There was one good thing about Malcolm Lee’s 1999 studio film The Best Man: Terrence Howard. I wrote a review of the film for Africana.com (now Blackvoices.com) in which I said just that. I got lots of emails from angry black men because I likened the film to an R&B video (and I’d say it again today). But Terrence Howard was something else. You just sort of waited for him to enter the frame. Since then, Howard has done over a dozen films, including a handful of independents—three of which went to Sundance earlier this year: The Salon (Mark Brown, director), Lacka-wana Blues (George C. Wolfe, director), and the festival darling, Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer, director), which was bought by Paramount for a festival record $9 million and will open theatrically next month.
Howard plays DJay, the fiercely broken yet surprisingly complex failed pimp and aspiring rap artist. It’s a story that from the outset might sound familiar—the standard Horatio Alger rags to riches story, only DJay never becomes rich exactly, and his aspirations are propelled less by pure ambition as they are by emotional instinct. Howard plays DJay so deeply wanting, so internally tortured, that you nearly forget he’s a pimp (if a not very good one), and think of him more as a sort of latter day Arthur Rimbaud (who actually, might have been a better pimp than poet).
I recently sat down with Terrence Howard to talk about Hustle & Flow, and his thoughts on filmmaking and acting.
Rebecca Carroll: So Sundance this year—three films, and one, Hustle & Flow, just blows up.
Terence Howard: I had no idea that the film was going to do so well. I was just happy that Sundance had accepted it, but then the reception and response to it—halfway through the film I’m looking around and I see everyone glued to the screen, some people fidgeting in their seats, but it looked like they needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t want to miss nothing. And afterwards, the applause—they had been applauding for a while for different people, but then everyone stood up when I started walking to the stage. I didn’t expect that. I don’t really know what surreal means, but that’s the only word I can think of to describe that experience.
RC: Doesn’t it make sense, though? You poured your heart into that part and people were applauding you for it.
TH: That I love. If that’s what they were applauding, that I love.
RC: Well yeah, what else would they be applauding?
TH: I just…I don’t know. I was clapping too, looking around like, “Where’s the star at, come on man, where he at?” And then it was like, “Oh, that’s me.”
RC: How did you feel while you were watching the film?
TH: I was looking for moments that weren’t true.
RC: Is that what you do when you watch your performances?
TH: If you’re a seamstress you’re always looking for where you missed a stitch so you can remember in the future where to be more careful. I was looking at the stitching of this film, of this tapestry that we created, and it had a couple boo-boos, but that added character to it. I was happy that the boo-boos fit along with the overall idea of what I wanted, what we wanted.
RC: How did you first hear about the project?
TH: Stephanie Allain. She championed that thing. I was staying at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills—I don’t remember what I was doing but I was there with my kids—and Stephanie set up a meeting with my agent’s assistant.
RC: So you met with her?
TH: I was like, “Let’s get to the skinny of it, cause I’m gonna go play with my kids.” She says, “Well, I got two projects I want to talk to you about.” The first was Biker Boyz, but she says Derek Luke is gonna star. So I say, “OK, what’s the other one?” And she tells me about this script Hustle & Flow—this pimp selling weed who wants to become a rapper. I told her that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in, but I liked the Biker Boyz idea, and I told her if things changed with that to call me. She said, “Well, we can’t change the lead, but there’s some other people you can play.” And the next thing I know, she’s made an offer for this character [in Biker Boyz], Chu Chu. I was only supposed to work for four days, but she put me up in the Chateau Marmont in LA for like two months, gave me a huge allowance and just kind of friendlied up with me.
After a month, she said, “I know you said no, but would you meet with the director [on Hustle & Flow], he just wants to hear some of your ideas.” And I sat down with the director, Craig Brewer, and he started selling me on it too, and I told him, “I just can’t go back to the dark side, I can’t go back to that place.” And he said, “That’s why we want you to do it. Everybody else wants to do it because they want to glorify it, and we want you because we know you’re not gonna be up there trying to glorify anything [this character] is going through.” And I said, “Yeah, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to come up out of it.” You dive into something like that you gotta be able to come up out of it.
And from there, Craig just hounded me for a good six months. He and Stephanie talked to Paramount, MTV, Universal, Focus, and all those studios said, “We will give you the money to do this film, but who are you gonna use?” This is before they had me locked down—in fact, I was still telling them no. And Craig and Stephanie told these studios, “We want to use Terrence Howard.” The response they got was, “What label is he on?”
“Terrence Howard, the actor.” And the studios were like, “Oh, him? You really wanna work with him? No, no, we can’t do that. But you know, if you put Ja Rule in there, or Ludacris in there, we’ll give you 5 to 10 million dollars to make it.” And Chris and Stephanie really wanted to make that movie, but they said, “No, we want Terrence.” You gotta reward that type of stick-to-it-ive-ness. They had faith.
RC: At what point did you read the script?
