Nowadays, artists are all about showcasing multiple talents. So it’s no surprise actor Terrence Howard, who starred in this summer’s box-office hit “Iron Man,” is ready to debut his musical chops. The heartthrob first demonstrated his musicanship when he strummed a guitar (and thrilled female fans) in the 1999 film “The Best Man.” And he surprised audiences in his Academy Award-nominated role as Djay, a pimp-turned-rapper in 2005’s “Hustle & Flow.” Now, Howard’s musical ambitions have transcended the big screen, as he releases “Shine Through It,” an introspective collection of songs that tackles the joys and pains of love and life. ESSENCE.com chats with the Hollywood hunk about feeling like an ugly duckling, his failed marriage, and dating sisters again.
ESSENCE.COM: Congratulations on your album. “Love Makes You Beautiful” is a great song. Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel beautiful?
TERRENCE HOWARD: There were a lot of times. You’re inundated from infancy of images on what you should be or who you could be. The people and the things that you are watching change your perspective. Initially, you love the sound of your own voice, you love your own cry. It’s actually beautiful to your family because your mother and father hear it and they know their baby’s voice.
ESSENCE.COM: Who did you admire or try to emulate before you learned to appreciate your own beauty?
HOWARD: When I was a kid, El DeBarge was hot. My hair wasn’t curly like that, but then I got a perm (laughs). Man, I could hook it up! Then I realized, “Wow, I don’t really appreciate who I am.” Can you imagine a rose refusing to grow its thorns simply because someone might think it’s ugly? I did not fully appreciate the beauty that is me.
ESSENCE.COM: Some might find it hard to believe that you ever felt that way because of your legion of female admirers. What was your reaction the first time you heard a woman scream for you?
HOWARD: There’s this quote that says, “Fortune and fame does not change a man; it uncovers him.” I was always a class clown and I always said what was on my mind, but I hid behind other things. The accolades and admiration are wonderful, but the only real accolade comes from God. If you don’t get that, you’ve got nothing.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you teach your kids about inner beauty?
HOWARD: The most important thing I teach my kids is that you can’t put your value in looks. Presence is based upon magnitude. You can pretend to have an air about you but it is quickly deflated, but you cannot deflate presence. Presence walks into a room and surrounds and fills anything that’s in that room without trying to demand it, it takes it. It can come from a smile. Like I said, love makes you beautiful. What is beautiful radiates.
ESSENCE.COM: At times, the inflection in your voice reminds me of Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish. Do any other artists come to mind when you’re listening to your own voice?
HOWARD: It’s funny. When I was a kid, I used to sing like DeBarge—really high. When I was about 24 or 25, this McGruff dove became my voice. Maybe it was all the yelling or screaming I used to do, but this is my voice now. But at that time, I really started appreciating an artist named Richie Havens. He used to do all of those coffee commercials, but before then, he did a showstopper at Woodstock. He did a song called “Handsome Johnny.” The crowd applauded for 30 minutes. I find his voice in what I do sometimes because there was honesty, pain and a hopefulness in his voice.
ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of honesty, you wrote a lot of intensely personal subjects, like in your song “No. 1 Fan,” which is about your ex-wife. What’s its significance?
HOWARD: Yeah, I wrote that song trying to blame my ex-wife for the things that she did. I remember sitting in my car and watching her come home from a date one night and I was so upset that I came back and wrote the song. But when I listened to it again, I rewrote it from the perspective of all the things I had done wrong. It’s not just about the good things that happen, it’s the mistakes and the happy accidents and overcoming them. You have to keep that honor. I should have been the man that she could follow and trust.
ESSENCE.COM: Has your ex-wife listened to the song?
HOWARD: (His eyes appear misty) She listened to it, but sometimes you’re a day late and a dollar short. Just because I understood what went wrong doesn’t mean I can fix that now.
ESSENCE.COM: Your song “Sanctuary” was inspired by Seal and Heidi Klum. Who is your sanctuary?
HOWARD: Right now my sanctuary is this girl Nandi. You look for your complement and she’s mine. I wish I had been more faithful to my sanctuary back then. I will be with this one.
ESSENCE.COM: How long have you and Nandi been dating, and is she an actress?
HOWARD: I’ve known her for a long time. We’ve been dating two and a half years, and yes, she is an actress.
ESSENCE.COM: All right, Nandi!
HOWARD: (Smiles) And she’s a sister!
ESSENCE.COM: Welcome home, brother!
ESSENCE.COM: (Laughs) No, seriously, I hear you talk about not being able to please folk, but as an actor you have a fan base that is more than happy with you. Are you nervous about how your loyalists will receive your music?
HOWARD: A lot of people got upset when they heard I dated White women; White women got mad when they heard I dated Spanish women; Spanish women got mad when I went Asian. Now, I went Black again (laughs). But those people [who criticized me] weren’t fans or friends of mine so I don’t worry about what people say.
ESSENCE.COM: Initially you were approached to do a rap album, but you were looking to do material with substance. Tell me what is your musical guilty pleasure?
HOWARD: Petey Pablo. You put him on and I lose my mind (laughs).
ESSENCE.COM: Hilarious and duly noted! As an actor, you live vicariously through your characters. Musically, has it been difficult for you to be so introspective or was it healing for you?
HOWARD: We always know what we want to say, but oftentimes we try to edit it and hope that it will be something that somebody wants to hear. I’d rather have a conversation with a drunken man than an overly sober man, because that drunken man has no edit. He’s going to tell the absolute truth despite whose feelings he hurts. There’s a lot of freedom in my album, but each song brought pain. It was like giving birth—even though it causes a lot of pain, the end result of bringing life is always rewarding.
ESSENCE.COM: So do you feel more uninhibited now that you’ve gone through the process, or do you still have trepidations?
HOWARD: (Laughs) Truth be told, I’m just trying to get my shape back after pushing that baby out.
ESSENCE.COM: Gotcha. What does music offer you that film doesn’t?
HOWARD: Freedom and autonomy. In film, you’re doing someone else’s work and playing someone else’s character in a world they have created to tell a story. That’s why I was determined to participate in being in charge with my album. Every mistake is mine. I was that man! (Laughs) I said, “I will break this thing a part if it’s not what I want!” And I’m happy for that, because I can deal with my mistakes and nobody else’s.
ESSENCE.COM: You said you’re that man. What is the one thing you discovered about yourself recently that made you stop and say to yourself, “Terrence, you’re a bad man,” or “Terrence, you need to work on that”?
HOWARD: The thing that impressed me most about myself was going to Italy and seeing human beings who I never thought I would meet and they know who I am. I’m thinking, You have made it all the way to Italy and they know you. There is no one who can say that you do not exist, or that your life was in vain.
ESSENCE.COM: When you’re walking down the street and people are whispering, what do you hope they’ll say about you?
HOWARD: That’s a bad mother f—–!
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