Terrence Howard On His Future As An Actor and ‘Dead Man Down’

Dead Man Down Terrence Howard photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place in 2013.

It was so infinitely cool to hang out with actor Terrence Howard during the Los Angeles press day for “Dead Man Down.” Hearing him speak was endlessly fascinating because, on top of being an actor, he is also very knowledgeable on the subjects of science and the Bible, and his intelligence has led him to make a number of interesting choices in the roles he has played. Throughout the interview, he talked about how he chose to portray crime lord Alphonse Hoyt and what the future holds for him as an actor.

Now when you hear about crime lords in movies, you usually expect actors to give scenery-chewing performances which are way over the top. But at the same time, many actors fall into the trap of making these characters seem like comic book characters as opposed to fully developed human beings. The beauty of Howard’s performance in “Dead Man Down” was that it was never over the top, and he allowed himself to portray Alphonse in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In his conversations with the film’s director Niels Arden Oplev (who made the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“), Howard came to realize he wouldn’t be playing the same old crime lord we have become all too familiar with.

Terrence Howard: That man (Oplev) told me, “I’m going to change your life. I’m going to make you a bad guy that nobody has ever seen before,” and he gave me all the tools necessary to accomplish it. I think he’s a genius for that. What he did in creating these characters where all of them were compromised from the start was a beautiful, beautiful thing. There’s no good guy, there’s no bad guy in the movie. Everyone makes a crucial mistake in trying to make you pay for what you did yesterday with the resources of today.

Having seen “Dead Man Down,” I couldn’t agree with him more. Alphonse Hoyt is a bad guy, but he is also a very complex character who cannot be dismissed as a one-dimensional villain. Even the characters played by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace are in a morally gray area as they have suffered tragedies in their own lives and are out to get revenge in the worst way possible. Howard compared the characters to another movie he co-starred in.

TH: It’s like “Crash;” everyone was a bad guy somewhere along the way. Even Ryan Phillippe’s character, who was the good guy, ends up doing something terrible at the end of it. I think that’s what cinema’s about. it’s supposed to teach you about humanity and the choices that we’re making whether it’s good or bad, and the audience can watch and hopefully gain some type of understanding of how to place the stumbling blocks of yesterday in a way on the path that they become stepping stones for those that will follow us. We are all still one person even though we see each other as separate individuals.

During the interview, Howard made it very clear to us that Alphonse was not born a bad guy. While his character leads a life of crime, we come to understand he never meant to go down the dark path that he did. This may not make any of his deeds in “Dead Man Down” forgivable, but it helps us to understand where he came from. Howard talked about how he saw the character at length and how his own personal experiences came to inform his performance.

TH: He (Alphonse) wanted to fit into society. Now mind you, he was part of a disenfranchised social group as a young black man, and in being a light-skinned black man growing up in the 70’s, black people didn’t appreciate him and didn’t like him and white people didn’t like him. When I was a kid, I was called a no nation motherfucker because I couldn’t hang out with black people and I couldn’t hang out with white people, so I had to find some type of foundation within my own family group. When I went down to Brazil, I found my family because everybody looks like me there. My character just wants to be accepted; he wants to be respected. He’s like Michael Corleone who said, “I tell you within five years we are going to be complete and above board. Just give us those five years and all of the businesses are going to be respectable.” That’s what he’s hoping, but Michael Corleone was never able to achieve that because you cannot gain peace by creating problems for someone else.

It’s natural I suppose to assume Howard based his character on another crime lord or that he did research on kingpins from history, but he actually found inspirations from other surprising sources. Among them were a story by writer Khalil Gibran and the story of King Saul and of how he had been anointed to become the King of Israel but was later denied this honor.

TH: When King Saul thought too much of himself and began to break God’s laws, King Saul had the kingdom ripped away from him. Now instead of accepting that and repenting, he fought against the anointed of Jehovah in fighting David, and therefore he had this evil spirit that was always following him, and he knew that he was going to fall and lose his place. That’s a hard place to exist in. But then Khalil Gibran told this story about the criminal, and in the story of the criminal was a young man strong of body and nature who had gone and knocked on the doors to go to work, but people told him ‘well you need education’ and they closed the doors. So, he went to the schools and they said well, you need money, and therefore he went out to beg and they said you’re a strong man, you’re lazy. So, he ended up on the top of a mountain and he looks down and is angry in his heart, and at that moment a lightning bolt strikes a tree and this club falls on him. He’s angry at God and he raises a club and says, “I asked and it was not given. Now I shall take with the strength of my arm,” and he then descended into that city and became the most notorious criminal of all time. Then two years later, a new Amir took over the city and made him the chief of his army and they dominated and desolated that city, and Khalil Gibran made a beautiful commentary that “of good men do we turn criminals out of our inhumanity towards each other. So, it was a combination of those things and a little bit of King Ahab because he refused to take direction from Jehovah also. There’s a lot of people that made Alphonse.

There are rumors Howard is thinking about retiring from acting, and this is a surprise because he still looks like he has many great performances left to give. He did not say he was going to retire, but I quickly came to respect his reasons for why he is considering it. Howard did not set out to be an actor for fame, wealth and glory, but instead to better himself as a person.

