Terrence Howard's Dangerous Mind

He's the leading man on network TV's biggest new show, but trouble and turmoil have chased him his entire life. The 'Empire' star opens up

T

errence Howard is standing in front of a mirror inside his extra-deluxe, penthouse-level Chicago apartment, looking at himself looking back. You could say he sees himself as he is today, dressed in a silky long-sleeve loungewear top with a scarf circling his neck, like right out of the Hollywood handbook for dapper flamboyants. Or as what he has most recently become, a television-land megastar, for how convincingly he plays super-badass hip-hop-record mogul Lucious Lyon on Fox's Empire, this year's most unexpected hit show. Or even as certain others see him, including some ex-wives, as a man given to outbursts of stunning violence and domestic abuse, allegations of which are, in part, what led him to take the Empire role in the first place. "Since they see me as a bad guy," he says his thinking went, "I'm gonna play a bad guy." 

So, he's got any number of ways he can look at himself. And the mirror continues to reflect, as does Howard.

"Today, for me, has been about searching out who I am," he says. "We've got all these different faces that want to come out — there's at least four just in this moment, with a possible expansion to 432 — but which one do you let out? Is it the person who's cool that you've mastered? Is it the excited little boy?"

For the moment, he's leaning toward the youngster. In his head, he's now six years old, standing in front of a different mirror, in Cleveland, in the ghetto, just a little light-skinned black kid with his daddy, Tyrone, right next to him. His daddy who three years ago spent 11 months in prison for stabbing a man to death while waiting in line to see a department-store Santa. Everyone had children there. Little Terrence's coat was splattered with blood. But now his daddy was here and saying to him, "You see that curly motherfucker right there? That little redheaded motherfucker right there? You love him, because the only person that's gonna be there no matter what happens in your life is that little motherfucker."

Howard has never forgotten those words, and they've helped him through some pretty desperate moments. At one time, he was going to be a big movie star, having built his reputation on films like Crash (2005) and Hustle & Flow (2005) and his bank account with movies like Iron Man (2008), for which he was paid $3.5 million, more than any other member of the cast, including star Robert Downey Jr. But word started to leak out about Howard being difficult on set; as well, women began speaking up about his temper. He soon found himself reduced to $40,000 a movie. "When all that stuff went down about me, you're not in any bargaining position," he says. "You're shunned. You're persona non grata."

In response, the formerly redheaded little motherfucker did what he had to do. He continued to love himself by buying scissors, wire, magnets and vast numbers of sheets of plastic. He had a theory. It might seem crazy, it may even be crazy, but a long time ago he'd gotten hold of this notion that one times one doesn't equal one, but two. He began writing down his logic, in a language of his own devising that he calls Terryology. He wrote forward and backward, with both his right and left hands, sometimes using symbols he made up that look foreign, if not alien, to keep his ideas secret until they could be patented. In 2013, he got married again, to an L.A. restaurateur named Mira Pak, and the two would spend up to 17 hours a day cutting shapes out of the plastic and joining them together into various objects meant to demonstrate not only his one-times-one theory but many others as well.

Howard backs away from the mirror, returns to the living room. The place is filled with his fantastical plastic assemblages. They bear a similarity to building blocks but the shapes are infinitely more complex, in two dimensions and three, tied together by copper wire or held in place by magnets. There are hemispheres, cubes, tetrahedrons and flighty wings. Some of the objects are as small as mice, others as big as fire hydrants; some are hanging, some free-standing, a few larger ones lit from the inside with LED twinkle stars. They are gorgeous and otherworldly. He has no name for them. They just are. He loves them just as much as he loves himself and his infant son, Qirin, who is sleeping nearby and will one day inherit U.S. patent 20150079872 A1 ("Systems and methods for enhanced building-block applications"), among others.

He says he quit smoking cigarettes. Taking a seat not far from Qirin, he says, "Anything you do against yourself is an attack against the people you care about." (Later on, he will admit to "sneaking a cigarette here and there.")

Pak is here, too, tending to the child. Howard is looking at her now and saying, "When you meet your one, it's completely balanced. I don't have any greater authority than she does. It's the only thing that really works."

She smiles.

He smiles back. "You know, all my checks from Fox are being held for garnishment, because of my ex. I'm broke as can be. But my wife, she did well for herself, so she's covered us. This place, she's renting it. I'm suffering. There's nothing worse than being a broke movie star."

