- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Many actors are an odd mixture of humility and bravado. Terrence Howard seems to be a particularly extreme example of the personality type. The 38-year-old actor makes a surprising aside when talking by telephone about his upcoming album (yes, he plays guitar, piano and sings, too).

“I came into the business as a songwriter. I bumped into [producer and former Motown executive] Suzanne de Passe, and she put me in ‘The Jacksons: An American Dream,’ ” he says of his debut as an adult Jackie in the 1992 miniseries. “I [stunk] thoroughly in that. I still [stink] thoroughly in almost every film I’m in.”

Academy members, among others, disagree.

Mr. Howard received a best actor Oscar nomination for 2005’s “Hustle & Flow” and starred in the best picture winner that year, “Crash.”

He may be hard on himself. But the actor also says that, despite a difficult childhood that included seeing his father stab someone in self-defense and serve time in prison for it, he always felt he’d become a star.

He stars in two films in theaters right now: He plays a cop who makes a connection with secret vigilante Jodie Foster in “The Brave One,” which opened in the top spot last weekend, and a cameraman who helps journalist Richard Gere look for a Bosnian war criminal in “The Hunting Party,” opening today.

Even the biggest stars have noticed how in-demand Mr. Howard is right now. He just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival. “Reese Witherspoon stopped me in the elevator in Toronto and said, ‘You’re doing too much,’ ” he laughs. In the coming months, he’ll appear alongside Robin Williams in “August Rush,” Jessica Alba in “Awake” and Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man.”

He’s quick to note that he’s not playing the first lead in any of them, instead taking on second lead roles to learn his craft. He said one lead a year — this year it was an inspirational swim coach in “Pride” — is enough for now. He’s becoming known as a character actor with movie-star looks.

“I want to be successful as a lead actor,” he says. “The only way to do that,” he continues, with his penchant for peculiar metaphors, “is to take a second command post and hopefully the ship doesn’t crash into any icebergs in the night and they give you day watch next.”

He throws himself into his characters, describing how he would wake up “The Brave One” director Neil Jordan on weekends during shooting to talk about his character, a morally conflicted man he found harder to play than the easily good or bad guys.

Mr. Howard sees the vigilante film, which stars Miss Foster, as a political statement. “My uncle told me as a kid,” he recalls, “fear is the most uncomfortable feeling for any creature. You will do anything, including sign away your rights in the Patriot Act.”

It’s a somber thought, but then the very funny, easygoing actor is quick to laugh and says, “I wish I could say that’s why I did the movie. No, it’s because Jodie Foster and Neil Jordan were doing it.”

In fact, he signed on to the project without even reading the script. “I could have been playing a 16-year-old girl,” he jokes. “Neil Jordan is one of the most creative and innovative directors you can imagine. When you get a call that Jodie Foster and Neil Jordan want you to play opposite Jodie Foster in a thriller, you don’t say no to that.”

Mr. Howard made his name playing black characters struggling with their identity. Now he’s playing characters that could be of any race.

“I’m no longer considered a black actor, now I’m just an actor,” he says. “Which is nice. I think it’s part of Martin Luther King’s dream, to be judged by the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin. I can’t wait until every actor is just a thespian and not a prefix actor.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t also be taking on black icons. A Charley Pride biopic is in the works, while a Thurgood Marshall biopic is on the back burner. He’d love to play the first black Supreme Court justice.

“I’d get to put 100 pounds on for it — eat Honey Buns and Snickers all day,” he jokes. “It’s a dream role. I’d go all Philip Seymour Hoffman and be happy about it.”

With superstardom on the horizon, the actor remains surprisingly grounded. He still lives just outside Philadelphia. “I won’t leave that place,” he says.

Not even for Los Angeles?

“That’s not my home. Like Jim Croce said, ‘New York’s not my home.’ ”

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