started the city's first African-American swim team. Ellis coached the inner-city kids and gave them confidence and respect, something they had never had. However, when racism and violence threatened to tear the team apart, he had to convince them they can overcome it. The film also stars Bernie Mac and Tom Arnold.
ComingSoon.net talked to Terrence Howard about taking on the role.
ComingSoon.net: What's that on your lapel? Is it something special?
When I was in school, I learned about those asteroids in the Kuyper Belt that is made up of diamonds. It's a complete diamond – over a mile and a half in diameter that's in the asteroid belt and I was wondering how diamonds were formed in space and over the years I've been looking up companies and I found a company that makes it called Apollo Diamond. They actually grow diamonds through a process called CVD which is Chemical Vapor Deposition and the diamonds are single crystal. They grow a one carat diamond in a week – 24 of them inside of an incubator. In order to pull one diamond out of the ground, for mine diamonds, you have to move on average 250 tons of earth so – not to mention the destruction of land but the destruction of the ecosystems – you know, the little ants and the boll weevils and all of that. So these are now the compassionate diamonds and I would encourage people to look to the future and no longer destroy anyone.
CS: Did you know about Jim Ellis before you took this movie?
I knew about Jim Brown. I knew about James Brown. I knew about his nature, but I didn't know his work, you know, his personal work until I sat down with him in this little café off of Barren Hill Road in a little town in Philadelphia called Lafayette Hill. I had just come off the whole Oscar stuff and I was exhausted and tired of smiling and tired of doing all that stuff (laughs) and Jim looked at me and in one moment, he calmed my nature just by asking. He leaned forward and he was just smiling and he said "Why do you want to play me?" And I didn't have an answer and the only thing I could say was because of the question you just asked because I felt my entire mood shift. He has the ability of subtle suggestion and everyone who listens to him becomes susceptible to that and I was wondering. I wanted to know where does his power come from. And then after going and watching him coach, I still don't know, but perhaps it's just the fact that he cares. He genuinely cares because even though we took liberties in this script, you know, Jim was a math teacher in the Philadelphia schools at the time. He had a wife. He had a mentally handicapped son. He had 33, 34 students that he had to grade homework and do a curriculum and all of that stuff. But he took his mentally handicapped two-year-old son to that swimming pool every morning at 5AM, to that pool again at 3:35 every evening, and along with taking care of his responsibilities with his kid, with his son, he took on the responsibilities of children that had been abandoned by their own parents and the social system. He was generous with his time and the more I learned about him, the more guilty I felt because I have my three kids and I've always said, "Well, if I take care of mine, I'm alright." But our responsibility lies for everyone that is of our kind, and to be of our kind doesn't mean you have to be of our color. Anyone that's made in the image of God has to be taken care of like the image of God, you know. You're supposed to love them, and he's done that for 33 years without any acclaim, without the help of the school board, without the help of the recreational department. He said he sat down with Governor Rendell a number of times, talked to Mayor Street a number of times, and everyone that came across and not one has helped. He still has a swimming pool that does not have heat, and he has to run a hose every morning to heat up that water for his kids. He's still fighting to build a suitable facility, a recreational facility, where they can instruct students. You know we had only four Black people compete in the swimming in the Olympics in all the years of the Olympics. Why? Because we don't have the facilities to teach them and to expose them to it. The death rate for African Americans with regard to swimming -- one out of three African Americans can't swim. So, the sad thing about that [is] if one of their children falls in a swimming pool, the children will drown. Can you imagine being a parent and you can't save your child? You can't jump in there to save your child. So I have a great deal of respect for this man.
CS: What kind of training did you do for the role?
The question is what kind of training didn't I do. (laughs) I mean it 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 25 yards across the pool, so you're talking about 150 to 200 laps a day. Your shoulders are dead tired. Your spirit is tired. You hate water. You're all wrinkled up like you're 95 years old. It was hard and then on top of that, I still had to work with this guy named Darrell Foster whose Will Smith's trainer, and Darrell trained Sugar Ray Leonard so he demanded an hour of lifting and at least 45 minutes of running every day. No matter what time we started running – at 5AM and we ran another 3 miles every evening if we got off at 12 o'clock at night. There was no going to bed. "I don't care if you've got a 5AM wake-up call. We have to put the time in." And if you missed the time today, you had to put the time in tomorrow. So who wants to have to run 10 miles tomorrow? But he would make you do it. He would make you do it, but he would run with you and lift with you.
