”I could be taking a nap right now, man,” says Terrence Howard, his soft hazel eyes barely visible behind slowly collapsing lids. The 36-year-old actor spoons honey into a steaming cup and gathers cushions about him. Howard lives in Philadelphia with his wife and three kids, but for the few months that he’s up here in Toronto working on Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (the upcoming 50 Cent movie), this semi-cozy, pre-furnished apartment is where he sleeps — or tries to. ”There’s nothing I want more,” he continues, sinking farther into the plush sofa. ”I’ve got my tea. I’ve kicked my shoes off. I’ve got my pillows. I could just lay right down and be in a wonderful world. But I can’t. We’ve got to go have some dinner.”
Like Quentin, the dark but deceptively moral character he portrayed in 1999’s The Best Man, Terrence Howard doesn’t mind if the truth makes you uncomfortable. It’s not that he gets off on flouting typical magazine-interview protocol (his publicist had arranged for us to sit down for a meal this evening); he’s just exhausted — and rightfully so. Demand for his disarming presence has risen to downright silly proportions since Hustle & Flow debuted at Sundance this past January. The 16mm indie, featuring Howard as a barely-scraping-by Memphis pimp who ditches his evil hustle to become a rapper, garnered raves and netted producer John Singleton a three-picture contract with Paramount Pictures worth $16 million — the biggest such deal in the Park City film fest’s history. (The film hits theaters on July 15.)
Suddenly, Howard, a low-profile bit player who’d labored admirably in the shadows of walking paychecks like Jennifer Lopez and Colin Farrell, was bona fide bankable. But like Djay, the conflicted criminal he inhabits to simmering perfection, Howard is at a crossroads — possibly a crisis — of calling.
After years of playing mostly sidekicks and scoundrels in over 30 films, from Dead Presidents to Ray, Howard had grown hungry for marquee parts. ”I want to do Hitch,” he says, grousing into his tea. ”Everybody knows what the filet mignon is on the menu.” A religious man, he was also feeling his faith compromised by the debauched souls he was portraying. When he got the script for Hustle & Flow, he blew it off as more of the same. ”I didn’t read it,” he says. ”I just heard ‘pimp, prostitutes, selling weed.’ That’s not what I want to do.”
But producer Stephanie Allain and upstart writer-director Craig Brewer were adamant, despite Howard’s objections and those of every studio where they tried to get the film made. ”Because he wasn’t an established name,” says Brewer, ”they thought it would be better for a rapper to take [the role].” Allain maintains the part needed ”someone who’d been around,” she says, ”someone who was approaching the point in their life when they thought, ‘Is this it?”’
In the end, Singleton put up the cash, but it was Howard’s frustration-fueled performance that made Brewer’s pimp-with-a-conscience premise fly. Says Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale, who partnered with MTV Films to buy the finished flick for $9 million, ”Terrence makes you believe his character doesn’t want to be there.”