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Terrence Howard: Talk of the town

'Crash' star Terrence Howard has a theory about everything – including the hidden meaning of his new film 'Iron Man'. Stephen Applebaum tries to keep up

Terrence Howard's suit is as sharp as a knife. His voice has the slight rasp of too many cigarettes, and his mind moves restlessly from subject to subject. No wonder his recent films range from the Jodie Foster revenge thriller The Brave One and the weird surgical thriller Awake, to the hotly anticipated comic book adaptation Iron Man and the Bosnian war drama The Hunting Party.

Sitting opposite me, Howard's thoughts are momentarily elsewhere. He's due to deliver a talk at a New York university the following morning and is excited about the appointment, if a bit bemused. "I only stayed in college for two years in New York. I went there to figure out something, and once I'd figured it out I thought, 'OK, that's good.' Now they want me to come and talk." Despite having 45 minutes to fill, he has nothing prepared. "I'll just figure it out as I go."

It doesn't take long to discover that Howard can riff on almost any topic. During the course of our interview he quotes Solomon and Mr Spock, and expatiates – often bafflingly – on everything from love and marriage to God and guns.

What does the university want him to talk about? "Just life," says Howard. At 39, the star of Paul Haggis's Crash and Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow already has plenty to draw on. When he was three, he saw his father stab a man to death (in self-defence, Howard has said) as they were queuing to see Santa Claus. At 13, he almost became a statistic in LA's gang wars.

"If you lived in the neighbourhood you had to be part of a gang," he says. "I wasn't of a similar nature, but at that age everybody wants to make a name for themselves, and the only way to make a name for yourself is to kill somebody – and the only person you can kill is somebody you think nobody cares about. I didn't want that to happen to me, and I had three other brothers too, so I was part of the Mansfield Hustlers."

One day, Howard tipped off a member of a rival gang, the School Yard Crips, that another Hustler – "a notorious monster, the physical manifestation of evil" – was coming for him. The good deed earned Howard a beating from his own posse that left him with a black eye and a swollen lip. He thought the worst was over. A few days later, however, "I'm on Cochran and Olympic and this car pulls up," recalls Howard, "and four School Yard Crips get out. They pull out three guns and they put them to my head, and someone says, 'Kill him.'" Luckily, Baby Boy, the man he'd warned, showed up in the nick of time and vouched for him. "If I hadn't saved his life, I would have lost my life that day," says the actor. "That was my youth and growing up."

He does not regard such experiences with sadness. They are all grist to the mill, he says, and form the foundation of who he is as an actor. But while they have made him strong in some areas, they have left him weak in others. He could play someone fighting for his life, but, he says, "I don't know if I will ever be able to play a character in love because I've never felt that. I've felt passion and lust for a woman, but I've never been in love. I'm emotionally bankrupt in that area."

This is surprising as Howard has said that the reason his 14-year marriage to Lori McCommas, the mother of his three children, ended in divorce in 2003 was because he was in love with her but she did not love him. He spent three years trying to get her back, and succeeded. They remarried, but have since parted again. "Who knows if it's over?" says Howard. "I married her twice, I'll probably marry her a third time. I love the challenge. I'll keep trying."

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Howard has acting in the genes. He talks movingly about how his grandmother, the New York stage actress Minnie Gentry, could hold an audience in the palm of her hand. "She's the only person I knew that could really do magic," he says. "I saw her off Broadway and Minnie transfixed me. She hypnotised us in that audience, and I wanted that power."

Acting, though, was initially a way of supporting himself while he studied for a degree in chemical engineering. When he got a job on The Cosby Show, earning $1,900 for what seemed to him like very little work, it struck a chord. Minor roles followed, but it was not until 2005 – when he played a director who decides he has had a bellyful of racism in Crash, and the lead in the pimp saga Hustle & Flow – that he really took off.

Howard is happy with his career's evolution. "I would have been a mess if this had happened when I was 25," he sighs. Why? "Women, drugs, all the stuff that destroys young lives." He was not ready for the responsibility. "You cannot give someone the commission of an entire army before they've learnt how to experience battle," he says. "I was not ready to be a leader. And when you're leading a movie, you have the potential to influence the entire world."

In that case, you have to wonder what led him to Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Marvel comic strip Iron Man, in which Howard dons military duds to play Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rhodes/War Machine, friend and ally of Robert Downey Jr's billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. "I did that movie for one reason," he says. "So that I could watch and study Robert Downey Jr, who I think is the most gifted living actor next to Sean Penn on this planet. I learnt so much about just remaining true to the truth."

But Howard has clearly thought hard about what Iron Man means. He believes the film is about government accountability. Stark, he says, starts out believing that the military is using the weapons technology his company provides to protect its own people. But he realises his mistake when he sees US troops being killed by the weapons he created. "There's no peace because there's no accountability, and there's no sense of justice, so Stark says, 'I'm going to build a suit and I'm going to fight against my own weapons.' Now that's what we end up doing," offers Howard. "We tear down the things that we've set up. We've set up the government in a way where the government runs over us. Is it wrong for them to?"

Whether audiences will see Iron Man on this level remains to be seen. Does Howard have a theory about why comic book movies are doing so well in America? Of course he does. "It's because [in America] we can't look to truth any more and we've retired into fantasy. That's the only place. [After] the Patriot Act, our dreams are gone as Americans. It's no longer the land of the free."

'Iron Man' opens on Friday; 'The Hunting Party' opens on 11 July