Pak says that they're soon going to be buying a house of their own. "In Winnetka," she says.

"The suburbs," Howard says, "as soon as they free up my money." He goes on, "It's always been a hard road for me. I run into bad luck. But I run into good luck too, so it's even-steven right now." He nods at Pak: "I've got a good wife."

And so it would seem. But you never know what you're going to get with a guy like Howard. Or which one of those 432 faces he has allowed to come out and talk. Or what's behind his smile. Or his words. Even a simple word like "wife," for instance. A few weeks later, it comes out that he and Pak had separated in mid-2014, with her filing for divorce earlier this year, citing "irreconcilable differences," and a month from now, their divorce will be final. Plus, in a court document signed in March, Pak stated that she hadn't lived with Howard since August 2014. And yet here they are, looking at each other somewhat fondly, and letting no one else be any the wiser. 

It's in the light caught behind his emerald eyes, the graceful, manly bob and weave of his Adam's apple, and the sly, sure instinct of his lips. It's in the voice, sometimes so lazy and receding that it gets to the vanishing point and you have to lean forward. There's honey in it and maybe the sting of a bee. Melancholy. Sexy and scary. A flatterer, a con man, a robber, a womanizer. All of this, in varying degrees, from the moment he first got noticed in 1999's The Best Man, after having already spent nearly a dec-ade breaking into Hollywood. Suddenly, studio execs were ringing him up to say, "You're gonna be the next Denzel!" And for the next few years it seemed possible, most especially because of how convincing he was as a weak-willed Hollywood producer in Crash, which won a Best Picture Oscar, and as a pimp in Hustle & Flow, which earned him an Oscar nomination. In brief, as an actor, he's a lulu — and not difficult at all, if you ask him.

"Well," he says, "I was difficult, but only because I would not conform. During The Best Man, they kept saying about this one line, 'This is a joke, so say it as a joke.' I was like, 'Y'all do what you want, but I'm not going to mutilate this moment.' And I said the line like I wanted, pausing before saying, 'Y'all know there ain't nothin' better than pussy, except some new pussy.' That seals my character, who he was. But after that, they spent the next year talking about how difficult I was. Then the movie comes out, I get all these accolades, and now the producers are like, 'Oh, you made the movie.' But now they've set it up that Terrence is difficult, and so that has followed me."

When show creator Lee Daniels first started casting Empire, he had Wesley Snipes in mind for Lucious. But that's before he talked to his pick to play Lucious' hot-tempered ex-con ex-wife, Cookie: Taraji P. Henson, who thought her co-star in Hustle & Flow was just the ticket. "They came to me, and I said, 'The only person I'll do it with is Terrence,' " says Henson. "Cookie and Lucious sometimes hate and love each other in the same scene. There's an unspoken connection that you can't fake. My boy Terrence and I have that. So I said to Lee, 'If you can make it happen with Terrence, call me back.' " The end result is a modern-day hip-hop soap opera of Shakespearean dimensions, with nods to old-school psychodramas like Dallas, as kingpin Lucious Lyon struggles to keep his empire together and mink-loving Cookie tries to claw her way back into the business. "Everything I do with Lucious is still me," Howard says. "I just change the vibration. Because Lucious has a very base understanding of life — kill or be killed — I keep him down at a very low frequency." It's all about money, sex, power and, of course, family. It was one of network television's top-five scripted shows last season, starting off its 12-episode run with 10 million viewers and finishing up with 21 million. It's the biggest hit Fox has had in nearly a decade. 

As for Howard's success as Lucious, he's playing it cool. "I'm just trying to pay my bills," he says. "I'm looking forward to this show running its course. If I make a decent amount of money from it, I'll retire." He seems to be wanting a simpler life, the kind you find in Winnetka, one free of the temptations of Hollywood. "The problem with this business," he says, "you lose yourself."

Another problem Howard has is his temper. He's been escorted off a plane for unruly behavior. He's punched out strangers in a restaurant. He's said to have knocked at least two of his women around, most recently ex-wife Michelle Ghent, who after a 2013 trip to Costa Rica with Howard was photographed with a black eye. She said Howard did it. He either denies the allegations or shades the circumstances or has outright justifications.

