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Ready for a new fight

Special to The Times

Agrin creeps across Terrence Howard’s face as he intently cuts through the bandages on his right hand -- a souvenir of Brick, the sodden ex-jock he’s playing in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “I figured the media would be looking to hang me; people are always looking for somebody to fail,” he says in his dressing room at the Broadhurst Theatre. “But I always tell directors, ‘The role I want is the role I can’t accomplish, the thing that’s going to make me fail.’ Every warrior is looking for that fight that he won’t win. And I’m finding it.”

Indeed, cutting through the gauze, Howard would resemble nothing more than a middleweight boxer between bouts. That is, were he not fighting off “the worst case of the flu in my life” and were he not still dressed in the cream-colored silk pajamas Brick wears throughout the play. The character long ago traded his football dreams for what his wife, Maggie, calls “the charm of the defeated,” a liquor bottle his only escape from the disgust he feels for the greed rampant at the plantation of his blustering Southern Gothic family.

The revival, directed by Debbie Allen, features an all African American cast that includes James Earl Jones as patriarch Big Daddy, Phylicia Rashad as his long-suffering wife and Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls”) as the titular cat in heat, Maggie. The production has already racked up a $4-million advance, fueled by the presence of Jones and Howard, whose high-profile Broadway debut comes despite the fact that he has not even an iota of stage experience.

The limited-run revival, which was slated to close on April 15, recently announced a two-month extension. But Howard, in order to fulfill a previous commitment, as pilot Jim Rhodes in the film “Iron Man,” will be on hiatus from April 15 to May 22.

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The production follows two other hits with strong appeal to the African American community: the 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” and 2005’s “The Color Purple.” The production design and costuming are intentionally fudged, given the un- likelihood that a black family would have shared circumstances similar to the Pollitts in the Mississippi of the 1950s.

‘Diamond in the rough’

The role of Brick seems a natural fit for the 38-year-old actor who has proved adept at channeling restless anomie as he did as the emasculated director in “Crash” and the pimp loser in “Hustle & Flow,” which brought him a best actor Oscar nomination. His seething sexuality and rage is here put at the service of a character whose “Brokeback"-like relationship with another jock, Skipper, haunts the play -- an aspect substantially watered down in the 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

Allen, the actress-choreographer who is making her Broadway directorial debut with “Cat,” says Howard’s ability to convey “the conflicted emotions of a tortured soul” in his body of work convinced her that he could play Brick despite his lack of stage training. “I was not put off at all by that nor was anybody in the cast,” she says. “I knew that he would come to the role without any preconceived notions. I call him my diamond in the rough. There have been days when Terrence has been frustrated. But he has dug very deep to uncover a character who is rather mysterious, gloriously so.”

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Howard says he was attracted to -- and challenged by -- the enigma of Brick, particularly his sexual ambiguity. “I chose this part to say those lines -- ‘Why can’t exceptional friendship, real, real deep friendship between two men, be respected as something clean and decent . . . ' -- because I think a man should be free to express affection for another man, to tell another man he looks beautiful,” Howard says. “I’ve felt very intense, real closeness to a man before with no sexual overtones to it. But we live in a society with such hypocrisy and mendacity that you can’t put your arm around your best friend without someone accusing you of being homosexual.”

“Mendacity” -- the bald-faced lies that run as freely as liquor in the Pollitt family -- is the watchword of the play and, it would seem, the actor himself. Howard has been remarkably unguarded in the press about his personal life as well as his philosophical views, liberally quoting from the Bible, the mystic poet Khalil Gibran and any number of self-help psychological books.

As ambitious as he is, Howard holds himself at a certain reserve from the fame that he has achieved. Since 1998, he has lived quietly in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., a small town outside of Philadelphia. And instead of glorying in his position as one of the finest African American actors of his generation, he expresses a certain discomfort with the flash of the paparazzi bulbs and red carpet. Forget pimps. It’s hard out there for an actor trying to nurture his pilgrim soul.

“I feel like I’ve slipped into a moral quagmire,” he says with his characteristic blunt honesty. “I’m being pulled into some shadowy places, discovering some very dark things in my nature on this road. I’d do anything I could to sprout wings and rise above . . . just go back to being a contractor, laying some stones somewhere -- the time before Terrence Howard ever existed. I feel like I’m strangling the real Terrence on a daily basis.”

At one point, he notes that he takes on roles “to discover more truths about myself.” And what are those in relation to Brick? “The disappointment, " he answers quickly. “The anger, the calm indifference.”

That anger was bequeathed to him, in part, by his father, Tyrone Howard, a Cleveland construction contractor and frustrated artist who would come home from work, smoke weed, put on music and dance around the room with his baby son. His parents, both multiracial, separated when he was 8. His mother, Anita Gentry Howard, with whom he spent half the year, went to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career as previous generations of Gentry women and men had done. When Terrence was 3, his father stabbed a man to death in self-defense while they were waiting in line to see Santa Claus. He served 11 months in prison on manslaughter charges, giving his young son a strong lesson in testosterone-fueled violence.

