Terrence Dashon Howard: Suffering for his art

The star of 'Hustle & Flow' spent two years living amid whores and in bordellos to prepare for the role. Phil Hoad meets him
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If Terrence Dashon Howard is expected to be the latest standard-bearer for mainstream black actors - following the Jamie Foxx show last year, the mega-stardom of Denzel Washington and Will Smith, and a lineage stretching back to Sidney Poitier - he's wearing it lightly. Munching Eggs Benedict on a grey autumn morning in a suite in London's Soho Hotel, he bridles momentarily when coffee arrives: "What, no cream?" he questions. "I thought you wanted it black," his disgruntled publicist replies. "Then I decided I was going to integrate my coffee," he jokes.

Just lately, the 36-year-old has been carving out a niche for himself in a certain kind of film. He was Ray Charles's guitar-playing cohort, Gossie McKee, in Ray. He's in the Barbershop-like The Salon, and next year he'll be in films with 50 Cent and OutKast. Most of these will probably be eventually filed in the DVD section under that most irritating, nebulous of tags: Urban Interest.

But, with Howard, labels are starting to seem superfluous. This year's key Howard films are the annoyingly hand-wringing state-of-LA opus Crash, in which he is superb as a moneyed TV executive whose wife is molested by a racist cop, and now Hustle & Flow, an earnest, showy character piece about the frustrated aspirations of a Memphis pimp.

The actor was nervous when he first tiptoed around playing DJay, who is bursting to break into hip-hop and escape the slums. "I was afraid that instead of trying to kill a stereotype, they were trying to propagate a stereotype," Howard, suave in a black suit and shirt, explains in his soft, thoughtful voice. "Blaxploitation, glorification of pimps, glorification of the gangsta life. I didn't want to participate in anything like that."

While Hustle & Flow doesn't go down that route, it doesn't break free of overly honed, slightly obvious drama - it's from the MTV stable. That the film succeeds in dishing out a hefty Rocky-like slug is due totally to Howard's commitment: there are scenes, like the one in which he's desperately trying to ingratiate himself with the local rap star Skinny Black (played by Ludacris, Howard's co-star in Crash) where emotion is practically hanging off his face.

This isn't surprising when you find out the lengths that Howard went to. He interviewed 123 pimps and 78 prostitutes over two and a half years, and lived with four separate pimps for various periods, including two weeks with Tweety Bird, a friend of his uncle's, and another month-long stint in a Memphis bordello. He was cut up by what he saw. "They were struggling with nothing left to sell but their humanity and, y'know... I couldn't judge them any more. I judged me. I judged the lack of the infrastructure that was supposed to protect them. I judged the government that disenfranchised them from the American Dream."

Howard says that the director Craig Brewer selected him because, unlike certain other rappers and actors who read for the role, he hadn't wanted to do it, and wasn't too keen to pimp it up: he turned the role down twice. Brewer demanded that Howard give up two-years-plus for the role. Fortuitously, the actor had just got divorced from his wife and so - temporarily separated from his three children - he underwent total immersion for the role. The rapping actually sounds like the easy part. Howard pulls it off passionately, even though he doesn't own a single rap album himself. He's clearly musically adept, though: he was brought up listening to country, plays flamenco guitar, and jams with Quincy Jones.

The film done, Howard and his wife, Lori, remarried. The actor, almost melancholy as he thinks back, isn't sure if playing DJay unpicked whatever emotional knots on his side had caused them to split. "I don't know. I know that when she came to the premiere at Sundance, I think for the first time she was proud of me. She might have seen some of the pain and anguish I'd been talking to her about, trying to get her back. She saw a lot of that in the character, I think. She felt sorry for me, because you have to feel some of that in order to portray it."

Turning pimp for two years smacks of ascetic De Niro-esque privation, and there's little doubt that Howard is the archetypal driven character-actor - hence the constant expansive, conflicted performances that transcend whatever labels are slapped on them. He had the archetypal itinerant actor's upbringing, too: he shuttled between his mother in Cleveland and his father in Los Angeles, the light-skinned child of mixed-race parents. His father served a year in prison for manslaughter when Howard was three, for a nationally reported "Santa Line Slaying". Tyrone Howard had taken his children to a Christmas grotto, when he got into an argument that led to the stabbing-to-death of Jack Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick's family has disputed Howard's account of the tragedy, as recounted on Oprah and other places, saying that the dead man was 5ft 8in, not the "huge" 6ft 4in that the future actor remembered.

Whatever the truth, the incident contains the kind of unpredictable eddies and contradictions that Howard is able to summon in front of a camera. When elaborating on the advice that his great-grandmother, the actress and singer Minnie Gentry, gave him, he spools out a gnomic formula: "The truth is truly relative. Opinions are subjective. The truth is universally relative. That's what I use in every aspect of my life, but particularly in finding characters and portraying them." He stares fixedly with his green eyes and feline face, friendly but somehow distant and searching.

There's no doubt that, now, added to his simmering cauldron is ambition. Apparently, later this day, he's not too pleased that the majority of the press interest has been from the specialist hip-hop press. He turns down a late-night audience at the hip-hop court of King Tim Westwood on Radio 1 because he wants to show his 12-year-old daughter round London the following day. Recognition as an actor is on his mind, evidently, and Hustle & Flow, crudely affective though it is, isn't quite there. Idlewild, the forthcoming OutKast musical, sounds more promising, but he has a supporting part. Someone, please, write this man the role he deserves.

'Hustle & Flow' is out now