That time in 2001 when he was arrested for slugging his first wife (who he married in 1989, divorced in 2003 remarried in 2005, and divorced again in 2007), which led to a guilty plea for disorderly conduct? According to the police report, he had "punched her twice with a closed fist."

About that one, he is contrite. "She was talking to me real strong, and I lost my mind and slapped her in front of the kids," he says. "Her lawyer said it was a closed fist, but even slapping her was wrong."

And what happened in Costa Rica with Ghent? "She was trying to Mace me," he says, "and you can't see anything so all you can do is try to bat somebody away, and I think that something caught her. But I wasn't trying to hit her."

And the 2005 incident in the restaurant? When Howard and a couple were waiting in line to be seated, they got into an argument that didn't end until Howard knocked the man to the ground and hit the woman.

Howard says he wasn't even in any line. He'd just gone to check out the wait time for a table. The woman accused him of cutting in front of her and one thing led to another, with him acting in self-defense. He pleaded guilty, once again, to disorderly conduct.

One of the oddest things is how the 2005 restaurant incident echoes what happened with his father, Tyrone, then a 21-year-old unemployed laborer, at that Cleveland department store in 1971. It too started off as an argument about who was next in a line. One man, who had three of his kids with him, accused Tyrone of cutting in front of them with his own three kids, including two-year-old Terrence, and his pregnant wife, Anita. It boiled over into violence, and somehow, Tyrone got hold of a nail file, stabbed the guy until he fell, then fled the scene. The crime made national news and became known as the "Santa Line Slaying."

"I was standing next to my father, watching," Howard says. "Then stuff happened so quickly — blood was on the coats, on our jackets — and then my dad's on a table and then my dad is gone to prison." 

Leaning into the softness of the sofa, he continues, "My daddy taught me, 'Never take the vertebrae out of your back or the bass out of your throat. I ain't raisin' sheep. I raised men. Stay a man.' But being a man comes with a curse because it's not a society made for men to flourish anymore. Everything is androgynous, you know? The more successful men now are the effeminate." Which is another attitude that has gotten him heat. Not that he cares. "The people that judge you don't matter. They're not real. Everything is just frequencies."

He picks up one of his intricate plastic what-is-its and holds it to his eyes. "Like with these things," he says. "In those four years where I was shunned and walked away from everything, look at what I've created. But I was not trying to make this when I made it, I was just trying to find the four forces, so I took four planes and put them together where they fit naturally, an equilateral triangle, and it created a circle, a triangle and a square, and from there everything else was created just following my hands leading to a good place."

He steps across the room, considers some other objects — straight lines and curves in plastic, clear and colored, bending and unbent, stitched together with copper wire, soldered in places — and returns with a roundish one.

"Since I was a child of three or four," he says, "I was always wondering, you know, why does a bubble take the shape of a ball? Why not a triangle or a square? I figured it out. If Pythagoras was here to see it, he would lose his mind. Einstein, too! Tesla!" He shakes his head at the miracle of it all, his eyes opening wide, a smile beginning to trace itself, like he's expecting applause or an award. And all you can do is nod your head and try to follow along. He just seems so convinced that he's right. And that he is about to change the world.

"This is the last century that our children will ever have been taught that one times one is one," he says. "They won't have to grow up in ignorance. Twenty years from now, they'll know that one times one equals two. We're about to show a new truth. The true universal math. And the proof is in these pieces. I have created the pieces that make up the motion of the universe. We work on them about 17 hours a day. She cuts and puts on the crystals. I do the main work of soldering them together. They tell the truth from within."

After a while, Qirin has had enough of these goings-on and begins to cry. Howard lifts him out of his crib and wanders down the hallway. Pak watches them go.

She says she first met Howard in the middle of the day at an L.A. restaurant where she was having lunch with an old boss. He marched up to the table and said to the man, "I don't know if she's your wife or girlfriend, but she's absolutely stunning." She said, "That's very bold of you." He said, "Well, only a tiger can approach a tiger." Three weeks later, they were married.

"Isn't that crazy?" she says today. "And we have an amazing connection. But, I mean, he's not perfect. Doesn't do the dishes. Doesn't cook. Doesn't lift a finger. I probably leave him 30 times a month." She laughs and goes on, "He's so selfish. But, you know, he didn't have much of a childhood. It was difficult for him being picked on and bullied all the time. We don't have a normal life. In our two years together, I've only gone to restaurants with him two or three times. We've never been to the supermarket together. We've never been to the movies. I've never gotten a gift from him. Never, never.

