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.

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