Oh, the Mendacity

Photo: Nigel Parry

Terrence Howard is a very self-reflective man. In fact, he’s giving his dressing-room mirror that intense, green-eyed stare right now. “You offend me, I will call you on it,” he says. “I don’t care if you’re the head of a studio or a P.A. on the set. You disrespect me, you have to pay for that. You’re not gonna tell me ‘shut up’ and I’ll shut up. I’ve always maintained my integrity. That’s more important than anything. Being able to face yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, ‘I still see me there. I don’t see a dented version of me.’”

Currently on a lunch break (jumbo deli salad, Filet-o-Fish combo meal) between two Saturday performances of a new, all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Howard is making common cause with his character, Brick, the morose, possibly closeted, sex-withholding alcoholic at the center of Tennessee Williams’s epic of southern family “mendacity.”

“Who’s the greater human being,” asks Howard, “the person who lives in the world of mendacity and learns to navigate through it, or the person that exposes it for what it is, and says, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be a part of this’?”

Evidently, Howard sees his character as both role and role model. “It’s so easy to play him angry,” he says, but “really hard to be indifferent. Nonresponsive to everything. Which makes for a great human being. The head of a business sits back, allows things to take place. And then makes very decisive actions.”

So then, what would Brick do? Would he consent to being peddled as a movie star? Would he take a few weeks off (as Howard will) from his Broadway debut to flog Iron Man, a potential blockbuster in which he has a supporting role? Maybe not. Maybe that’s why Howard keeps threatening to quit the business. Now he insists he’ll be done in two years, when he turns 40.

“Science is still my main focus,” he says, having once studied chemical engineering at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. “My music [an “urban country” album due in September] still bears a greater weight on me than acting.” He’d like to finish his degree, “study physics the way I wanted to,” and set up a production company that makes serious black films, turn himself into the anti–Tyler Perry. “There’s some really talented actors out there who will not compromise for the sake of a joke.”

Being taken lightly seems to be Howard’s mortal fear. “I can give the basic answer, say, ‘Oh, I love it, it’s wonderful, it’s a great life, and da da da da,’” he says, after disparaging The Brave One and The Hunting Party, two of the seven movies he starred in last year. But whether his chosen subject is evolution or Hollywood or feminine hygiene (he suggested last year that women should use baby wipes instead of toilet paper), there’s one thing he wants you to be sure of. He means what he says.

Howard’s three children are backstage today, as they are most every day. His youngest, 10-year-old Heaven Lee, plays one of the “no-necked monsters” Brick’s wife, Maggie, is always on about. Asked if he was hesitant to let her act, he says, “Oh, please, if I was a grower of pears, I would teach my children how to cultivate a pear orchard.”

Howard lives in Philadelphia, two blocks away from the kids and their mother (they’ve been divorced twice; she runs the family construction business). The children are being raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Right now, they’re making a ruckus in a nearby room with a toy cat, so he excuses himself.

“Y’all are making a whole lot of noise back there with that cat,” he shouts through the open door. “We’re gonna throw that thing out if you’re gonna push it again.”

“I’ll discipline any child around me,” he says after returning to his chair. “That’s how I grew up. I used to get whooped by Miss Shirley and Miss Johnson and Miss Patt and Mr. Boone. They see you do something wrong, they didn’t wait until your parents catch you. It makes you grow up strong.”

When Howard was 3, he was standing on line with his family in a Cleveland department store, waiting to see Santa, when his father was attacked by a racist, whom he said he killed in self-defense. He was convicted of manslaughter and served almost a year in prison.

The family plunged from the middle class to the projects. His father returned a strict disciplinarian. At 16, Howard left home, and two years later talked his way into Pratt (despite low grades). But he left when he got a tiny role on The Cosby Show. After his part was mostly cut, he gave Bill Cosby a piece of his mind. Cosby’s people never called him again.

Terrence Howard as Brick and Anika Noni Rose as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.Photo: Joan Marcus

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!”

Oh, the Mendacity