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Terrence Howard: The eyes have it

‘Pride’ star has become one of the most sought-after actors of color and he plans to take full advantage of that open door. By Miki Turner
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

From the moment you walk into the room, Terrence Howard’s piercing green eyes hypnotize you. They are so mesmerizing that if he told you he was going to be the next president of the United States — starting tomorrow — you’d have no choice but to believe him.

And while he must have blinked at least a few times while we discussed his new film “Pride” and several other topics, his eyes never strayed from the person asking the questions. He sat there on a plush sofa in his hotel suite, legs crossed, hands in lap, wearing a dapper gray three-piece suit with a pink tie and hanky and dared you to go there. And somehow you knew that if you did, it would be OK.

He was ready to reveal, ready to share his wisdom and his truth. Ask and it would be answered without hesitation or attitude — even if he did sometimes step into his pulpit.

Want to know what’s up with Howard and Naomi Campbell? He’ll tell you that he’s still a married man and is trying to work it out with his estranged wife, the mother of his three kids.

Wondering what happened to the cigarettes Howard once defiantly chain-puffed in smoke-free zones in posh hotels? “I chose life,” he says softly. Need to know if his kids who have a multicultural father and a white mother are still having identity issues? Not since he switched neighborhoods. “My kids are now proud African Americans and know who they are,” he says proudly.

And want to hear his philosophy on life after researching the life of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom he’ll portray in an upcoming film?

“Change your thinking, change your choices, change your life.”

‘It’s the level of truth that validates the work’That’s a great mantra for a man like Howard who appears to be constantly evolving as an artist and a man. And it’s rather fitting that Howard has been chosen to play Marshall because like the late barrister, Howard believes that the truth will set him free in life as well as in his work.

“It’s the level of truth that validates the work for me,” Howard said. “If it can affect me to where I forget the line, but I remember the emotional content and I don’t hear them say action and I don’t hear them say cut. That’s when I say we got it.”

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Howard certainly feels that way about his performance in “Pride,” an inspirational film about Jim Ellis, a dedicated recreation center director who established a swimming program for minority youth in Philadelphia during the early ’70s with one goal in mind. He would teach them to be champions in and out of the pool. Howard, who was born in Chicago, reared in Cleveland and now lives in Philly, didn’t know anything about Ellis or his program until he got the script.

“You know that’s the problem the problem in the inner city community,” said Howard, who is also one of the film’s executive producers. “You don’t have enough swim facilities available to [minorities]. I didn’t have a swimming pool in my community. If there had been maybe I would have participated in that.

“One out of three African Americans can’t swim. We have three times the death rate from drowning as all other ethnicities. That’s a horrible figure to live with.”

But while Howard was inspired by Ellis’ story, the 5 a.m. training sessions and all of the other physical conditioning he had to go through to bring his story to the big screen was not at all appealing.

“I could already swim,” said Howard, who is currently spearheading fund-raising efforts to build pools in impoverished communities. “But I didn’t want to lose the weight. I didn’t want to work out. I wasn’t trying to do any of that. But after meeting Jim, there’s a power about him. They say if you want to know a man you have to walk a mile in his shoes. Well, I swam a few miles in his Speedos.”

Howard’s costars in “Pride,” think he went the distance.

“He’s such an extraordinary actor,” says Kimberly Elise, who plays Howard’s love interest in the film. “He’s multi-layered and multi-dimensional and never chooses the cliché. I love working with him because we dance. He just infuses Jim with intelligence and sensitivity and all of these other elements that make for a great hero.”

Bernie Mac, who first met Howard when they were shooting “The Player’s Club,” felt similarly.

“Terrence is Terrence,” says Mac, who plays the rec center’s custodian in the film. “He’s camera friendly. Everybody loved him in ‘Crash’ and ‘The Best Man.’ He killed those. So, if you loved him in those you’re going to love him in this because you’re going to see the pain, see the struggles. He put his foot in it.”

Taking advantage of an ‘open door’Next to Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Sam Jackson, Howard, since his Oscar-nominated turn in “Hustle & Flow,” is one of the most sought actors of color in Hollywood. He’s currently shooting his first comic book flick, “Iron Man,” and is set to appear in at least eight other films over the next two years. If anyone has benefited from this more ethnic-friendly, open-door Hollywood, it’s Howard.

“The door has always been open for us,” he says. “But open how much and how are you going to take advantage of that door being open? Are you just going to peek in? Are you going to politely knock or are you going to walk in with a smile or are you going to walk in there with a sense of entitlement saying you owe this to me? Don’t nobody owe you jack! The only person who owes something to you is you. You get what you deserve and you demand what you deserve.”

After that emphatic sermonette Howard’s eyes became steely pools of conviction. The intensity of his stare was a little unnerving because you’re not exactly sure what’s behind it. You knew he meant what he said, but you couldn’t help thinking that after nearly 20 years of playing everyone’s buddy, boyfriend or nemesis, he had once been that guy who felt as if he were owed something. If he had been, however, he’s certainly not now.

He’s up for the challenge. Despite his success he knows he’ll have to fight to stay on top of the game in a town in which 1,000 has-beens are sprung every day.

“You want the challenge,” Howard says. “Nobody wants somebody to lay down in the middle of a fight unless they’re a coward. I’m always looking for that opportunity in which the challenge is greater than my ability to overcome it.”

Miki Turner is a freelance writer/producer in Los Angeles and can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.