Dressed to the nines in a brown wool suit, coordinating tie, colorful pocket square and a sophisticated fedora atop his head, Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, Crash, Pride, The Brave One, HBO’s Lackawanna Blues) entered a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York where he sat to discuss his current role in the anticipated feature film, Iron Man, taken from the lionized canon of super hero characters in the legendary Marvel Comic Books collection.
Iron Man has enjoyed a long and prosperous run dating back to the characters’ first appearance in the Tales of Suspense in April 1963. Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby, Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark was inspired partly by the personality of the late American icon Howard Hughes.
Academy Award nominee Robert Downey, Jr (Chaplin, Less Than Zero, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Soapdish) stars as Tony Stark aka Iron Man.
Paramount Pictures’ Iron Man opens in theaters on May 2 also starring Oscar Winner Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) as “Pepper Potts,” Academy Award nominee Jeff Bridges (Starman) as “Obadiah Stane” & “Iron Monger,” and is helmed by actor-director John Favreau (Swingers, Elf, The Break-Up, Daredevil, Something’s Gotta Give, Zathura).
In this creatively balanced film with equal parts story and action-adventure, Stark Industries, as the leading manufacturer of weapons has enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship with the United States Government and the Air Force’s leading military advisor, Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard). Following a successful military weapons demonstration in the Middle East, Rhodey and Tony Stark’s convoy is attacked by a group of insurgents. During the intense battle, Tony is wounded by shrapnel and captured. Although the Department of Defense gives up its effort to find him after a few months, Rhodey refuses to stop searching for his lifelong friend and confidant.
“Getting the chance to work with Robert Downey Jr. attracted me to the role more than anything else,” Howard reveals. “I first saw him in ‘Weird Science’ and thought he was hilarious, and then when he did ‘Chaplin’ I realized he was a genius.”
For Downey, the feeling was entirely mutual. “Terrence is a top-drawer actor and it’s no mistake that he has become such a sensation over the last few years. One of the definitions of a genius is someone with a lot of character and we really needed a strong spirit to play Rhodey. Tony Stark is such a dynamic character that if Rhodey was merely his sidekick it wouldn’t work. Rhodey had to be his equal.”
As Howard sees his character, “Rhodey is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force who acts as a liaison between the acquisitions department and Stark Industries. He gets a lot of grief for not going into the private sector, but Rhodey is the one guy who is always there to protect Tony’s interests, often times against his own better judgment.”
A versatile actor of many talents, he is a self-taught musician who plays both the piano and the guitar, Howard recently made his stage debut in the Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring opposite Phylicia Rashad, James Earl Jones and Anika Noni Rose, under the direction of Debbie Allen.
Taking time off from Broadway to promote Iron Man, Howard returns to the stage next week.
A promising songwriter, he recently joined some of the industry’s top musicians at the famed Sony Columbia music label and will be releasing his original debut album in September 2008.
In a word, Howard is eccentric, though he’d opt to say otherwise. A portion of our conversation unveils his cerebral, yet, fun-loving nature.
What is your definition of a superhero?
Terrence Howard – I think the greatest superhero is someone who can just be themselves and not try to be or hide behind something else or some false identity. To me, that’s Robert Downey, Jr., right now. To me, he’s completely transparent. His entire world has been exposed for so long that as an actor, as a human being, he doesn’t walk into a room thinking that you think anymore of him than what he is and he doesn’t think anything more of anyone else than what is presented. More or less, everybody is hidden behind something but he has the benefit of having had his curtain pulled: so he’s free. As an actor, he’s absolutely free and that, to me, makes him a superhero without even knowing that he is. I want to be that transparent.
Would you say that your character in this film is somewhat different from previous roles?
Howard - If you spend a month-and-a-half on a United States Air Force Base, that indoctrination is real. You do become part of the “we” mentality and the “I” disappears. The “me” is no longer in existence. It is literally “we.” I used to run before but, running every morning with them for those five miles and the cadence that you’re singing begins to take hold. At first you’re thinking, ‘This is fun,’ Then you begin to measure the miles by the cadence that you’re on and you’re no longer thinking about the words that you’re saying and you are indoctrinated, indoctrinated, indoctrinated. So, by the time we got to set, I felt uncomfortable except for when I was “with” the military. You reach that place. It’s a strange thing that happens, you know. I always wondered how do these boys (enlisted personnel) go over there and somebody will say to them, ‘Run behind that wall, take that gun and tear it down, and so on…’ when in my mind I’d be thinking, ‘Forget that.’ That’s what I’ve always thought but after being there, and had I been there for another six weeks, I think I would have run behind that wall too (laughter).