CS: Did you keep it up?
Yeah, I'm still there. Still there, but it's a team effort, you know. Anyone inside of Will's camp runs with him every day or they're no longer in his camp, anyone that's got an association with him. Like right now, Pierce, his hairdresser, cuts my hair now and Pierce asked Will, "Is it OK if I go and work with Terrence?" And he said, "Terrence is part of my camp and you are my connection to him. If I need to reach him, you're there and you're there to keep him running." (laughs) So this morning I was exhausted. I had the benefit of being in an art gallery last night. Hugh Hefner was there and some of his Playboy girls and I was having a good time (laughs) and then I got home at 12 o'clock and got up at 5 o'clock this morning and had my run, had my run, you know, so I felt like I'm doing my job. I still gotta do my hour of lifting.
CS: Can you talk a little bit about working with Bernie Mac in this? He was doing a dramatic role and doing something different. Were you able to help him in any way?
No, you don't need to help Bernie. (laughs) See, that's the thing, to have that comical wit, it means you must be smarter that everyone else around you, and he understands the dramatic pauses and that's the beautiful thing about him. You don't know if he's playing or if he's dead serious about what he's doing, and he can make light of a heavy situation. So, for me, him and Tom Arnold together… I mean wait 'til you see the DVD outtakes (laughs) because they would just go on and on and on and off of each other. Bernie did just what was necessary. He brought the film home for us. Me, I'm a drama king. I talk in this mellow, melancholy way and you know that's just my nature. Bernie kept it honest. Bernie kept it honest and I love that about him.
CS: The character in this film was a complicated person. It was nice to see somebody who had been through some stuff. The things he goes through would drive him to the extremes that he went to. Could you talk about playing somebody like that who is sort of a hero but he's also got a past too and he's fighting through something like everybody else is.
Yeah, well that's what makes him a hero. He's able to lift off of the things that would normally hold us all back and, for the greater good, extend himself and not care about the personal loss because he thought of the mutual gain of everyone and, to this day, he still smiles. He still wants to get one of his swimmers on the Olympic team. He's had a number of them try out on the Olympic trials. But you know he's always looking to the future and that's what helps us overcome our faults. We all make mistakes. Man, I make mistakes every day. He makes mistakes all the time. He's a divorced man like a lot of us here may be divorced people. But he hasn't allowed any of those faults to stop him. He's got a quick temper and he could have gotten a lot further if he'd been nicer to the people inside of City Hall and all of that, but he has a determination to do things his way, which is the right way.
CS: What was it like working with Sunu Gonera?
Sunu gave me complete autonomy. We started off with 73 pages and a table reading that sucked. I went up to my room and I called my agent and my manager and I said, "Get me out of this." And they said, "We're exec producers. We can't get out of it." And so I went down to Sunu and I asked him. I said "The only way I'm going to be able to do this is you have to keep the camera on me, keep a camera on the boys going through there, and I'm just going to talk to them honestly. The script was an outline. They finished writing another 40 something pages, but most of the stuff we did in there was literally just honest communication and me being Jim Ellis talking to them, and I thought it worked. I thought it was a wonderful trip in improvisation.
CS: How hard is that for you to come in and know that you can't get out of something that possibly could have gone wrong and have to come in and fix it?
I guess it's what I like. Then you know you're needed, you know, when it's on your shoulders. If I had been third or fourth lead, I'd have been still upstairs drinking my coffee and saying, "OK, what you got on the script?" But knowing that it's on my shoulders, knowing that its my legacy at stake – no, you're not going to make me look bad because it may not have been prepared properly. And it was just what we needed and now the kids all had – I gave them the same autonomy that Sunu gave me and they responded naturally to where there was very little acting in there, so it was great.
CS: 1970s plaid suits, love them or hate them?
Love 'em. Love 'em. Love 'em.
CS: You really do?
Love 'em, as long as you don't mix it with stripes.
CS: How did you become executive producer?
I demanded it.
CS: Have you finished "The Brave One"?
Oh my God, "The Brave One" is incredible. It's really, really great. I got a call from Alan Horn at Warner Brothers and Joel Silver and they were beyond themselves and I'm happy because Jodie Foster personally recommended me and said "I want him" and I didn't want to fail her.
opens on March 23rd.