TH: Oh, I read it that first time. Well no, after I met with Craig. I told him I was gonna read it before we met, and I’m sitting there just BS-ing and he says to me at the end, “You didn’t read it, did you?” And I was like, “No, I didn’t.” He said, “Just do me a favor, just read it, please. Just promise me you’ll read it.” And I gave him my word so I read it, and it kind of grew on me a little.
RC: I wanted to ask about the script because the writing is fairly remarkable don’t you think?
TH: Well, see, Craig didn’t write all of it. I put the “niggers” in. I spent three months down in Memphis talking with these cats, learning the method of their communication. There is no way you can be that character [DJay] without being true to the language he uses. It’s not derogatory the way it’s used in Memphis. Even though it may have derogatory connotations anywhere else, there it’s just part of the communication. And I’m not trying to be politically correct—I could give a hot damn about people in this business, what I’m trying to be is honest. So I put in all those “niggers” and people kept telling me not to, but I was like, no, if we’re using Al Capone and Juicy J and all these cats I’ve spent all this time with, this is how they’re talking to me. We didn’t have a studio blocking us, telling us what we could and couldn’t do. We were open to tell the truth. So let’s tell the truth.
RC: I was also really struck by the women in the film, because they are certainly downtrodden, but they’re not crushed. And that’s a testament to Craig, is it not?
TH: Yeah, but Craig was writing about his own life experiences. Craig was DJay. The director was that pimp in a figurative sense—trying to get everything done to produce his first film. I got the most information about that character from a middle-aged white guy.
RC: How do you feel about the film now?
TH: I love it. I mean, we had a hard time because some people in higher places wanted DJay to be harder—John Singleton likes to makes tough, tough movies, and he said, “[DJay’s] gotta be hard, he’s gotta be hard.” I was like, if he was hard, then he would be a good pimp, but the fact that he’s a bad pimp is because he cares, because he’s not hard.
RC: So there are a lot of projects happening for you right now—I saw Lackawanna Blues, which I liked. Had you worked with George C. Wolfe before?
TH: No, that was the first time, and it is the gem of my career. George stripped me of anything that was comfortable and challenged me, taught me to be specific.
RC: In more mainstream fare, there’s been this recent rash of formulaic films featuring black leads. They’re not necessarily “black films”—they’re not directed or written by black people—but they have black people in them. And I’m wondering for you, because you’ve done both independent and mainstream films, how you feel your experience is different between something for hire, or a commercial studio film, and a more independent film like Hustle & Flow or Lackawana Blues.
TH: My nature is more geared towards independent films. I don’t have an idea of what I’m going to do and oftentimes, unless the script is flexible enough for me to gain weight as a character or to lose weight as a character, I walk around bunched up or too tight. I need the freedom that comes with independent films. We couldn’t have accomplished what we did with Hustle & Flow if we’d had a studio behind us. It’s like street-ball players compared to NBA players. NBA players could never accomplish what they accomplish at street-ball because street-ball is all heart—you gotta come with that to really play. Whereas NBA is structure and franchise and whatever they got going with endorsements.
RC: A lot of actors who do both say, “I’ll do a couple of studio films so I can afford to make some independent films.” Is that you’re model too?
TH: That’s the formula, yeah.
RC: What’s next for you?
TH: I’m looking forward to playing Joe Louis for Spike Lee next year. We’re gonna do his life story.
RC: Have you worked with Spike?
RC: That’ll be a great collaboration.
TH: Then I’m gonna play another cat named Petey Greene, who was a Washington, DC disc jockey in the late 60s and 70s who became a worldwide celebrity and hated that. And then I’ll probably retire.
RC: You can’t—your audience won’t let you.
TH: I’m just tired of being other people. I want to see who I am. And when I say I’m tired, I mean this hustle that I’ve been on for the last 10 years, every day, 365 days a year—you can’t do that forever. You need a rest in between, and then that allows other actors to come in and do what they’re gonna do. You can’t be greedy and try to hog the whole world, you know? You can only spread your canvas but so far. You may light up the whole house, but only for a minute.
RC: But you must really love some of what you do.
TH: Oh, I love the acting part. I just hate the marketing of it, because I have to become a commodity. And so it’s like, “OK, Terrence, come on! Be this!” I can’t do that. It takes a long time to evoke some spirit from some place and if you try to rush it, you might get some spirit from some place you didn’t want.
RC: Any interest in directing?
TH: One day. But first I want to develop a whole new way of shooting. The way we’re shooting now is archaic, it’s wrong.
RC: What do you mean?
TH: We need a whole new camera that can catch real room tones.
RC: Is it a different kind of shooting or a different kind of filmmaking?
TH: A combination of the both, because you have to create a mood on the set for the shooting process, but then the filmmaking itself—it takes a true cinematic, organizational genius to be a great director.
RC: That’s why there are so few good directors out there.
TH: There are about three directors in the world right now. The rest are just