TH: I had a conversation with Sidney Poitier where I asked him, are you gonna do another movie? And he said, “No I don’t want to do an impersonation of myself anymore.” I may have 10 years left in my life and I don’t want to waste it doing something I’ve done before. If I can’t learn from a character, if I’m just going in and taking from a bag of tricks and choices, I don’t want to do it. It’s pointless for me because I have to grow as a human being and I don’t want the safe road. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed working as a chemical engineer for New York when I graduated college. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed in Cleveland, Ohio and been a contractor. I think I have greater things that I can contribute to the world of education and science than just as an actor. Now acting pays a lot, but I feel like I’m walking on water for tips as an actor because I know how to do it. I want to achieve my purpose as a human being and the reason I was put on this planet, so I will follow the course. As a sperm, if I knew which way to go and knew how to do it, I wouldn’t have gotten there because I would’ve been bored with it. But because I didn’t know where I had to go and I had to trust my instincts, I beat a half billion of my own brothers and sisters and hijacked my mother’s body and Terrence Howard has come to be. I like following the river as it flows.

Well, here’s hoping Terrence Howard doesn’t retire from acting for a very long time. While there is no doubt as to how smart a human being he is and of how much he can give in other areas of life, he continues to give one great performance after another. Howard also infuses each role he takes on with a strong intelligence, and it was endlessly fascinating to hear him talk about the things he knows as well as his role in “Dead Man Down.”

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Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman movie poster

What I love about Richard Gere as an actor is his ability to play morally questionable characters with such a seductive charm to where I cannot help but root for him to succeed despite his morally dubious intentions. Whether he’s playing an infinitely corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” a fraudulent hedge fund manager in “Arbitrage” or a publicity-seeking lawyer in both “Primal Fear” and “Chicago,” Gere makes these characters hopelessly charismatic even as they sink deeper into a realm of lies, deception, and things much worse. Some actors are great at making you despise the villains they play, but Gere is brilliant at making you become enamored with the villainous characters he portrays as he makes breaking the law seem so seductive.

I was reminded of this while watching Gere in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” as he plays a man eager to achieve great success in his lifetime. While his character of Norman Oppenheimer is not as devious as Dennis Peck or Robert Miller, he’s a guy trying to sell everyone on his financial schemes which never seem to become a reality. When things finally start working out for him, they end up leading him down a road which could lead to either great success or tragic consequences.

Norman is a loner who lives in the shadows of New York City power and money, and he works hard, perhaps much too hard, at being everyone’s friend as he offers the elite something he can’t possibly provide on his own. His efforts, however, lead to little in the way of success, and his constant networking threatens to drive people away as people are easily annoyed just by the sound of his voice. Still, he comes across as a nice guy whom you wouldn’t be quick to shoo away because Gere convinces you Norman means well even as he manipulates those around him to his benefit.

But one day he comes across Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a charismatic Israeli politician who is alone in New York and at a very vulnerable point in his life. Norman seizes on this vulnerability and befriends Micha in a way few others would dare to, and he cements their budding friendship by buying Micha a pair of shoes. But these are not any ordinary pair of shoes which you would find at your local Payless Shoe Source. The price of this particular pair of shoes is the same as the average one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and while Norman initially hesitates once he sees the price, he buys them anyway to gain Micha’s respect. This pays off big time three years later when Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel as he quickly remembers what Norman did for him. From there, Norman bathes in the respect he has craved for such a long time, and he uses Micha’s name to achieve his biggest deal ever.

When we look into Gere’s eyes, we can see when Norman is lying and when he is being honest with those around him. While other actors would have played this character in a more stereotypical or annoying fashion, Gere makes him into a genuinely well-meaning person whom you find yourself rooting for even when he doesn’t have much to back up his promises with. We also come to see what motivates him: he has a desperate need to matter. He wants his existence to be a necessary part of other peoples’ lives, and this should give you an idea of just how lonely a soul he is.

Writer and director Joseph Cedar, who previously gave us the acclaimed movies “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” leaves parts of Norman’s life ambiguous to the viewer. Norman claims he has a wife and child, but we never see them. Do they actually exist? In the end, it doesn’t matter because Norman truly believes they do, and this belief empowers him to persist in achieving what would seem out of reach to everyone else. Even when he is manipulating others, he never comes across as less than genuine, and we can’t help but root for him.

Cedar made this movie as a re-imaging of an archetypal tale about the Court Jew. Those who, like me, were unfamiliar with this tale, it involves the Court Jew meeting a man of power at a point in his life where his resistance is low, and the Jew gives this man a gift or a favor which the man remembers once he rises in stature. To say more would give a good portion of “Norman” away, but learning of this tale makes one realize why the Jewish people are often closely associating with banking as the job of a banker was one of the very few career paths available to Jews in the past. So, the next time people out there say Jews are greedy with money, remind them we narrowed down their career goals for no good reason.

In addition to Gere, there are other terrific performances worth noting in “Norman.” Charlotte Gainsbourg, looking almost unrecognizable from her tour of duty with Lars Von Trier, co-stars as Alex, one of Norman’s many marks who somehow sees right through his ways to where she is empathetic to his struggles. Steve Buscemi also shows up as Rabbi Blumenthal whose synagogue Norman is trying to save from developers. It feels weird to see Buscemi in a role like this as he plays a decent man who wants the best for others as we are so used to seeing him play unsavory characters in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Con Air,” “Fargo,” and “The Sopranos.” Either that, or there are still movies of his I need to watch.

In a lot of ways, Norman Oppenheimer is a different kind of character from the ones Gere has played in the past, but it also isn’t. He has been great at portraying people who are not easily likable, but he makes us like them as he is infinitely clever at getting us over to his side. After all these years, Gere remains an excellent actor on top of a movie star, and we are past due in realizing this. He has never been just a pretty face, and “Norman” has him giving one of his best performances to date. I have no doubt there are many more great performances from him we have yet to see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *