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Hustle & Flow - Terrence Howard interview

Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. How did you go about preparing for the role? Rapping, for instance?
Well I worked with Three Six Mafia, Juicy J and a young man named Al Kapone. These were the people that helped me in delivering. Al Kapone wrote two of the songs, It Aint Over For Me and Whoop That Trick. Juicy J from Three Six Mafia had a rapper named Frasierboy who wrote Pop It For Some Paper and It’s Hard Our Here For A Pimp.
But Juicy J and DJ Paul produced the beats for both those songs.
And they worked with me relentlessly for seven, eight months. They instilled in me what was necessary.
You can mime the words but then putting the meaning into it and all that stuff comes from doing the research and dealing with the actors and talking to the different pimps and the people that were locked into that world.
I lived with about 10 different pimps over two and a half years spending a week or so with each and every one of them. They were so gracious in opening up their homes and their livelihood. They wouldn’t let me videotape it, of course, because of certain things…
But they talked to me honestly from their hearts. And I developed a greater sympathy for what they are experiencing. When I would ask them ‘what did they want to do before they became a pimp’ – I didn’t ask them ‘how did you become a pimp?’ If I did, they’d tell me the rules of engagement – each and every one of them would tell this heart-wrenching story about when they were a kid wanting to be an artist, a musician, some wanted to be doctors.
But you have to have the finances or the infrastructure available in order for you to mature to those places. You need a teacher. But without having that avenue… that’s just a terrible thing to have a passion in you and be forced to be the janitor of life. It was a rough part.

Q. You obviously have a strong musical background yourself, playing the piano and the guitar, but were you nervous about almost taking centre stage in this way and actually using your voice more?
A. Well I wasn’t a rapper and I never was a fan of rap. I always thought it was very dark and I’d missed the storytelling portions of it. There were some rappers earlier on that used to tell the positive message despite pointing out the bad things that had happened. Now they’ve fallen into the blaxploitation and stereotypical range of, yeah, ‘I’m a pimp’, or talking about all of the things that they have and talking about gaining them through nefarious means. That’s such a negative thing to do. It’s misleading to the world so I was opposed to a lot of that and it was hard to bring my music into association with it.

Q. How did you get from chemical engineering to acting? That’s a strange leap…
A. Well Einstein said everything’s relative so if you can find the relative factors you can do anything. If you understand one thing about one thing, you can understand one thing about all things if you know the common denominator.

Q. You were talking earlier about the fact that you need a teacher or someone to believe in you. That serves as a good metaphor for Hustle and Flow, because that was dependent on someone coming in and providing the funding for it. And that was John Singleton. How key was that?
A. To have someone believe in what you’re doing, a philanthropist, truly of heart, even though he profited! He still took a huge risk. He thought he could get the movie made after we’d been trying for two and a half years, based upon his name and recognition alone – that a studio would say ‘ok, let’s make the movie’.
But the studios told him the same thing as they told us, ‘well we like the project, we think Terrence is a good actor but if you put a rapper in his place we’ll give you $9-10 million to make the movie’.
And after a while John said ‘fuck it, I’ll finance it myself’ and he mortgaged his home. Six months later he received $16 million for that $3 million investment and then seven months after that made another $40 million from the sale of the film. And I’m waiting for him to share that now [laughs].

Q. Did you get the role in Four Brothers off the back of Hustle and Flow?
A. No, no. I did the Four Brothers role so that I would be free to go to Sundance. They’d offered me one of the four brothers but I wanted to just play a smaller role in it so I could be free to spend a week at Sundance to try and help promote the film.

Q. You have said the pimps were less scary than the rappers. Can you talk a bit more about that?
A. Well you’re looking at a world where rappers have preached violence incessantly. What did Jesus say? He who uses the sword will die by that sword. I believe that’s the case. I didn’t meet one pimp that had a bullet-proof vest on but each and every rapper that I dealt with walks around with a bullet-proof vest. There was a gun and bodyguards and people threatening to take their life. Juicy J and M were shot at two or three times while I was with them. It got to where I didn’t even want to work with them anymore because I was afraid. I didn’t get any of that working with the pimps, or the hustlers.

