The Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard has amassed an impressive resume since making his Hollywood breakthrough in the 1995 drama Mr. Holland’s Opus (he also starred in that year’s Dead Presidents), excelling at giving each and every one of his characters an extraordinary complexity that always seems to simmer right beneath the surface, whether as part of an ensemble (Crash, Lackawanna Blues), as a villain (Awake, Idlewild), a sympathetic figure (Four Brothers, August Rush), or a hero in waiting (Iron Man). In this week’s Fighting, he plays mentor to a young street fighter (Channing Tatum) — a performance that critics are lauding as quietly powerful, and one of the standouts of Dito Montiel’s film.
In a discussion about Howard’s favorite films, Rotten Tomatoes discovered that the actor’s affinity for music runs close to his cinematic tastes (in addition to performing his own songs in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, he released an album in 2008). Read on for Howard’s Five Favorite Films, his anti-“acting” philosophy, and more.
The harmony of music with the simplistic style of telling that story, as a framework for it, and then the acting… It’s like bringing Broadway — true Broadway — to the desert. Picking up a little naturalism from the desert. I believed Carl Anderson; believed every word of him, every frown, every inflection of his eyebrow. I love musicals. Always have. I think you have to tell a full story; it’s like asking someone, “Do you like black and white films?” or “Do you love 3D?” Music creates that third dimension.
That pick is impressive, especially since not a lot of men would admit to liking musicals.
Well they’re not real men, then.
It was that basic human story, it was watching the fluid way in which Marlon [Brando] directed the wind around him. We were all moved and swayed by him, and it was the first time that I took notice of truth in acting. There was no acting; everyone else acted around him, but he was there.
How would you compare the way Brando acted to your own approach?
I made a vow never to “act.” Never, ever “act.” If you’re not there, if you’re not the person [whom you’re portraying], then get out of the way and let the real person in. If you’re acting like the person… People respect an ambassador, but they honor the king.
So you’re of the school of acting that really lives in each role, as opposed to just temporarily taking on a character for the time being?
Yes — or, allow the role to live in you. If you live the role, that world has its consequences when you bring it into our present world. But if you allow the character to live in you, then you are always in control and can direct where he is allowed; you allow the character to become a guest in your gracious space.
Does that mean that every actor has multiple personalities living as a guest inside of him?
Every human being is a composite of multiple, multiple atoms. All taking on different roles in the making of that person or that thing. Likewise, the end result of all of those atoms would be like those atoms; so we need a lot of different personalities; but in order to be one personality, you have to be a number of them because of how they balance off each other.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: “A posh life!” [From the song “Posh!”] “Lullabye Bay.” [From the song “Hushabye Mountain”] Those songs that Dick Van Dyke (as Caractacus Potts) and his father (Lionel Jeffries, as Grandpa Potts) sang blew me away! I saw it as a child, and I watch it as an adult. I love that movie.
Mary Poppins is still one of my very, very, very favorites. There are so many wonderful jewels of knowledge that they put in that film. It’s like that book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. There are some wonderful hints to achieving success in life, and the greatest success is to be happy. That’s what those movies seem to tell me.
Are you a movie watcher who takes the lessons from films and employs them in your own life?
Well, a true teacher is always a true student. And if you are willing and humble yourself, you can learn from a lot; you have to listen very carefully.
Hustle & Flow showed me what could have happened to me. I hadn’t recognized that until I’d seen the movie completed; you never know what painting you’re making until the final stroke. And even then, it’s not finished until you put it into the frame. I didn’t understand the full impact of those individual strokes that we were making on a day to day basis until I saw [the film] — where A could have led me. I saw where A would end up at. And taking on B, C, and D… For a film to affect me that way, for a character to affect me that way, to where I feel worry and think about who Djay is… I still wonder about Shug and her baby. I still wonder about Key.
Hustle & Flow also had music in it, which told some of that struggle. Remember, music used to be written for films, conveyed by the actors themselves. They knew when that music was played and they responded to it. Now, [merging a film to its music] is something that’s done as a separate act, and it’s more manipulative and not honest. Music in Hustle & Flow gave us another plane in which to relate everything to, and to play from. It widened the playing field; it brightened the road down the way, because you could move to that music, and be in step with the audience instead of the audience being manipulated into step with you.
Taking that amount of pride in Hustle & Flow‘s musical elements, how did you feel when Three 6 Mafia won the Oscar for Best Song?
I felt absolutely elated, for the fact that the Academy was able to see past the genre lines and the lines of demarcation between individual people and could see the artists themselves, the work and the artistry. They didn’t care whose name was at the bottom of the painting, or who was the initial audience of it, they just saw a painting worth their appreciation. I was so honored to be a part of that.