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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Terrence Howard came into our studios the other day. He actually began as a singer and songwriter, and got sort of sidetracked into acting where he's won accolades and fame in films that include "Hustle & Flow" and "Crash." Now at the age of 39, he's put out his first CD. It's called "Shine Through It." And here's a taste.

(Soundbite of song "Shine Through It")

Mr. TERRENCE HOWARD (Singer; Songwriter; Actor): (Singing) Sentimental phone calls. People hide behind, how you doing. Then the talk starts. How come ya never follow through it?

SIMON: Mr. Howard looked every inch a movie star, but in the classic sense, wearing a soft fedora cocked Sinatra-style, like a man who still feels that a star should dress the part, not dress down to avoid being recognized. And he was in a mood to talk about music, acting and loss. Terrence Howard's mother died just two weeks ago. He cherishes the debt he owes his great-grandmother, Minnie Gentry, a stage actress he used to watch from the wings of theaters.

Mr. HOWARD: She introduced me to acting because there was magic and believability in what she did. She would make me sit down at the piano and would teach me the relationship between A and D and G and C, why they were best friends, why they were relatives. You know, she talked to me about music in terms of family. So it's become part of my family.

SIMON: Well, what did you see come over her when she was onstage, she was performing, that fascinated you?

Mr. HOWARD: It was as if watching the glaciers move, not retreat, but advance, you know, when she was in the process of becoming a character, because she was this foundation. But she would allow herself to break and would make no excuses for it, you know. And some actors are so busy trying to look good at all times that they stop being good.

SIMON: Do you mind if we - if I ask about your childhood?

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, you can.

SIMON: You read about it.

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, I had.

SIMON: You had a tough childhood.

Mr. HOWARD: I've lived. I have lived. And they say experience is the name that we give to our mistakes along the way. Some things you're forced to experience that you didn't choose to. But it's how you recover from them. You know, I grew up in the same environment where a lot of the kids ended up going to jail, you know, or getting hooked on drugs. You know, I lived in the same projects as a result of it - as a result of what happened with my father.

SIMON: Can we explain that? Your father went to prison.

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, yeah, my father went to prison for 11 months which moved us from being middle class, upper middle class, to living in the projects. You know, my father was hated because of - he was accused of murder, murdering a white guy at a time when the nation was already racially divided. My father came back from prison a different person, because the kind nature he had, he had to lose in order to survive prison.

He came out, and we became Muslims. And we were young, beautifully mixed children put into a very bad neighborhood that at the time it wasn't appreciated to be light-skinned with green eyes. And you know, my mom would sing to us and tell us it was OK when we'd get beat up or something. My father would try and teach us to fight.

SIMON: Do you remember what your mother sang to you to comfort you? I wonder.

Mr. HOWARD: She said, this too shall pass. Yeah. My mom passed two weeks ago, which is interesting, because now that energy that motivated her life will go to the thing that's most like her life. And this was her dream, to be an actor and a musician. My dream was to be a physicist. So I have to think that some part of her is animating me.

SIMON: I have to ask about an announcement that came out recently. You are not going to be Jim Rhodes in "Iron Man II."

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, I found that out, too.

SIMON: Really? They didn't - they didn't...

Mr. HOWARD: It was the surprise of a lifetime. There was no explanation. Just up and banished, and I read something in the trades that implicated it was about money or something. But apparently, the contracts that we write and sign aren't worth the paper that they're printed on sometimes, and promises aren't kept, and good faith negotiations aren't always held up, you know, even friendships, people that you support, you know.

And I found peacefulness in me, though, that even in getting slapped when I was a little kid, and I would be attacked, even though I was strong enough to stop it, I would never hit back back then. I didn't start hitting back till I was 15. I didn't stop hitting back until I was around 28. Even now, I didn't hit back. So it reminded me that, well, I'm back to the peacefulness that I had before.

SIMON: We're talking with Terrence Howard: actor, musician, and occasional carpenter. With all those skills, I suggested he wouldn't be between jobs for very long.

Mr. HOWARD: No, because there's some other construction that needs to be done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I was going to ask what, you know, when your next kitchen is or whatever you're doing.

