BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – A Sunday morning sun shimmers over high-end boutiques. Terrence Howard (search) is sitting at a table outside the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, dragging on his cigarette, eyeing the tourists posing across the street, when a bus door opens.
"You're the best actor, my brother!" the driver yells, giving Howard a thumbs-up.
"Thank you my friend. Thank you brother," Howard says, smiling politely. Leaning toward an interviewer, he says with a whisper, "I paid him to do that."
Not that he'd have to. After a career filled with supporting roles, Howard, 36, is a hot Hollywood property thanks to "Hustle & Flow," (search) writer-director Craig Brewer's (search) much-hyped comic drama.
Starring Howard as a small-time pimp-turned-rapper, the film premiered at the Sundance Festival to deafening applause — and was snatched up by Paramount for a festival-record $9 million.
When the reviews came in, everyone was talking about Terrence Howard.
"It's kind of strange to me," says Howard. "It's always been about the grind for me, you know. I'm just so used to being a part of something, being the thing edited out. But I knew I had it in me."
So did producer Stephanie Allain, who wanted a unique actor for the complex role of DJay, a dangerous yet gentle hustler — he has a policy against hitting his women — longing for a better life. Allain didn't want just some boy in the 'hood, but a man who could humanize the character.
"I was casting another movie at the time, 'Biker Boys,'" says Allain, "and I went to meet with Terrence and was telling him about 'Hustle & Flow.' As I was talking to him about his life and what he wanted to do he just felt like DJay, because he wanted more."
For the actor, there was a definite connection to DJay's struggle.
"In the last six years, I was divorced. Pretty much blackballed out of the business," he says. "I had been pimping myself for the longest time. Selling pieces of my own conscience for some monetary gain. Sooner or later, you see your whole life savings of morality, gone. You try to cash in your chips and realize, 'Oh damn, I don't have any chips left.' So you've got to start over."
A native of Chicago, (he grew up in Cleveland and Los Angeles and spent summers in New York City with his great-grandmother, stage actress Minnie Gentry) Howard now lives in Philadelphia with his three children and wife, Lori, whom he remarried two years ago. He enjoys the normalcy of Philadelphia, where his wife runs the family construction business.
"I can build a cabinet faster than I can a character — and with greater precision," he says.
So when he first read the "Hustle & Flow" script, he was intimidated by the complexities of the character.
"The thing about it," he says, "was how do you make an unlikable person, an antihero, into a hero of a human spirit. Because that's the true hero of this movie, the human spirit and its resilience and determination to do more and more."
What resonates is Howard's "brooding thoughtfulness" and "emotional immediacy," says Daily Variety critic Todd McCarthy, likening the actor to a young Marlon Brando.
"Terrence is just so watchable," producer John Singleton says, "even when words aren't coming out of his mouth. For years he's been that guy in the background, that you were always watching, always looking over the shoulder of the main guy looking at Terrence."
In 1995, Howard had his breakout role in "Mr. Holland's Opus," then turned in a scene-stealing performance as the crazed bank robber in "Dead Presidents." He built on his reputation as Taye Diggs' womanizing best bud in 1999's "The Best Man" — which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination — followed most recently by a major role in the critically acclaimed ensemble drama "Crash."
But the limelight has eluded him, marred by a reputation of "being difficult," he says. "But I heard Marlon Brando was difficult. Heard Denzel was difficult. But Denzel was very smart. He wouldn't fight nobody. Me? I was young. 'You gonna disrespect? OK, c'mon.' Then the claws would come out. So it took me a little longer."
A little older, and intensely introspective, Howard has two more films scheduled for release this year: "Four Brothers," directed by Singleton, and "Get Rich or Die Trying," in which he co-stars with the rapper 50 Cent.
"It's like what was said in 'The Alchemist,'" Howard says. "'When you seek out your own personal legend, the universe conspires to help you along the way.' And maybe that's what's the cause of all of this right now."
Right now, it's three women from Brazil who have stopped to ask Howard to pose for pictures. He obliges graciously.
"It's like you don't meet any strangers now," he says. "And even though people just know me through the work, they have a fondness, like they've been able to see through a mirror-plated glass and see something, see their own reflection. That means I must have been honest to some degree."