Q. This film isn’t really a stereotype of a pimp. Is that something that particularly appealed to you about it?
A. Well there was a film that was made by the Hughes brothers, a documentary called American Pimp, but it was hard for me to see that as a documentary because the pimps they were interviewing were aware they were being interviewed and put on the bravado of trying to justify their choices in order to glorifiy it.
Apparently they had seen the blaxploitation movies themselves and believed them. They didn’t spend time with the low-level, mid-level pimps who were just hustling and selling the last bit of humanity they had left. They hadn’t spent their time with them.
So I asked Craig Brewer, the writer and director of Hustle and Flow, after he had seen American Pimp which one of these pimps in that film was Djay more like. He said he’s like none of them because you’ve got to remember that Djay doesn’t want to be a pimp. He said that’s why I want you to play this role. He had received letters from a million rappers and other actors that wanted to be a pimp and wanted to tell their story and his objective in making this movie was also to inform the world about this misconception. That people had been misled by the media and by the studios for 30 or 40 years. He wanted to kill that stereotype because look at what it’s been doing. You know, young men and young women thinking ‘I can become a stripper, a prostitute or a pimp and have an easy life’ and didn’t know the reality of that life.
He said he wanted to make a documentary, a written documentary, and that attracted me to it because I knew he was going to tell the truth and stick to the truth.

Q. So which came first for you, was it music or acting?
A. It was music. I didn’t play any instruments at the time [laughs] but I did a film called The Jackson Five: An American Dream. I was a terrible actor, terrible. It was a TV movie and I was Jackie but I did the movie because Suzanne Depass was producing it and the Jacksons were producing it and I figured I could go on set and sing some of my songs to Jermaine Jackson and I’d get a music deal.
It was literally such a Djay and Skinny Black move – ‘oh yeah, I’m an actor, I can dance and I can sing’. I just wanted to be a songwriter and I was disillusioned. I was turned away and ended up becoming like Djay, you know pimping myself and my emotions through acting and when I found the truth about acting and realised the stories you could tell and the musicality associated with it, with using this instrument, I began to love it.
Then my musicianship adjusted also and changed because I learned how to play hard rock as a result of preparing to become Jimi Hendrix, or Chevalier De St George, this son of a French noblemen in the 17th Century who had an affair with Marie Antoinette, one of the greatest swordsmen and greatest violinists that France has ever had who Mozart borrowed phrases from. In preparation for that I learned how to play the violin.
I learned to play the piano because I was preparing to play Duke Ellington. I didn’t know the avenues that would be open to me musically as a result of what I would learn to portray my characters as an actor.

Q. And ironically, you’ve also ended up working with a lot of musicians on film from Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey to…
A. Is she a musician?

Q. To 50 Cent and OutKast..
A. She’s a fabulous dancer. And she’s got a great personality. But I never saw her play an instrument. But they’re all artists. She’s a remarkable artist. I believe that a painter would make a better actor than most actors out there today. They’ve learned how to channel their emotions into their work and that’s what I like to work with… artists. Some of the best make-up artists that I know are painters; the best directors I know paint because they know how to tell the story in a limited medium.
George Wooff spoke to me and said limitation brings about genius so to speak and then Craig Brewer echoed those words when I was doing Hustle and Flow. He said: “By you being limited to this environment it will bring out a genius in you. Because I need you to do the magic. I don’t have the money for the special effects. So I’m going to ask you to bruise your spirit a bit and give me that extra virgin oil from the seed and not from the meat. That’s what I need to heel this movie.” It was wonderful.

Q. You do seem drawn to more character-driven films. Is that something that you will strive to continue doing now that you have arrived properly? Because a lot of American magazines are saying this has been your year?
A. Most of the character-driven movies are the independent films because they don’t have the money for the special effects. They don’t have the money to add the music in over the year or anything like that. So anything that’s going to help me become a better actor and I think that’s in the independent world. What I would like to do is get involved with some of the young directors here in the UK and throughout Europe and be exposed to their storytelling so I can become a much better actor than I am at present.
But then again you need to make some money along the way [laughs].

Q. So does it feel like a very exciting time?
A. Yeah but it’s frightening because you’ve got to keep that momentum going. You don’t want to get wrapped up in that world too much. Me and George Woof had a wonderful conversation about it. He said ‘here you’ve spent 19 years busting your shoulder and your collar bone on trying to get through the door, and now you’re in the room… Now what do you do?’
All of my passion has come from trying to get inside. So now once you’re in there what do you do? You’ve got to have a determination to change that room because from that room the rest of the world is fed, entertainmently. That’s not even a word, entertainmently. But it is now!

Q. What was it like working with Ludacris and how was the whole crunk experience?
A. Well I didn’t work with Ludacris. I worked with an actor named Chris Bridges. I never met Ludacris but I met Chris Bridges. That’s somebody he keeps separate from his theatrical work.
But the crunk world is different. It’s a tribal form of communication. The music is very primitive. There’s bass in it but that bass seems almost percussionary and it’s hard. It’s fabulous the way it moves you. It’s a war dance. It moves you more than anything else; it will change your thinking. It will change the enture chemical composition that you’re made of at present when you get that mass hysteria about you and move in unison to everyone around you. You become frightened for an outsider that’s not a part of it because… wow!