"And then every minute that he has free, it's to do this." She gestures at some of Howard's thingamajigs, tilting her head questioningly. "I help him, cutting, drawing and putting things together. I've developed a slight form of agoraphobia lately. I never go out. I have no friends here. I feel like Rapunzel, you know, stuck in a penthouse with my baby."

Soon, Howard strolls back in, Qirin asleep in his arms. "You ask some good questions of my wife? She gonna get us in trouble?"

Ah, not too bad.

"No, not too bad. That's like a doctor with a big-ass needle saying, 'This ain't gonna hurt.' "

My mom got pregnant with me when she was 15," he says later on. "She'd already had my older brother and was headed to the abortion clinic with my uncle, when they stopped at a red light and she was like, 'No, this would not be happening if he wasn't meant to be here.' "

And so all his life it's been like that — if not one thing, then another.

At birth, he says, his skin was so yellow that doctors at the hospital thought he had jaundice and whisked him away to a darkened room for three days. "No contact with Mom," he says. "Inside an incubator inside a dark room. The first three days of my life."

Soon after his father returned from prison, his parents divorced. The family had gone from poor, to broke, to shattered. His mom moved to L.A., to try to make it as an actress, while his dad stayed put. Terrence split his time between the two.

In their ghetto Cleveland neighborhood, Tyrone Howard was known as No Nation, for his mixed-race look, and Terrence was called High Yellow, for the color of his skin. He was tormented because of it. "Let's smack him and see how long it takes him to turn red," the kids would say. Raised to turn the other cheek, he would not fight back, until an uncle saw him get a severe beat-down at the age of 13 and taught him how to box, Rocky-style. After that, he was good to go. "I was the pretty boy, so people didn't think I could defend myself, but it didn't end up being a good day for them."

He first took an interest in sex in grade school. "In the ghetto, things happen a lot quicker," he says. But by the time he was 16, he'd sworn it off, and when he fell in love with this one girl, he refused to give her what she wanted. "And then she ended up having a gangbang and called me laughing with her friends on speakerphone, and I was crying because of what had happened to my girl, not knowing that this was something she wanted. Before Mira, I always picked the wrong women."

When he was in high school, nerves in his cranium began to malfunction and paralyzed the right side of his face: Bell's palsy. He says doctors gave him a 95 percent chance of it staying frozen like that forever. His right eye wouldn't close, so he had to tape it shut at night. Determined to do something about the situation, he started applying electrical shocks to his face. He says he cut the wires off his dad's electric razor, attached one end to the fuse box in the basement and pressed the other to his skin. "I did that every day for five months and then I felt the slightest little twitch inside," he says. He recovered fully, pretty much. It was around this time he began to experiment with his handwriting: "The right side of my face behaved in a different way from the left, so I thought, 'Maybe that's also true of hands.' I was right-handed, so I started writing with my left hand and then I reversed the direction and started writing backward with both hands."

After high school, he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, studying chemical engineering, until he got into an argument with a professor about what one times one equals. "How can it equal one?" he said. "If one times one equals one that means that two is of no value because one times itself has no effect. One times one equals two because the square root of four is two, so what's the square root of two? Should be one, but we're told it's two, and that cannot be." This did not go over well, he says, and he soon left school. "I mean, you can't conform when you know innately that something is wrong."

By this time, he was already trying to make it as an actor. He had a job at Pan Am as a reservation agent, which allowed him to fly to L.A. for auditions on the cheap, where he could hand out a résumé that was full of sham acting distinctions. A bit part in a Cosby Show episode, which was cut in the editing room, led to other TV work and finally, in 1995, to a solid role in Mr. Holland's Opus, and, four years later, to The Best Man

By and large, it's been a trip out of poverty that seems pretty outlandish, but whether it's apocryphal or just the way he explains himself to himself or all true, it's exactly how he says it happened, for better or for worse.

