His next breakthrough came in 1995, when he played a student in Mr. Holland’s Opus. But despite good notices, Howard’s reputation for being “difficult” held him back (as he readily admits) until he earned an Oscar nomination in 2005 for playing a pimp with big dreams in Hustle & Flow.
He doesn’t regret a thing. “I’m right where I wanted to be at,” he says. “I’ve gained the respect of my peers, and have, I believe, the respect of my audience. I have enough money to feed my family.” More often than not, he lets producers come to him. That’s what happened with Tin Roof. “They’ve been after me for a couple of years,” he says, “and with the writer’s strike going on, it seemed like a pretty good thing to whet yourself with, to learn a bit.”
Every night, Howard gets onstage with Phylicia Rashad, James Earl Jones, and rising theater star Anika Noni Rose. Debbie Allen, the show’s director, has no complaints. “He takes direction very well,” she says. It helps that she gives him his space. “When he decides he wants to go with something, he’s full out. When he decides to step away from it, you won’t find him. You will not even be able to talk to him for a while. There’s a part of him that sometimes needs to disconnect. You know, making choices. I think it’s smart.”
James Earl Jones plays the domineering family patriarch, Big Daddy, with a manic energy belying his age. His scenes with Howard are a study in contrasting temperaments. “I have no problem ‘being loud,’ when the director requires it,” Jones says. “But the minute Terrence finds himself just ‘being loud,’ he has a sensor that goes up. It’s his reality check that asks, ‘Am I being truthful?’ When he [pulls] back on energy, it’s always a choice to pull back to simplicity—something we should all do.”
Many excellent actors can transform their liabilities into something novel in their parts. “I call myself a quiet actor,” says Howard, “and that’s been really difficult.” So he’s learning to project, to adjust to the storytelling aspect of theater. But as for his cultivated indifference and self-image as the last honorable man—well, those aren’t liabilities in the world of Tennessee Williams.
They meet with mixed results in the here and now. “I still need to have a conversation with that writer,” he says of the Elle reporter who published his choice thoughts on cleanliness. “What I told him was very nice. It’s a revelation, and what he did as a result hurt me. And if we lived in the 1800s, I would be able to go and confront him man to man. But we’re not in that world today. We live in a world where mendacity takes center stage … But life will get him back, and if it doesn’t, death will get him back.”
I laugh, but he isn’t joking. After the interview is over, when I’m just out the door, he shouts a word of warning from the dressing room: “Be honest!”