What do you want to know about Terrence Dashon Howard? That he was born during the Black Power Movement in 1969 in Chicago, raised in Cleveland and then Los Angeles and New York City? Do you want to know that his mother had him at 16? That he told ABC News his father stabbed a man in self-defense in front of him, when he was only a toddler, as they were waiting in line to see Santa Claus? Do you want to know that he does push-ups on the phone with his 11-year-old son each morning? That he studied for a master’s in chemical engineering? Or that he’s planning to become a Jehovah’s Witness? Because whatever it is you might want to know, he will share it with you.
In person, just as he appears on-screen, Howard, 38, is beautiful. His trademarked, ridiculously masculine energy instantly commands everything; it even overrides the fact that when he glides into New York’s Norma’s restaurant alone this dreary morning in November, he has on pink cotton pants, a white knit hat and Birkenstocks.
“Terrence,” he says, offering his long-fingered hand. That’s about it.
But what at first seems like brashness (“Can someone take my order? This walking around cleaning s—, I don’t like that. I’m really ready to order.”), in mere minutes unfolds as something else. After he studies the menu and orders an omelet and lox, he looks up with an intensity that says, “Now ask me something that matters.” It seems small talk really isn’t Howard’s thing; rather he is a deep conversationalist—one with a whole lot on his mind. It’s been The Year of Terrence Howard for at least two and a half years now: back-to-back scripts to study, directors to hear out, flights to catch, and interviews to do. On this morning he had just wrapped The Brave One with Jodie Foster, and in three days would be going halfway around the globe to start filming the adventure dramedy currently titled Spring Break in Bosnia with Richard Gere.
As we go to print, Howard will begin promoting his latest movie, Pride (in theaters March 23), the true story of a Philadelphia swim coach who turns a group of hardheaded kids into a team of champions. The momentum is utterly taxing. But that doesn’t fully explain Howard’s need to talk about substantive stuff. As a man of principle and purpose, he simply will not live his life as most celebrities today try to: in a bubble. And so, over the course of two hours and two follow-up calls, Howard divulges what could be tabloid fodder in another circumstance. He talks about breakup drama, celeb crushes (“I tried to talk to Halle for a bit. Didn’t call me back. Tried to talk to Gabrielle Union. Didn’t call me back, either.”), the kind of woman he prefers (“I’ve heard it said that I only date White women. The only woman I really love is my wife, and she happens to be White. Who gives a damn? A lot of Black women get upset. You know, the fact is, we are human beings.”). Tabloid for sure, if it weren’t for the fact that his naked honesty takes the fizz out of it all. Indeed, when he opens up about the depth of what he’s dealing with, it isn’t sensational; it’s just real.
“I stopped smoking,” he says. Of course, anyone who has ever seen this man take a drag on film can tell it was hardly an act. Cigarettes read “cool,” Howard’s quintessential selling point. “The habit was a problem in my life,” he says. “I always thought I was strong enough to battle it, but I guess I wasn’t. I went to Dubai for a film festival recently and purchased a 7,000-pound stone lion that now sits outside my home. I put my very last cigarette underneath it.” And what inspired this grand gesture? “See, people don’t take advantage of the time given to them for their families.”
He pauses, clears his throat. It’s clichéd, Howard knows, but in his life right now it’s also a critical truth. “My mom has to go through severe surgery, her third, for colon and intestinal cancer. She’s at stage IV right now, so if it doesn’t work on her, that’s probably the end of it, you know? I just want to encourage people to make time for the people who are important in their lives.” Pauses again. “I’m also asking for prayers,” he says with massive humility.
AN UNCOMMON MAN
The reality is, for the ultrabusy Howard, these days are colored with a range of family-centered concerns. It’s hard to imagine that he is memorizing lines for two, three, sometimes four films at a time. He says he desperately misses his three children: Aubrey, 13, Hunter, 11, and Heaven, 9. “I would trade all of this to have my little 9-year-old daughter pulling on my cheeks, saying, ‘Daddy, you look old.’ ”
###PAGE###A rare brother for far more than his famous hazel-green eyes, Howard leans back and tries to relax some. He couldn’t hide his emotions if he wanted to. And why should he? They’ve taken him to the top of his craft. The critics have begun to call him “a master” and “genius.” In 2005 he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for playing the hell out of DJay, a passionate and brilliant, if conflicted, pimp in Hustle & Flow. It was a role he initially didn’t want to take for fear of its being too Blaxploitation-esque. But when director Craig Brewer asked him “to dismantle this stereotype,” he knew he had to do it. The actor believes in being present and letting the moment take you where it does—and his characters are better for it.
