A chat with Terrence Howard (“Dead Man Down”)

Terrence Howard is one of those rare actors who you almost hope jumps into one of his characters when he talks to you. Whether it’s street pimp turned rapper DJay in 2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” or his latest role as mid-level mobster Alphonse, his soft-spoken demeanor masks a persona that is always in a state of hustling. Behind the hazel green eyes that appear to stare through you is a man who seems enamored with his craft, but always looking for the next piece of the puzzle to inner piece.

He reconnects with Colin Farrell in “Dead Man Down” as Alphonse, a mobster struggling with respectability as he tries to keep his close-knit crew together from an enemy that’s closer than he thinks. We had a chance to sit down to talk to Terrence Howard – actor, entrepreneur…and chemical engineer – to discuss his role, his relationship with Farrell, and how he plans on making diamonds a boy’s (and girl’s) best friend.

BE: How were you comparing your life to a tone?

TERRENCE HOWARD: A solid tone; a true element is one that is able to reach the wave amplitude, but after the fifth octave, all elements carbon is no longer able to reach its full amplitude and so it breaks down into small things called isotopes. Then, it becomes lead and gold and all of those other processes. It’s the decay of matter. I’m a chemical engineer.

BE: Your role is reminiscent of Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” You think he’s a good guy, but he’s not.

TERRENCE HOWARD: Neils [Arden Oplev] did a good job of establishing my character as a victim and someone that’s being attacked. It’s slowly revealed that he was responsible for all of the circumstances that are befalling him, at present. It’s the karmic retribution. It’s the reciprocity of sowing poor and bad seeds, but he also establishes the true dichotomy of humanity. What we are dealing with is that all of the characters are so rich in the fact that they are all seeking some sense of retribution against life and an entitlement of lost happiness. But they’re doing it by creating more problems. They’re digging graves for other individuals and forget that they’ll carry the weight and responsibility of that dead person and need to dig a grave for themselves. He didn’t make anybody a villain or a victim. He made them very human and I think that was quite genius of him in telling this simple story and making it so diverse. I think Dominic Cooper’s character is the only one that is reconciled to good, because he makes a good choice for the sake of his family. He does good at the end of it, so I think he will have a good life at the end of this movie.

BE: The character starts the movie as being afraid. Do you intentional set out to make your character sympathetic?

TERRENCE HOWARD: No, Khalil Gabran wrote “The Prophet,” but he also wrote this story called “The Criminal.” In it, this man at the top of a hill, strong of body and good of spirit, but his nature is being broken. He’s crying out to the heavens and he says, “Lord, you said knock and the door would be opened.” Well, I knocked upon the doors and asked for work, but they said I was uneducated. And they sent me away. Therefore, I went to the schools and begged that I could gain and education. And they said you don’t have any money and they sent me away. So, I was left to beg on the streets and everyone said that I was of strong body. I must be lazy and weak and they spit upon me. So, now I find myself here. At that moment, a lightning bolt struck a tree and the branch fell upon him. When the branch fell up on him, he asked that I should be given what I should be given and it was not given to me, so now I shall take what I want. By the strength of my brow, and the strength of my arm. He said that he descended into the city and within two years, he was the most notorious villain and gangster of all time. A new wicked Emir took over the city and made him the chief of his army. This is what we do of good men. By our inhumanity, we turn them into monsters. That’s who I based Alphonse on. The criminal who had a good heart, but as a little kid was hurt. He just needed a couple more hugs.

BE: Your character’s clothes are awesome. Did you have a say in the wardrobe?

TERRENCE HOWARD: They didn’t have enough money for the budget with regards to the film. I liked the fact that his name was Alphonse. So, I thought about Alphonse/Al Capone and the Chicago gangsters where presentation was everything. So, I took that and allowed him to walk the streets. Then, I gave him another nature and, Niels was so beautiful in allowing that to occur, he saw that Alphonse’s hair was always parted like Cary Grant when he was dealing with business, because he wanted to be accepted. But the moment that he had to deal with problems, he would go back with the slick and change his whole nature. He created this identity crisis within himself. Therefore, he could be the good guy in business, but still keep his hands dirty when it needed to be. I was happy that Niels gave me that leeway to create my character that way.

