Actor Howard Gets Good Rap for 'Hustle & Flow'

A brooding Terrence Howard smokes a cigarette in 'Hustle & Flow'

A brooding Terrence Howard smokes a cigarette. In the background is actress Paula Jai Parker. Alan Spearman/Paramount Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Alan Spearman/Paramount Classics

Ed Gordon talks with Terrence Howard, the star of Hustle & Flow, a new drama about a pimp trying to break into hip-hop music. The film, opening this weekend, prompted a record bidding war at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The movie "Hustle & Flow" opens today, but it's been generating buzz for months. On the film circuit, audiences and critics have applauded the movie's gritty portrayal of a low-end Memphis pimp pursuing his dreams of rap stardom.

(Soundbite of "Hustle & Flow")

Unidentified Singer #1: You know, it's hard out here for a pimp...

Unidentified Singer #2: Ain't no...

Unidentified Singer #1: ...when he's trying to get his money for the rent...

Unidentified Singer #2: Ain't no...

Unidentified Singer #1: ...for the Cadillacs and gas money spent...

Unidentified Singer #2: Ain't no...

Unidentified Singer #1: ...we'll have a whole lot of jumping ship.

Unidentified Singer #2: Ain't no...

GORDON: "Hustle" is actor Terrence Howard's first starring role. He's usually played the sidekicks or sympathetic, but flawed characters, like the cheating husband Bill in the HBO movie "Lackawanna Blues."

(Soundbite of "Lackawanna Blues")

Unidentified Woman #1: Would you like to live in a regular house?

RUBEN: What's regular?

Unidentified Woman #2: Think you'd like to look at some of these other places?

RUBEN: No, thank you. I'm happy here with Nanny.

Unidentified Man #1: Doesn't hurt to take a look, Ruben.

Unidentified Man #2: All right. Come on.

Unidentified Woman #2: I beg your pardon.

Unidentified Man #2: Let's go.

Unidentified Woman #2: Bill.

Unidentified Man #2: Let's go, I say!

Unidentified Woman #2: Bill.

Unidentified Man #3: Mr. Crosby, we're just...

Unidentified Man #2: Get your ass outta here! Move!

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm sorry. Bill gets a little wound up.

Unidentified Woman #3: We'll definitely talk to you, Mrs. Crosby.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

Unidentified Man #2: You must be crazy talking to Junior like that. Ain't taking that child nowhere.

Unidentified Woman #2: See, that's what's wrong with your brain. They're liable to come back here and snatch him up because they think you crazy!

Unidentified Man #2: No. That's why they ain't coming back here, because they know I am. And before I let them take my best buddy out of here, they're going to have to take me out of here first.

GORDON: Black audiences have known Howard's star power for years. Now his career is achieving cross-over momentum. In the movie "Crash," also in theaters this summer, Howard plays an upper middle-class man who's comfortable trying to live beyond the complications of race. After a run-in with the Los Angeles Police, he and his wife argue.

(Soundbite of "Crash")

Mr. TERRENCE HOWARD: Who are you calling?

Ms. THANDIE NEWTON: I'm gonna report their asses, sons of...

Mr. HOWARD: You actually believe they're going to take anything you have to say seriously?

Ms. NEWTON: Do you have any idea how that felt, to have that pig's hands all over me? And you just stood there. And then you apologize to him?

Mr. HOWARD: I mean, what did you want me to do? Get us both shot?

Ms. NEWTON: They were going to shoot us on Ventura Boulevard. Pathetic.

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah. Well, maybe you would have been satisfied with just being arrested.

Ms. NEWTON: Oh, I get it. Much better to let him shove his hand up my crotch than get your name in the paper.

Mr. HOWARD: You know, you finally got me figured out, because, see, that's exactly what I was worried about right there.

Ms. NEWTON: Oh, you wasn't? You weren't afraid that all your good friends at the studio were going to read about you in the morning and realize that, you know what, he's actually black?

Mr. HOWARD: You need to calm down right now.

Ms. NEWTON: No. What I need is a husband who will not just stand there while I am being molested.

Mr. HOWARD: I mean, they were cops, for God's sakes. They had guns. You know what? Maybe I should have let them arrest your ass. I mean, sooner or later, you've got to find out what it is really like to be black.

GORDON: Critics took note of Howard's performance in "Crash." They're calling him brilliant in "Hustle & Flow."

(Soundbite of "Hustle & Flow")

Unidentified Man #4: I have this thing right here. My heart beats in this thing.

Unidentified Man #5: I'm gonna do it with a cassette tape, man.

Unidentified Man #6: See, that's my blood pumpin'. This is my...

Unidentified Man #7: Dog, you know, it's a new millennium. I can't do nothing with no cassette tape. I don't even have a cassette tape player.

Unidentified Man #8: I appreciate, Frank, you talking to me man-to-man like this, hell, treating me like an equal, man. And the only reason I give you that right there is because, you know, if you give me a shot, you know, just give me a chance, getting my voice heard, my--you know, I wouldn't even have words to you, man.

GORDON: I spoke with Howard about his latest role and that the media is calling it his breakout performance.

Mr. HOWARD: I mean, I don't even know what breakout role means. I don't know. I've been at this for 19 years and I think anybody that starts in the mail room in a company, after 19 years, they shouldn't be in the mail room anymore, and it's just natural for them to climb up the ladder. So it's just a natural progression right here, I see.

