Terrence Dashon Howard is an actor ready to explode. His career has been based on his ability to bring a spark of the unexpected to characters like the tart-tongued commitmentphobe who stole The Best Man out from under Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut. Or the rat-bastard-but-lovable husband he aced in Lackawanna Blues. Or the well-to-do but lost Negro in Crash.
Smoldering beneath those characters is a man who’s a master at channeling his own energy—part pretty boy, part nerd, part rebel—into unforgettable roles. That becomes clear when Howard strolls into a West Hollywood restaurant, his brown herringbone fedora tilted at a dangerous angle. I’m seated in a booth, and he slides in and sweetly apologizes for being late, a sentiment delivered less with his soft, husky voice than with the intensity of his olive-green eyes. He tells me he’s just come from an audition for a movie remake of the musical Dreamgirls, a play his mother tried out for and didn’t get more than two decades ago. “Her piano player messed her up,” Howard, 36, says. “So now I have a fear of piano players. I did the audition a cappella.” Then he asks if we can step outside so he can smoke a cigarette he wishes he didn’t want.
The battle with smoking, the fear of piano players—nearly everything he says indicates he’s a man wrestling with himself. That delicious complexity behind each character he plays makes him totally compelling to watch. It also lands him job after job. This year he has carved his mark in six movies: Lackawanna Blues (HBO), Their Eyes Were Watching God (ABC), Crash (feature), Hustle & Flow (feature), Four Brothers (feature), Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (feature) and the Outkast musical My Life in Idlewild (HBO). Spike Lee has tapped him to play Joe Louis in a biopic.
Of them all, it’s his role in the powerful Hustle & Flow that could propel Howard out of the middle and into the majors, alongside the likes of Denzel, Sam and Will. Hustle won a $9 million distribution deal at the Sundance Film Festival, an annual gathering worshipped by Hollywood rainmakers who screen more than a hundred indie films in ten days to determine who’ll be the next big thing. The only problem is, Howard’s not sure he wants the title. He was ambivalent about the lead in Hustle. Twice he turned down the role of DJay, a Memphis pimp determined to quit his day job and become a rapper. “The only way I was going to do it was if it did not in any way glorify that lifestyle,” he explains. Howard portrays the woman-juggling hustler with a vulnerability and a heart that makes you put your pimp-hating aside for a couple of hours to actually root for the brother.
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