As he settles even deeper into our conversation, it becomes obvious that the man is by nature both lover (“We are one person,” he says, referring to his wife, Lori, from whom he’s currently separated. “She speaks her heart with me. I honor her by responding with a more delicate version of myself.”) and fighter (“The moment I see disrespect, I’m a cowboy. We’re going to have to go outside. We’re going to have to draw. We’re going to have to fight with bottles. We can do it with bottles, knives, whatever you want to fight with. But if you disrespect me, you’re going to pay for it,” he says. “Right now I’m dealing with a whole lot of rude people who don’t fully understand me. And sometimes when I’m tired of talking to a producer or somebody, I will light a cigarette and start blowing that smoke right where they are. They take a few steps back, and we’re all good.”). It’s precisely that in-your-face duality that mesmerizes his fans.
Asking Howard how many movies he’s been in is like asking a player how many women he’s slept with. He pauses, ponders, begins to answer, then realizes he really doesn’t know. What is clear to him is the “need to sit back and grow a little bit more” so he has something new to give. But ever since his first role, in the 1992 TV movie The Jacksons: An American Dream, the actor has captivated with his raw emotional range. Thirty or so films later, he’s still not afraid to be naked in that way. “Everything is based on truth,” he once told ABC journalist Martin Bashir about being known in Hollywood as a tough actor to work with. “I’m difficult when it comes to what’s right, and I will not compromise when it comes to what’s necessary. More men should make that stand.”
LETTING HER GO
Two years ago Lori reached out to a man from her past, says Howard. A lot of women would never dream of walking away from a catch like Howard, but Lori had seen his demons and had lived through his cheating, drinking and a lifestyle that didn’t much involve her. The two had already been divorced for six years—and remarried. This was supposed to be the new beginning, but there wasn’t much new at all. According to Howard, Lori, who long ago had loved her high school sweetheart, finally flirted with the idea of simply being with her former flame. Howard found new love letters shared between the old friends. He says that the night it all came to a head, Lori was asleep when he went snooping through her cell phone, got his competition’s number, and called. Howard conceded loss and asked the man if he would do him the honor of making Lori happy. It was a great moment of clarity for him—he realized that he loved his wife enough to let her go: “The hardest thing to do is to let go of somebody you really care about, to give them their freedom.”
Last fall Howard and Lori were working on a reconciliation but whether or not they will get back together is unclear. “The reality is that I was the one at fault,” Howard admits months later on the phone. Still, he’s content with the status of their relationship. “We’re getting to know each other as people now.”
BABY, I’M FOR REAL
On-screen or in the flesh, you can’t miss the fact that Howard is a stand-up man. That’s why he insists on truth-telling, even if it means putting himself out there. “How many times you see a Black man walking around and you see him take his lean out of his walk and get all smiley for everybody, you know?” he asks. “What in the hell is that about? The first thing you are is a man. How dare you invalidate years of your ancestors’ standing up and going through garbage just so that you can be here, and you go and cower. You’re 6 feet 7 and you’re bending down like you’re 5 feet 8.” Just the thought pisses him off.
The complexities of race and power play out all the time in his world. When Howard was a tot, there was the fatal incident with his dad and the man in the Santa Claus line. ABC News reported that the man had called his father a nigger. His father later went to prison for manslaughter. As a college student, Howard got a White girl pregnant. “Because of my upbringing, I married her ’cause that’s what you do,” he says. “And if it had been a Black woman, I would’ve married her.”
All his life, Howard says, he’s recognized his multiracial makeup. “When I was a kid, my daddy put some salt on the table and put some pepper on the table, and he said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Salt.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Pepper.’ Then he mixed it together and said, ‘Can you call that salt now? Can you call that pepper? You’re not Black. You’re not White. You are you. You are a seasoned individual.’ Just because I have Black in me, does that mean that I’m going to isolate that and say, okay, the White and the Spanish and the Asian that exist in me, I’m not going to recognize? The reality is, I will never stop being Black. The reality is that no matter what color my eyes are, the thing that makes up the majority of me is Black. So I’m always going to respect that. But apart from that, I am me.”
“Everybody knows who they’re dealing with,” he continues, referring to his wife, his children, his family and even the directors and costars who work with him. “George Clooney gave me the biggest compliment last year. He said, ‘The best thing about you, Terrence, is you look like a man. You don’t look like one of those little boys. You look like a man, and you behave like one.’ I’m too outspoken to be beholden to the powers that be in this business. I’m not going to be the nice guy.”
Howard doesn’t have to be. Because not being nice doesn’t mean you can’t love flowers, which he does. It doesn’t mean you don’t softly run your fingers over acoustic guitar strings and make what he calls urban country. And it certainly doesn’t mean you don’t hold your children’s hands and circle the dinner table in prayer. No, Terrence Howard doesn’t have to be nice, because what Terrence Howard is, is a lover and a fighter for all he considers right. You can’t get much more man than that.
Photography by Marc Baptiste. Styling by Agnes Cammock.