Terrence 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.”