"Hustle"'s Howard left the world of science for acting
NEW YORK-This could be Terrence Howard's year. He and the rest of the cast of the film Crash won acclaim from most American critics earlier this year, with Howard's kudos coming for playing a Los Angeles businessman whose life changes when his wife (Thandie Newton) is sexually assaulted by a police officer. Following quickly on the heels of that film is Hustle & Flow, which won the audience award for dramatic features at January's Sundance Film Festival. Early reviews for the film, which opens Friday (July 22) in Vancouver, have been particularly complimentary of Howard, who plays a pimp who aspires to become a rapper.
If Howard wins awards for either of his performances, you can expect him to profusely thank the late African-American film and stage actor Minnie Gentry. Gentry was Howard's great-grandmother, and he says that it was the few years he spent with her as a boy that encouraged him to think he could follow in her footsteps.
"She had a tape recorder and she would tape all the parts of the other actors," he says in an interview room of a New York hotel. "Then she would tape her own lines. She would play back the other parts and then say her line and that is how she would rehearse. She figured out that I had a good memory because one time when I was seven years old she kept playing the lines and then she stopped the tape. Before she played the line again I said it and so she responded to me. We kept doing that until we had done the whole scene. We did all her rehearsals together, and she thanked me because she felt that I had done something special for her. So that was my acting training; working with this genius woman."
In Hustle & Flow, Howard's pimp, DJay, lives with three prostitutes in a rundown Memphis neighbourhood. He sees a way out of that world when he runs into Key, a high-school friend (Anthony Anderson) who works as a recording engineer for church choirs. Key brings the equipment and an engineer (DJ Qualls) to DJay's house and the three men try to make beautiful music together. Meanwhile, all three prostitutes are having a tough time adjusting to their boss's career change. So too is Key's upwardly mobile wife (Elise Neal), who begins to feel that she may have lost her husband to the wrong side of the tracks.
In truth, Howard probably would have done just fine without Minnie Gentry and her genes. He did an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, using acting jobs to support his academic ambitions. He says he still hasn't ruled out quitting his day job. "One day I will go and take my master's in physics and all that stuff, but I got deviated into this artistic world and I am appreciative to have this opportunity. My ambition wasn't to be an engineer; it was to be a scientist. I was ready to drop out of this years ago, but Stephanie [Allain, who has produced several of his films including Hustle & Flow] wouldn't let me leave."
If Howard is unknown to most audiences, it is probably because in the past he has opted to take supporting parts in films like Ray and The Best Man. He says he was hoping to continue that trend when his friend Laurence Fishburne told him that it was time he stopped turning down scripts meant for leading men.
"It was easy for me to say no to people," he says. "I would just find a reason. With Hustle & Flow, I didn't think I could pull off the rapping or the pimping or half the things that were necessary. Then Laurence took me to Beverly Hot Springs, where he made me get naked in front of all these men, which made me very uncomfortable. Then he slid next to me and put his arm around me in this hot tub. He isn't gay; he is just free and easy and he knows that I'm not like that. He said, 'You have to take one of these movies under your wing and it can't be something easy.' That is when I told [producer] John [Singleton] I would do the movie. I felt it was time to step into something deep and to try to take on something that I didn't think I could do."
After Howard made his decision, he interviewed, by his count, 123 pimps and 78 prostitutes over a two-year period. He says that he has always devoted himself to the roles he has taken, even though he knows this approach will have an effect on his civilian life. "It probably affects you a little. Every job is like a dream, and like a dream, you eventually have a déjí vu moment. But you have to move on and put it behind you."