Terrence Howard, an Oscar-nominated actor known for roles in Hustle & Flow and Red Tails, surprised his audience in the Semel Theater Tuesday by saying that he plans to change his career focus. In an Inside the Actor’s Studio-style interview, Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests President Chris Hyacinthe talked with the actor for almost two hours. They touched on acting, perseverance, and science — which Howard said is his actual passion.
“I want to debunk Einstein,” Howard said with a sly grin, while the audience laughed. According to an interview with legendary film critic Roger Ebert, before being discovered as an actor, Howard studied chemical engineering during his time at the Pratt Institute, which ended its engineering program in 1993.
In a press conference before the event, Howard, the second of 11 children, told the Beacon that after his mother’s death in 2008, he realized that he had started acting to get her attention. He said that she had once been an aspiring thespian herself. Now, he plans to largely step away from acting to focus on his other interests.
“My true calling has always been science, and so that’s where I’m headed back to now,” said Howard, who also dabbled in music with the country album Shine Through It. “You’re always going to go back to who you truly are.”
He elaborated that he plans to experiment with the use of diamonds as medical tools. Howard held back from mentioning some of his other ideas, because the patents are still pending, he said.
Howard said he has filed about 23 patents over the last four years and worked with a company that manufactures synthetic diamonds.
But he’s not necessarily done with acting yet. Red Tails, a Second World War film co-starring his friend Cuba Gooding Jr., was released in January. His 2011 portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Winnie, which he called the “best work I’ve ever done,” is awaiting American release. He also has a few finished projects due for 2012 release.
He mentioned some projects in the near future — a movie about Marvin Gaye, another on Sammy Davis Jr. that he said he was asked to direct, and a Forest Whitaker film possibly including Oprah Winfrey — but stood by his claim, saying at the event, “This is pretty much the last year for me.”
Howard told the Beacon he acknowledged that acting does have its benefits.
“I still pay the bills with [acting],” he said nonchalantly in the interview. “But it’s like going to the post office. I deliver mail.”
In front of the audience at the Semel, though, he expressed a more serious commitment to his roles. Howard said he interviewed 150 people to prepare for his role as pimp and rapper Djay in Hustle & Flow, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
He also seemed effected by playing the character Cameron in the 2006 film Crash. In the movie, Cameron watches a white police officer molest his wife. One of the film’s writers, Howard said, suggested he channel the frustration by imagining himself as a slave who could hear his wife being raped by their slave-owner.
“As a black man, you have to hide a lot of that resentment,” Howard said.
Howard didn’t always play such serious roles. He said he actually started out as a guest on the Cosby Show — but only after embellishing his credentials.
“My first résumé was two pages long… just made-up stuff,” the actor laughed, noting that he had added Screen Actor’s Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and Actor’s Equity Association titles to his sheet of lies. “Before, when I didn’t have a résumé, no one would listen to me.”
His minor deceit paid off. He said in the interview it was worth it to be able to take his mother to the Oscars before she passed away. But now, reflecting on a career that might not be what he wants, he stressed the importance of staying true to oneself.
“I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish [in acting]. I don’t have to live her dreams anymore,” he said. “My goal is to walk away.”