Mr. HOWARD: Oh, no. The next thing we're doing, we're building a pond, a 110-foot pond in front of our house in Plymouth Meeting. And we're putting these huge stones, like two-ton stones apiece, in there as the base of it. And my son is learning to operate a SkyTrak and a crane at 13 years old, and (unintelligible) watching him go in and out and pick up a stone that could crush both him and me and our car, and maneuver that, and trusting him. And I'm raising a really beautiful young man that will probably become the scientist I always wanted to become.

SIMON: What if he comes to you one day and says, Dad, I really want to be in show business?

Mr. HOWARD: I would prefer him not to.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. HOWARD: Just because as an actor, the saddest thing, you stop experiencing moments. You start watching them as if you're storing them for a future reference.

SIMON: So, for example, you see somebody make a face on a bus or have an emotional moment, you store it away?

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, it's like when I was sitting there with my mother at home for the last two weeks. There were moments when I couldn't turn the actor off that was watching her, you know, and wondering what was going through her mind, but also wondering, oh, so that's what that emotion is like. That's what it's like to be facing death, to be this close to it. There's a stillness there. And trying to stop myself, and her looking up and saying, what are you thinking? And I was telling her, I was trying to see what you're thinking. You know, but she's always known me, and known me to be a curious person. But the actor sometimes takes over in places that you don't want it there. Or maybe I was just afraid to face the emotion that was happening. So...

SIMON: It could be you fell back on the actor.

Mr. HOWARD: I began to watch. You know, I feel a bit like Dorian Gray at times because I don't necessarily see - I don't know - I don't see the pain of life as much, because I've played so many characters. And I think that's what happens to a lot of actors, you know. And therefore they get hooked in drugs because they're desperate to get away from not feeling. They want to be excited or something. I don't know. It's a very strange thing. So I guess I still would steer him away from it.

SIMON: Could it be that it - by the way, that's one of the most extraordinary things I've ever heard, like the clearest, most lucid, most affecting explanation I think I've ever heard as to why some people are actors. Now, do you think that the sidetrack that you took through the movie business and stage to get back to music, do you think you - I mean, God willing we learn something from everything - but do you think you learned something as an actor that refreshes your music now?

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah. I mean, when I first started acting, I thought it was about the best liar. I thought the best liar was the best actor. But it's the best truth teller. To find the truth on those pages, black and white, and to believe in it so much, it has to be honest, it has to be truthful.

SIMON: We're speaking with Terrence Howard about his acting and music. But as a child, his first fascination was with science.

Mr. HOWARD: I got to looking at a bubble when I was a kid, and I remember blowing it. I was sitting in front of my house, 3200 Central Avenue in Cleveland. And I blew a bubble, and I said, why does a bubble take the shape of a ball? Why not a square or a triangle? And I went in search of that answer. And people kept saying it was the most economical shape for holding something and you're learning - if I can elaborate...

SIMON: Please, because I'm dying to know the answer.

Mr. HOWARD: Oh, wow.

SIMON: I don't think I've figured it out ever, yeah.

Mr. HOWARD: It turns out once the pressure is equalized in the center of a bubble, the strongest thing exerting force on it is the weight of the universe pushing down equally upon all points. You follow those points out to the edge of the universe, you have the shape of the universe. But someone would say the universe is infinite. But that violates an object must be equal to the sum of its parts. And that the universe is made up - if everything inside of it has a shape and has a boundary, and that the universe is made of these finite particles, it must be bound by the very last particle. And at 13, I said, wow, the universe is finite and I can prove it.

SIMON: May I ask finally. Are you - for a lot of different reasons, I guess, we've talked about here, are you at a point in your life where you realize that life, like the universe, is finite?

Mr. HOWARD: Yes. I did some math a couple of days ago. And I said there's six billion human beings on this planet, and our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, six hundred quadrillion miles across. There's over a hundred billion stars. If you were to take each human being on this planet and put them in a different star system within our very own galaxy, there would still be 94 billion star systems unoccupied. Life is extremely precious, and that's why it's passed down from mother and father, and it takes two to make one. That's how powerful and precious life is.

SIMON: You can hear an extended version of our interview with Terrence Howard on our Web site, npr.org, and I hope you will. He has continually fascinating insights into acting, music, science, and all the ways they come together. And we have a video excerpt from that interview, too, on our blog at npr.org/soapbox. Mr. Howard is simply riveting.

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