Terrence Howard is having a dream season for an actor, starring in one of the summer's biggest movies with the superhero flick Iron Man and collecting critical acclaim for his Broadway role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
It would all be very exciting for Howard . . . if acting was actually his true passion.
Asked about taking his first major role more than a decade ago, Howard responds bitterly. "I wouldn't have done it," he says, his green eyes smoldering. "I would have stayed true to what I initially wanted to do."
What he really wants to concentrate on is singing.
At 39, Howard plans to make his musical debut this fall with a mix of soft, pop-rock tunes he wrote or co-wrote. They draw upon his musical influences such as Simon & Garfunkel, Jim Croce and the easy-listening sounds of the Carpenters.
"This has been my dream forever. I just want to go on the road with it," says Howard, sifting through CDs during a trip to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square a few hours before curtain time for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
"I'll do a film every year and a half or something, but I'm not going to be distracted by the cute girl at the bar anymore," he says. "I'm just feeling the girl that I came here to meet."
For Howard, that "cute girl at the bar" was acting. He has evolved from character actor to matinee idol, with roles in the Oscar-winning Crash, his Oscar-nominated turn as a pimp-slash-rapper in Hustle & Flow, and memorable appearances in flicks like The Best Man. In Iron Man, he plays Rhodey, the straitlaced military man, star Tony Stark's best bud, and surefire component of the inevitable sequels.
His big break came in 1992, playing Michael Jackson's older brother Jackie in the TV miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. But Howard describes it as his first real mistake.
"I got sidetracked," he recalls. "I kept thinking, I'll get a music deal somehow, even though I couldn't play anything at the time. I thought because I was a songwriter, because I had dreams it would work out."
But now that Howard is a movie star, hasn't he been treated well by acting?
"She was a slut. She was a slut," Howard says, glowering. "She wasn't as truthful as the music."
"Truth" is a concept that Howard mentions often during this afternoon interview — whether it's referring to the sound of his new music or describing the message of his musical heroes ("The audacity to be honest" is what he likes about the Carpenters) and what kind of singer Marlon Brando would have been. ("I don't think he would have been concerned with his voice; I think he would have been more concerned with the message he was trying to deliver with his voice.")
Though he's dressed in a trendy fur-lined hoodie, T-shirt and jeans, being contemporary is not a priority when it comes to his music. Howard, whose gruff and sometimes surly attitude recalls some of his more menacing on-screen characters, scorns much of what's new ("It's garbage — listen to it!" he declares as a rap song plays in the background) and spends his time in the store searching for classics. His rare smiles come when he finds prized jewels, such as a Nina Simone greatest hits album. "That's my Nina," he says softly as he holds the disc in his hands, then asks one of his two children, who have accompanied him, to sing a verse from the late legend.
Howard says he could have had a record deal sooner had he been willing to compromise: After initially getting resistance from record labels — "They told me 'You do not look like Justin Timberlake, and this ain't happening' " — his convincing portrayal of D-Jay, the pimp and aspiring rapper in Hustle & Flow, changed people's minds.
Though Howard wouldn't pass up an Iron Man 2 and says he'll always strive to do his best as an actor, he hopes to make it his "day job." Plenty of other actors have musical sidelines, but Howard scowls when asked if he has modeled his side hustle on any two-talent stars: "I'm not really overly interested in what other people are doing.
. . . We're not supposed to be trying to imitate anyone else or be like anyone else but ourselves."
That philosophy informs his music as well. While some of his songs sound a bit Seal-ish, a sampling of elaborately orchestrated tracks sounded like an anomaly compared with today's radio hits.
When asked where his songs fit in the contemporary musical landscape, Howard replies curtly: "It don't fit. It's not supposed to. The moment it starts fitting in, I need to quit."