The lesson took eventually but not before he spent a good part of his youth doing all “the stuff” young kids do in an “unsupervised” working-class neighborhood. “I was forced to live as an adult,” he says. “I don’t know what childhood is like.”

It was at that time that he learned how to fight from his Uncle Billy, on whom he based his performance of Djay in “Hustle & Flow.” At first, he says, he assiduously avoided falling prey to his anger. But eventually testosterone got the better of him “and I turned into a monster.” He still gets into fights, he admits with some chagrin, “around two per year,” including one in Paris last summer when he felt that a man had “disrespected” him.

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“I’m a hell of a fighter. My knuckles are destroyed now,” he says, holding up his joint-swollen hands. But he is assiduously trying to control his anger, especially for the benefit of his three young children: son Hunter, and daughters Aubrey and Heaven, who appears in “Cat” as one of the “no-necked monsters.”

“I’ve spent the last 21 years of my life trying to erase the mistakes I made as a child and teenager,” Howard says. “I’m trying to live my life the way I want my son to live his, the way I want my daughters to live theirs. There’s a lot of pressure. And just because I fall don’t mean I can’t get up.”

Howard says he is now estranged from his father. “There is a part of him that thinks I owe him, and maybe I do,” muses the actor. “Maybe if he hadn’t been so distant to me, I wouldn’t have felt the need to become more than what I was.”

Turning it into art

Like many actors, Howard is able to channel those Oedipal feelings into his work, some seeping into his onstage relationship with Jones. The chance to work with the legendary actor was a major reason he chose to be in the revival. “Who wouldn’t want to work with Marlon Brando, with Sidney Poitier, especially in their later years?” he says. “James never stops growing. He embodies the first rules of acting: to listen and to watch.”

Acting with him, adds Howard, is akin to jazz improvisation. “You go sharp instead of flat on a particular scale and you see if they’re going to follow. We’ve done some incredible riffs.”

And when the two are hitting on all pistons -- as they are during the play’s incendiary second act -- it’s hard to tell when reality leaves off. Howard was dragging himself through a recent performance due to the flu, he says, and Jones, as Big Daddy, was shouting at him, “I do not excuse you! I do not excuse you!” He was talking about Brick’s drinking but Howard wondered for a moment if it wasn’t about his performance. “We’re brutally honest with each other,” he says. “We both lack the tact of compassion.”

The actor credits what compassion there is -- along with his love of music and the performing arts -- to the summers and holidays he spent with five generations of Gentry women at a bustling apartment at Manhattan Plaza, which provides subsidized housing to performance artists. His great-grandmother, the actress Minnie Gentry, taught him to act and to play piano; his grandmother Marjorie, and his uncle, Billy, taught him guitar; and all of them kindled in him a desire to be in movies and television.

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His acting ambitions gained traction when a casting director discovered his older brother, Antonio Howard, outside Manhattan Plaza. Terrence tagged along to the audition. Bitten, he was relentless in pursuing guest spots on TV, eventually landing the lead role in the short-lived TV series “Sparks” in 1996. His supporting roles in feature films such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “The Best Man” and “Ray” brought him attention; “Hustle & Flow” brought him stardom.

In acting he discovered a refuge from his tortured self. The women in his life, he adds, have always had to understand that his career came first. In 1989, he married Lori McCommas. The couple divorced in 2003, remarried two years later and are again separated.

“I’ve had a tendency to grow cold, to drop people, I’ve done that a lot,” he says. “I’ve actually had to tell women, ‘This is not a safe place for you, this is not a safe place for your heart.’ I have commitment issues, abandonment issues, so the moment someone gets close to me, there’s a part of me that goes from Prince Charming to Satan himself.” He adds that the woman he has been dating for the last two years, “a crazy redhead” who lives in California, knows that he is unavailable when he is working.

“I’ve been pretty good at creating my own reality,” he says. “But I’ve been trying to find the real emotion in me again. I’m working on that.”

What he can’t express verbally, he says, he expresses through his art, especially his music. He recently completed his first album, “Shine Through It,” which he wrote, composed and arranged, working with Miles Moseley, a bass player. It will be released this summer on his label, Gentry Records, named for his grandmother. “Everything I have to say, I say in my music,” he says as he pushes a button on a CD player and the dressing room fills with his voice, a soft, high, sensuous sound against a backdrop of lush, driving rhythms: “ ‘cause all I want to be is a little bit more like me and all I want from you is let some light shine through. Shine through it. . . . “

Howard closes his eyes, leans back in his chair, and conducts along with the music, his hands with the swollen knuckles gracefully slicing through the air.


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