What were your favorite comic books as a kid?
Howard - Hustler, Playboy, Penthouse…those were good comics (laughter). No, seriously, my dad kept those magazines in the same place he kept the comic books so it wasn’t that hard to see both. I would have to make a decision about whether I wanted to get in trouble for looking at them. He had Iron Man and some of the other comic books around but they were his collectibles and we weren’t supposed to touch them. But we looked at all of them. Actually, I loved the comic book characters more when they were shown on TV. When X-Men came on TV, I watched that show from the age of 14 to around the time I was 28 years old, honestly. Still, today, I will get up and watch comics on Saturday morning.
In some of your earlier work (Dead Presidents, The Best Man and other films) you were labeled “the bad boy” and played those roles well. Similarly, Robert Downey, Jr, was labeled the same way from his earlier film work. Now, working together, what did you learn from him?
Howard - I learned (from him) to be a little bit more courageous. Robert would sit up and say whatever comes to mind without any fear of being reproached, at all. Me, I still gauge some of the things I’m going to say. I never felt as honest as he was. I felt that if I gave a seventy percent truth that was good enough. Plus, I felt that I had never been faced with a hundred percent honesty and no matter what I would say, you would trump it, and trump it, and trump it, which maybe comes as a result of having been completely exposed. He kept encouraging me to be “more” free. He said you’ve let this huge monster out of you. He told me, ‘I wish you could see you the way I do.’ Now, I look forward to seeing ‘me’ the way he does, one day…I’m still growing.
I see you as eccentric and didn’t recognize you as such early on; however, as you continue to grow and the span of your career allows you to do different things, it becomes more apparent how unconventional you are. Surely you must notice that atypical aspect of your self?
Howard - Yeah, but I’ve been trying to hide it for years because that’s called ‘crazy.’ Eccentric is a nice way to say lunatic (laughter). My views can be paraphrased in a (biblical) scripture. I think its Proverbs 18: 1 “…the one isolating himself will seek out his own selfish longing and against all practical wisdom, he will break forth.” I have isolated myself a bit too long to where my thinking seems to be the only real thinking and I reason within my own mind. You spend so much time trying to get somebody else to believe what you believe that you stop even caring. You rationalize that ‘they’re wrong’ and you stick with your own mind. The character, Tony Stark (Iron Man) is like that; Robert Downey is like that. But, it is said, ‘superior intellect breeds superior ambition’ but also, superior arrogance, and, that’s before a crash.
In this film, your character intimates that he too will wear a super hero’s suit of armor. Since it’s been hinted at, when is it going to happen?
Howard – When “Rhodey” continues in his emotional evolution. He has to be willing to take off his suit as Lt. Colonel in the United States Air Force and that is a hard thing to let go of, especially with the indoctrination he’s undergone. Tony (Stark) has already let go of his billionaire suit that he wore, you know, the money-hoarding individual. You’ve got to get naked first (theoretically) to get into that suit; Rhodey has to get naked to do that. When he does, he’ll be a little bit more human.
It was said that you could have been cast as Iron Man and to that you say…
Howard – Yeah, I could have and I think I would have been a better one (laughter). His sensibilities would have been a lot different. I don’t know if ‘my Iron Man’ would have been as free-thinking and as free-form as Robert’s Iron Man. Robert has a comparative nature that he can draw upon. He’s been a child of privilege and he knows what that life is like, you know. He’s always been talented and recognized for his talent very young on; he’s been kind of led through the world a little bit and can take a perspective into Iron Man. Me, I’ve had to fight so much that it makes me a little more suited to become a war machine: someone that’s always bulldozing right through something; strategizing, but bulldozing through. I think they made a really smart choice but, for a little while, people thought I was going to be Iron Man and it didn’t hurt my career at all (laughter).