It's doubtful that Terrence Howard can go anywhere these days without being asked if it's still hard out there for a pimp.
The press day for Howard's new film "Idlewild" is no exception, but the "Hustle & Flow" star greets the inevitable question with a big smile.
"It's a little easier now," he says with his high, smooth voice that makes every sentence sound like a song.
He isn't kidding. After years as one of Hollywood's most valuable supporting actors, mainstream audiences suddenly learned Howard's name last summer when he went from "Crash" to "Hustle & Flow" to "Four Brothers" to "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" in a matter of months.
One year later, Howard is an in-demand star, lining up roles with Bernie Mac in "Push," with Richard Gere in "Spring Break in Bosnia" and with Jodie Foster in "The Brave One."
"It's the people you're working with," says the 2006 Oscar nominee. "Anybody can throw a party. Somebody's throwing a party around the corner, that's great, there's a party over there. But when they tell you that so-and-so's going to be there and you kinda like so-and-so, you're going to be at that party and it's going to be a good party. So I go to the party based on the people that are there. Because we can make up the music, we can do whatever we gotta do, go back and have a drink if you want. But it's the people involved that's gonna make the party."
It was actually the party principle that attracted Howard to "Idlewild" post-"Hustle." He insists that he signed on for the Depression Era musical without even looking at the script once he heard it starred Outkast's Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton. While the shoot offered plenty of opportunities to jam with the Grammy-winning artists, Howard, an aspiring musician himself, just stood back and watched.
"When you see lions up there fighting, you don't jump in the cage," he chuckles. "These cats, these guys are great. Andre and [fellow co-star] Macy Gray and Antwan, they've been at this for 15-odd years. They've mastered what they do. I will not come and trip them up. I don't even know how to hold the damn mic properly, so I wouldn't even try and touch it."
That gave Howard the time to concentrate on his "Idlewild" character Trumpy, an underestimated stooge who turns into a cutthroat gangster.
"He was grounded. Remember, everything was about principal. Everything was about immediate response to command," Howard explains. "He had a way about him -- You do not let me build your company for all these years and then fail to acknowledge my contribution by giving me the opportunity to run it. You do not do that. His feelings were hurt and when you hurt a child's feelings, the child responds. And when you hurt a child inside of a hurt man's feelings, a monster responds. It was born out of the neglect of those around him. That's how I justify him."
It wasn't hard for Howard to tap into the character's dark side. The actor's past includes a 2000 arrest for assault (charges were dropped), but he says that his increased prominence has coincided with a certain level of inner peace.
"I wanted something that emotionally I wasn't ready for because I was a bit of a hothead," Howard says of his earlier aspirations. "I grew up in a very rough part of life and it was a whole different thing culturally. Someone's disrespect was handled in a completely different manner. And so when I first came to the set, you know how rude people can be in this business. And everyone else has the common sense to just walk away or suck it up. I didn't know how to suck up nothing. And I wasn't about biting my tongue. So I made my road very hard for myself, until I learned how to maintain my integrity and at the same time keep the peace."
"Idlewild" opens on Friday, Aug. 25.
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Terence Howard in 'Idlewild'