Terrence Howard is an agent's nightmare.
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"I love the parts that my agent is frightened of. The broken down roles are better because broken down guys have no rules. It's like when you have something to lose you walk that line a lot straighter. You don't take any chances," said the 38-year-old actor.
Epitomizing this theory, he played a pimp aspiring to be a rapper in Hustle & Flow. The hard-driving, gritty role earned Howard a 2005 Oscar nomination.
Growing up in the Cleveland, Ohio housing projects gave Howard a balanced perceptive on life. "I don't know any heroes and I don't know any bad guys. All I know are these people trying to figure their way through. They have a good quality, but they have an ugly need."
"A lot of people on drugs were just trying to get to a good place and escape an ugly world. Do you attack them for that? I smoke cigarettes like a maniac. Why? Because I'm trying to find that comfortable place and that comfortable place is the smoke of a cigarette even though it hurts my throat. So I play characters that remind me of me," he said.
Some of Howard's most memorable performances have been scene-stealing characters like Cowboy in the Hughes brothers' film Dead Presidents, Quentin in Malcolm D. Lee's The Best Man, the genteel Hollywood director in Crash, and the cynical cameraman Duck in writer/director Richard Shepard's The Hunting Party.
Howard returns to the big screen as NYPD detective Sean Mercer in The Brave One. A post-Sept. 11 retooling of Death Wish, the take no prisoners vigilante drama casts Jodie Foster as Erica Bain, the host of an NPR-type radio show titled "Street Walk." Street violence becomes reality when Erica and her fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews) are brutally attacked in Central Park. Erica pulls through; her boyfriend doesn't.
Paralyzed by grief and fear, Erica buys an automatic weapon. While pursuing the original perpetrators, she stumbles across additional acts of violence and doles out instant justice. The public approves. As a lawman, Howard's character is conflicted.
"I think Mercer is very insecure and at an emotional crossroads. He's questioning his moral values and deciding which way to go," said Howard, a graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a degree in chemical engineering.
Those early 9-to-5 aspirations were sidetracked by a chance encounter with a casting director on a New York City street. The result was a role on "The Cosby Show." An even more convincing argument was that first paycheck of $1900.
"I figured acting is a great way to make money and it's just gotten better," Howard admitted. Impeccably groomed and attired in a dark blue designer suit with a contrasting blue/black striped tie, Howard looked like he'd just stepped forth from the cover of GQ magazine.
It's been a busy year for the actor, who was earlier seen as swim coach Jim Ellis in Pride, co-starring Bernie Mac. Come November 21, he'll return in August Rush, which is about an orphanage-reared music-prodigy's efforts to track down his biological parents.
The prodigy's musical instrument is the cello. Howard can relate. He also plays the cello, along with piano, guitar and saxophone. His breathy, honey syrup voice assumes an edge of excitement.
"I'm just doing my album, A Little Bit More Like Me, by Terrence Howard and the Band of Kings," he said. "I arranged it. I describe it as cinematic sound. It feels like it's happening right there in front of you. I'm way past proud of it. The album is pretty provocative in the nature of drawing people to start thinking about what they're doing in their life. We've got songs called 'Shine Through,' 'Love Makes You Beautiful,' and 'Presumption.'" Howard displayed his musical expertise in 2004's Ray, opposite Jamie Foxx.
Citing Jim Croce, Paul Simon, Bread and Sam Cook as early musical inspirations, the self-taught musician plans to tour in support of the February release of A Little Bit More Like Me, on Sony's Gentry Records label.
Howard doesn't intend to abandon his day job any time soon. Aside from producing a modern day version of Macbeth that begins shooting next month, there's Iron Man, a $190 million budget take on the comic book hero, starring Robert Downey Jr.
It's a new genre for Howard.
"As a kid, I couldn't afford the damn things. We got food stamps and you can't buy comic books with food stamps," he pointed out.
So what was the attraction? "It was a free experience. I worked 20 days out of the four-month shoot and still got second billing. Plus, I got to work with my favorite actor – Jeff Bridges," said Howard. "To this day he's still my favorite actor. I think he's the most versatile and convincing actor on the planet. Just to talk to him, sit up late at night and play guitar with him, and have him offer you cigars, what could be better?"