Q. And it’s a culture all to itself?
A. It’s a huge culture but this is a sub-culture that’s lacking the money from the government to grow. So it’s been forced to sort of turn in on itself and any time there’s cannibalism involved in a society you’re in a dark, dark place. And that’s what’s happening inside the urban culture. Unless someone is going to say ‘we need to feed something better, we need to produce our own food, morally, we’re going to fall into a very bad place’ and they’re going to stay there because they are there now. But hopefully this film might help some to make their way out of it.
You know, films like Crash help in a much greater way. As much as Hustle and Flow has done for me, and working with Jim Sheridan on the Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ project, as much as that’s done for me, what I think is the most important film of the year, the film that I’ve participated in my whole life, has been Crash.

Q. Because of what it has to say?
A. If you could only make one film every year and they had to pick through all the hundreds and thousands of scripts that have been made this year, Crash would be the one that I would vote for to say, ‘this is the film that we need as a world. This film is what we need and this is the film we need to be seeing.

Q. How was the 50 Cent experience on Get Rich Or Die Tryin’? Was he much like Chris Bridges in keeping his music persona away from the actor?
A. Yeah you saw Curtis Jackson on the set. You saw the boy who looked insecure and nervous and frightened but was still willing to step out there and do it.
I didn’t see 50 Cent until… I still haven’t met 50. I’ve met Curtis and that’s who’s my friend. I don’t think I like 50 Cent.

Q. How do the two compare?
A. 50 Cent will ultimately die. Curtis Jackson will continue to grow and evolve as an individual. His music will change. Him as a person will change. I see him at the threshold of who he was and who he’s becoming.

Q. Is it quite exciting then, as an established actor, watching a musician or an artist begin the process of evolving? And do you feel any responsibility towards helping them evolve?
A. [laughs] Well for me as an actor, what I do is… when I started off acting it was about thinking ‘who’s the best liar’? And then I found out it was about who can tell the truth more honestly? Who can lend themselves more to the truth? I began to grow.
It took people that work with me. They see that there’s no facade, I’m not looking for my own glorification or trying to look good in the movie or in a moment, and I think that translates and transcends.
Cut that to rap and to your own life and how must I live the rest of my life and you can’t help but be affected. I’m going to be affected by you guys for the rest of my life, I’ll never be the same person I was before you came in here. And depending on the magnitude of your character, my life will be changed. Likewise, I’ve learned so much from Curtis Jackson; work ethic. I’m working with Jessica Alba now on a film called Awake and she is so driven.

Q. The combination of Jim Sheridan and 50 Cent is probably more intriguing than Curtis Hanson and Eminem? Were you intrigued?
A. Oh yeah. Well what struck me is that both of those people are so humble. Jim Sheridan, who I think is probably the most gifted director I have ever worked with, and 50 for having the most incredible work ethic I’ve ever seen of any individual in the world.
Seeing both of them surrender to their environment and asking extras ‘what do you think about this? How’s this sound?’
50 would always bring somebody into his trailer and have them listen to the music that he was trying to create for the movie. Same thing with Jim. They were beautiful. They allowed everyone to see them as who they truly are.

Q. How influential was your grandmother on your career?
A. Well Minnie Gentry, I saw her do a one-woman play and it was just her on stage. I was 12 or something. But by the time the 20 minutes was over I believed that she was in the kitchen and there were 20 or so family members around her. It was magic. It was power. It was Merlin all over again. I wanted that power. I wanted to be able to move someone’s heart and make them transcend what appears to be reality.
Because everything we see, you know, if you look at this plant right here and you close your eyes and I say ‘that plant’, your mind has the same reaction as if when it’s seeing it in reality. So to make someone close their eyes while they’re open, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful power and gift and that’s what made me want to become an actor. I wanted to know how to use that.

Q. Have you finished the OutKast film?
A. Yes it’s called My Life in Idlewild. It’s powerful. I haven’t seen it yet but I know from what I felt on the set is that it’s an incredible film. Bryan Barber is about to fly. Benjamin Andre is genius in everything that he does. He really is. His sensibilities. You’ll see, it’s like a mix between Moulin Rouge and Sin City. The visual aspects of it, and the texture of it.

Q. Would you try and rap again ever?
A. I’d never do it again [laughs]. Never ever again. Because I had to go to some very dark places in my heart and soul to get it on. I can’t go to that place no more.