Grievances, he's got a few. Just the way it worked out, with him coming off the success of Crash and Hustle & Flow and a Denzel-like career waiting in the wings, he was the first hire and highest-paid actor on Iron Man, $3.5 million, with an additional $5 million waiting if a sequel got made. At this point, he'd heard the producers weren't interested in Robert Downey Jr., because of his past drug problems. But Howard says he told them he'd take a $1 million pay cut if they auditioned Downey and hired him. (Marvel Studios disputes Howard's version of Downey's hiring and the alleged salary cut, saying Howard played no part in getting Downey the job.) "Robert was so thankful and dadadadada," says Howard. Come time to make Iron Man 2, however, the producers went to Howard's agent, told him they were cutting Howard's part down and wanted a salary reduction. As Howard recalls it, his agent said "fuck you" and slammed down the phone. By the next day, Don Cheadle had been hired as his replacement.

"And so," he says, "I called Robby and was like, 'Look, man . . .' Leaving messages with his assistants, called him at least 17 times that day and 21 the next and finally left a message saying, 'Look, man, I need the help that I gave you.' Never heard from him. And guess who got the millions I was supposed to get? He got the whole franchise, so I've actually given him $100 million, which ends up being a $100 million loss for me from me trying to look after somebody, but, you know, to this day I would do the same thing. It's just my nature."

Then again, it's also in his nature to say things like, "I don't talk about my ex-wife because I don't talk about negative things," and later on to call out to Pak, "Hey, honey, where's the blackmail CD?"

Pak rummages around and comes up with it. Howard puts it in a laptop. It's a phone call, he says, between him and ex-wife Ghent that he secretly recorded. It starts off with her calling him "a fucking twat." She then goes on a rampage, threatening to sell tabloids some "fucking shitty tapes" of him having phone sex and dancing naked if he doesn't give her the money she says she is due and barking, "You're a fucking sociopath. Everybody should know it. I'm so sick of the shit that you've put me through."

It goes on for almost 13 endless, weird, brain-frying minutes, with Howard keeping his cool throughout, both on the recording and in the present moment. What he wants to demonstrate is that Ghent was the pit bull in their relationship, him the passive pussycat, no matter what she might say in legal documents or court. "I mean, does that sound like somebody afraid of me?" And it's true: Ghent's rage and bile are so ocean-deep you could drown in them. But she probably should have drawn the line at extortion. It's what has allowed Howard to go to court and ask that their 2012 divorce settlement — it gives Ghent a big part of his Empire salary — be dismissed, which in mid-August a judge will do, finding that Howard was "coerced" into the settlement. But at the moment, all he can do is glare at the laptop, leaning toward it, hissing, "You fucking bitch. Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!" (Ghent's lawyers declined comment; however, a press release following the decision called the court's process "skewed" and said their client "is currently evaluating her legal options.")

Afterward, Howard sets himself down on the sofa and looks like he's gulping for air. He once said about himself, "The sooner people declare me insane, the sooner I'll be free." So has he ever been to a shrink?

"Back in the Nineties or something. Told me I was crazy," he says. " No, he actually told me I had a sex addiction. I said, 'So what do I do?' He said, 'Don't have any sex.' I was like, 'OK, good, I getcha, I getcha.' "

On any medications?

"No. I took ayahuasca once. The only answer I got was 'Keep following your hands.' "

Pak goes to take care of the baby. Meanwhile, all of Chicago is humming outside the penthouse-floor windows, with the river beneath flowing along. Howard snaps his fingers, stands up, turns his head.

"Anytime I've ever done anything wrong, it'll sneak back up on me," he says. "I mean, right away. So then I'm conscious when I've set booby traps along the way. I figure it's just my walk. But if those things hadn't happened, I wouldn't have this."

He seems to mean his son Qirin, his fantastic plastic objects and one times one equals two, the apartment mirrors he sometimes stands in front of, his Empire role, even his soon-to-be-ex-wife Pak.

"I spent all my time as a kid trying to fit in," he goes on. "My uncle said to me, 'Why are you so busy trying to fit in when you were born to stand out?' I was 14. He said, 'You're a young prince, and someday ye shall grow up to be a king.' Many years ago, Oprah said to me, 'Your crown is waiting right there. Pick it up and put it on.' I remember being in the womb, found comfort there, and have been aware since that moment. As a result of the travesties I've gone through, I have become awakened. I mean, after spending time with me, you can see a good part of my nature. I'm on my own path, and I like the pebbles of my cobblestones." Which seems clear enough. There's no stopping him. He's pushing ahead, writing his future forward and backward, with both his right hand and his left, surrounded by symbols only he knows the meaning of, come what may.