Terrence Howard's Opus
By A.D. Amorosi
On the night of the Golden Globe Awards, one of the busiest actors in cinema isn’t sitting with his fellow thespians or mingling with directors that helped put him on the map. Instead, Terrence Howard, the toast of Philly’s Plymouth Meeting/Lafayette Hill area, is in Atlanta, switching hotel rooms after a weekend of rehearsals for Prisoners, a film he stars in with Hugh Jackman.
Jackman, who also happens to be in one of Howard’s other recent films—the ensemble comedy Movie 43, which opened in late January—sits in the Globes audience ready to accept his award for Les Misérables. So are Movie 43 costars and Globe nominees Naomi Watts and Richard Gere, as well as Liev Schreiber, who shares billing with Howard in The Butler. One-time Iron Man costar Robert Downey Jr. and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard’s costar in the upcoming Ten, are also at the awards show.
“Work is everything,” says Howard, 43, in his familiar, softly melodious voice. From the list of films he’ll appear in throughout 2013 (the aforementioned Ten, Movie 43, and The Butler, along with the Philly-filmed Dead Man Down) and movies in various states of production (Prisoners, Fellini Black and White, A Girl and a Gun, and Burning Sun), acting is a way of life well beyond being a job for Howard—and with great benefits.
Listening to him speak at great length and with emotion about life’s calling (“I can give you a fun Hollywood story or a real conversation,” he says with a laugh pre-interview), it’s obvious that Howard’s mission stems from necessity of all sorts. Howard is a serious man as well as an admittedly difficult man. He was chosen to do this, and must, to the best of his ability, make each gig count. In a very honest way, he must act to heal himself.
That doesn’t mean he can’t laugh at who he is. He chuckles as he discusses the absurd Movie 43 (“Sometimes you just have to let yourself go in the face of such comedy”), and jokes about action fare like the billion-dollar Iron Man franchise. Mostly though, Howard weighs each thought by the conversational pound. And it’s heavy.
“I don’t know how long I have on this planet, but every day I’m conscious of that,” says Howard. “If I can explore the characters that I am given, properly, then I will leave behind some sort of template.”
Part of considering the next generation stems from a recent blessed event: In December 2012, Howard became a grandfather for the first time when his daughter Aubrey and her husband welcomed their child, Hazel. For Howard, having a grandchild makes him feel eternal.
“You have your children, and you feel a sense of longevity. But when you have your grandchildren, you feel an even greater connection to the link of life,” stresses Howard. “You feel the eternal nature that we all are a part of.” Howard lets the word “grandfather” roll around his mouth like an ice cube from a glass of fine, aged Scotch. He considers its meaning, its heft. He has to think long and hard about what it means to be an elder: “That word, that idea, makes you question all the choices you have made, the things you have said. What exactly does the word mean? A child will see and hear all that, sense that. How grand are you? Are you really that grand?”
For the Chicago-born, Cleveland-raised Howard, whose childhood was as tumultuous as it was colorful, moving to and staying in Philadelphia has everything to do with children—his children. When he divorced (and remarried, and again divorced) his first wife, Lori McCommas, he returned to her hometown in the Philadelphia area. For a man whose childhood home was a broken one, Howard made sure that he would never be far from his kids.
“I don’t know how people do it, separate themselves from their kids,” he says. “I didn’t want to have to drive 30 minutes or fly five hours to get to my kids if they needed me. I wanted to be near them. So I got a house two blocks away so that I wouldn’t be stalking her [laughs] and could be at Aubrey’s house in a 30-second sprint if they wanted me.” Moving to the Philadelphia area has also meant falling in love with this city despite (or perhaps because of) its distance from film- and theater-industry hot spots Hollywood and Manhattan. The prying eyes and poison pens of the tabloid media need not apply. When it comes to Howard’s residence in the region, it’s about sanity.
“Exactly—it’s that sense of sanity that keeps me here,” he says with pride. “It’s a neighborhood that I live in with a feeling of brotherhood about it.” Howard goes on rhapsodically about how Philly lives up to its “Brotherly Love” tag, and how that communal vibe is different from other places he has been. “Man, when I lived in Los Angeles, I didn’t know who my neighbor was, or if someone was robbing them. I didn’t know what car they drove. Here, I know them. If it snows bad, there’s always someone willing to lend a hand.” Recalling his own youth, he thinks about the life he has built here for his kids. “My children never had a fight in their life in Philly. I always had to battle no matter where I lived. I love the fact that my kids didn’t have to grow up fighting. That, along with so many other things, made Philly paradise to me. It still is.”
When Howard says “still is,” he’s quick to talk up his time spent last spring with actor Colin Farrell, shooting his first in-Philly feature, out in early March, Dead Man Down. The crime-driven action flick found Howard and Farrell, old friends from when the pair shot 2002’s Hart’s War together (“a great gentleman; he’s always championed me,” says Howard of the Irish actor), hitting the luxurious confines of Walnut Street as well as the gritty Italian Market area for a most positive filming experience.
“This city makes you feel like a movie star,” he says with a laugh. “In LA and New York City, people are conditioned to not be excited; nothing is a big deal. To the people of Philly, everything is a big deal. You know there’s desensitization to so much that happens all over the world, things we should be shocked or moved by. We treat each other like strangers, like we’re worthless and unnecessary. But the truth is that we all are necessary. You have to make sure that they see that in you first.”
That same level of appreciation goes for his fellow Philadelphian, Precious producer and director Lee Daniels with whom Howard shot the presidential-themed The Butler throughout 2012. For Howard, the always un-PC Daniels was a revelation as a director. “I had a very special relationship with Lee. I have always had a great connection with my directors, but Lee opened me up to a level of trust that can only benefit every other director I work with in the future.”
Howard tells a funny story of how he thought Daniels disliked him. It turns out that Daniels thought that Terrence was always too busy acting pretty to get down and dirty. “Yet there was one film Lee saw of mine—Spark—where I was raw and untamed. Lee thought of that as my Paul Newman moment, the one when he first did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but didn’t truly find the truth of the gritty Brick character until many years later, when Newman did Cool Hand Luke. Eventually, like Newman, I was going to get it right. I would be Lee’s ‘Brick.’”
With Daniels leading the charge on The Butler’s story of presidential waitstaffs, the actor gave up being controlling about his character. “I allowed Lee to take me on his journey without me trying to steer him in my direction. As human beings, and therefore egomaniacs,” he laughs, “it is unfortunate that we don’t always bring 100 percent surrender to our immediate boss. But that’s our vow when we became thespians, to lend ourselves to the directors.”
Talk to Howard about his ambitions, about where else he can go with his craft and his humanity, he stops at the personal side. There is so much that he wants to be as a human being—a good man, an honest man, a faithful man—that other potential ambitions like writing or directing must wait. “I’m just learning to be an actor,” he says frankly. “I have so much work to do on Terrence—the actor and the man—that everything else will have to wait. My name is supposed to mean princely and kind, a smooth, polished stone. I’ve got some polishing to do.”