BE: Why did you choose to do this film?

TERRENCE HOWARD: Because it was in Philadelphia. Every time I’m around Colin, he just has such a beautiful piece of humanity in him. We worked together 13 years ago on a film called “Harts War.” I believe that we leave an impression upon those that we care for. We had a unique bond then. I had lost some of my strength along the way, and in seeing Colin again…our friends hold some of our nature that we forget and when they see us again, they give it back to us. So, I was working on that and Niels had such a unique approach in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” His childlike exuberance and enthusiasm in telling the story; I was quite captured and enamored by what he wanted to accomplished. I didn’t know if we could or not, but I also wanted to work out some of my own personal vendettas that I had in here and recognize that as long as I moved forward with my future, I would no longer have to deal with the mistakes or mishaps of yesterday. Knowing that if my character’s nature makes a bad mistake in trying to make recompense for the past, I would also have to suffer the reciprocity associated with that. I was able to pick that up, put it in my pocket as a jewel for the future.

BE: How did you initially connect with Alphonse?

TERRENCE HOWARD: You know, the feeling of entitlement that the world owes me something. That misgiving of human nature. No one owes us anything. We owe the world everything. We owe the universe everything. Recognizing that, I felt…a lot of actors would say, “I pulled from here and pulled from there.” We’re so egotistical. We can only see and portray a character from our own perspective, so that’s literally Terrence Howard in those life circumstances. But with the benefit of not having to pay for those consequences of his actions. It’s a phantom world that thespians live within. When you embrace that phantomology, that phantomogomy, and believe that I’m a ghost. I can materialize and dematerialize at will. Sometimes it follows us and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m happy with the choices I made in this movie. I look forward to seeing how they pay off.

BE: You mention the fact that the film was in Philadelphia influenced you taking the film? Is location often a factor?

TERRENCE HOWARD: I had been away from my family for the last 17 or 18 years, because I was trying to provide for them. I live in Philadelphia, so the film being in Philly at a time when I needed their support, and the emotional fortification of my children. It was nice to be able to come home every day and to see them, to be able to bring them to work with me without them having to miss school.

BE: Did the environment influence the character at all?

TERRENCE HOWARD: Of course, because Alphonse was finding his own home being torn apart so it was nice to come home and see where my foundation and fortifications were weak and trying to rebuild them, even within my family unit. It let me know that Alphonse didn’t have a family, but his aspirations were to have a family. To see all these things tear apart his hopes and dreams was heartbreaking.

BE: You mentioned your friendship with Colin and how it reinvigorated you. Was that as an actor?

TERRENCE HOWARD: As a human being. Back then, I was going through my first divorce and I was scared and frightened to death. I went to Colin’s trailer one day. It was 12 o’clock at night. We’re shooting at night and it’s freezing cold. He stepped outside. He was in there with his fiancé at the time. We had a cigarette. He said to me, “You know, you’ve lost sight of who you are. What you need to do is don’t wash for a month. Don’t wash yourself. Smell you. Get to know who you are again and then you’ll remember that you don’t need anyone else, but you.” That stayed with me, because when I let go of what my loss could be with my family and looked towards my future and remembered that it was essential. Self-preservation is the first rule of nature. It was essential I remain. That is what Colin gave back to me. Seeing him again, and he had been through his own ups and downs over the past 10 or 12 years, and his back is still just as strong. And his gait and gaze is still just as powerful, and it took me back to that conversation in Prague. So, I’m here again.

BE: What’s next for you?

TERRENCE HOWARD: I’m doing a film called “Prisoners” with Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis and Maria Bello. Working with Denis [Villeneuve, the director] was fantastic. I have my diamond company, Scio. We’re growing diamonds. We’re about to replace all the silicone in computers with diamond chips. What’s next for me? The thing as we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.