GORDON: This role and this movie is going to, frankly, get some criticism, as you know, I think, if people don't go beyond the first--the initial thought of what the movie is about. They may not get to the redemptive spirit until they see it.

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, they have to see it.

GORDON: But when you first heard about it, did you have trepidation in taking the role?

Mr. HOWARD: Please, I was more trepidatious than anyone associated with the film. It took seven months before I would even read the script, and after reading it, I felt so remiss that I hadn't jumped on it earlier because it's such an important, important film that we need right now. It's more of a documentary about a lifestyle and a group of people that's struggling to free themselves from a lifestyle. You've got a young man, you know, 35 years old who, for 35 years, has allowed his life to be shaped by the environment in which he was in, and at 35 years old, he says, `Now I'm going to participate in my own destiny. I am going to make my life better, and I'm going to make amends for the things that I've done wrong.' I think that's highly commendable for anybody to make a stand like that.

GORDON: This character in the movie, DJay, what do you like best about him and what did you dislike about the character?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, what I liked about him was his honesty. He recognized that he had limited skills out there in the world, but his resilience and his determination and that indomitable spirit is what I found so attractive about him. I've seen the film four or five times, and each time, I cry throughout the entire film. Now I'm not some sensitive person out there. For the listeners that know my work, you know, there's a vulnerability to me, but there is an--I've never allowed sensitivity to override my sensibility. But with this character, I find he--his struggle is so very hard and--but he refuses to give up. He refuses to give up hope. He just holds on tight and keeps trying.

GORDON: Did you feel the need to balance out who this character was in the sense of a pimp, in this sense, to moviegoers, could easily be seen as socially reprehensible, but to really pull for this guy, you had to show something there that people could hold on to. Where'd you find that balance?

Mr. HOWARD: The balance was just in everyday life. Yeah, he is a pimp, but the question is how did he become a pimp? There's a book by Khalil Gibran called "The Madman," and in it, he speaks about a man called the criminal, who had begged and pleaded for schools to let him in, who had begged for people to give him work and then when he couldn't get work because he didn't have the right clothes or the right education, he sat outside in the streets and asked for handouts, and everyone said, `Well, you're a strong young man. You should be able to go work.' And they refused to give him anything, and he found himself on top of a mountain, cursing at God, and saying, `You told me to knock and the door would be open. I'm knocking and it was shut to me.' And he said, `At that moment, his countenance changed,' and he picked up a stick and went down into that city, and within two years, was the most notorious of criminals. And after that, he became--a new emir took over the land and appointed him as the head of his army. And what Khalil finally said is you--out of kind spirits, we turn into criminals by our cruelty.

So DJay didn't start out like that. He started off as a little baby, but became disenfranchised, disillusioned. His dreams were deferred, and as a result, the other side of humanity kicks in, and that's the will to survive, at any cost, and anyone out there needs to understand it; this is just how it is. You have to give people a chance and help them to do better, encourage them. Do not discourage them, because they will not be kind as a result of discouragement.

GORDON: You were in "Crash," a movie critically acclaimed--the idea that this is a movie that the studio clearly is behind in terms of trying to market it to a crowd that is going to accept and come and see this movie, I think, in great numbers. Do you see this as a possible special year for you, based on what has happened to date?

Mr. HOWARD: I mean, there's a great deal more attention placed upon me, but I think because they cannot put the accolades on the individual characters themselves, like Cameron overcoming his own cowardice and learning how to be a man and what's important, is not just getting by and fitting in to society, but he chooses to become a man and live as a man and to die as a man.

GORDON: That's the character in "Crash," we should note.

Mr. HOWARD: That's the character in "Crash." And then in "Hustle & Flow," it's the same thing. You know, it's a young man who decides to take on his own life by his own terms and then do the right thing by following his dream. But if these people were living beings, they would be the ones receiving the accolades, but I'm the closest thing that they can put these accolades on, so, you know, I will accept them, I'll accept the awards or whatever good thing might come on behalf of these characters.

GORDON: Finally, before we let you go, Terrence, I want to ask you about something that you, like many actors and those of us now at Nick at Nite can look back on "The Cosby Show," you made your appearance...

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah. That's what it was.

GORDON: ...and got the TV start there, like so many others. It's kind of fun to look back and see now famous faces. Talk to me about that experience and, you know, what you think about, just being a part of what is legendary now.

Mr. HOWARD: Oh, that is a funny love story right there. I mean, I crashed auditions for two years to finally get on that show, and when they finally put me on it, just to be working with Bill Cosby and Allen Payne and Erika Alexander and all those wonderful, wonderful people, you know, it taught me so much; that I thought that I was ready to go then, and I had no idea what it took to be successful in the business at that time, and I'm so thankful that they suffered along with me, you know. I hope that they're proud now because most of the things that I'm doing now came as a result of Bill Cosby's coaching and his patience with me just on that one episode, but it meant the world to me.

GORDON: Well, listen, man, we are happy that that started the ball rolling, and from "Lackawanna Blues" to "Crash" to the latest, "Hustle & Flow," I'm glad that Terrence Howard is now getting the attention that he so richly deserved, in my opinion, for some time, and we're glad that you took some time to be with this today.

Mr. HOWARD: Well, it was my pleasure and just thank you for doing such a classy show and maintaining the standard that we need as a people to stand up to.

GORDON: Appreciate it.

Mr. HOWARD: All right, old man.

GORDON: All right. Terrence Howard stars in the movie "Hustle & Flow." It opens in theaters today.

This is NPR News.

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