There was a major opportunity for Terrence Howard to blow up some scenery and do some violent mustache twirling in Dead Man Down. Mind you, Howard does shout, “I got something for your ass!” when a mansion becomes an overpriced shooting gallery in the film, but that’s as far as the actor goes when it comes to getting his hands silly. It makes sense, considering playing pure evil doesn’t seem like a role Howard would ever want to try out.
Speaking with the Academy Award nominated actor, he sees his characters, even a villain like Alphonse, through a philosophical light, noting that “the past, the present, and the future” are happening right now, as he discussed using pieces of himself for a character.
Despite the fact Howard was minutes away from boarding a flight, he was kind enough to make time discussing his relationship with his characters, how he proved Juilliard wrong, and more about his newest movie:
Film School Rejects? I tried to go to film school. I went over to Julliard and they said they didn’t think I had what it took. I’m a film school reject myself.
[Laughs] We’ll gladly take you. How did that feel at the time?
[Laughs] How did that feel? It felt like, “I’ll show you.” You just keep moving. Two months later I was on All My Children. I think I’ve done alright. I’ve done alright.
“You just keep moving” is a common thing we hear from actors.
Yeah. I mean, I didn’t master walking until a couple of years ago [Laughs]. I’ve been trying to since I was a kid, but I still trip a thousand times here and there. I haven’t tripped at all this year. My ass hasn’t hit the ground yet. After 44 years I’m finally learning to walk, and it’s the same thing with acting. Sometimes you don’t hit the mark, but you’ll be able to walk later. Soon or later you get it.
Do you like reflecting on those years of tripping? Do you enjoy these kind of days?
Yeah, you discover things [in interviews], but you have time constraints. I mean, it’s like five minutes of being asked general questions you’ve heard 95 times. Every once in a while you’ll hear an interesting one. Even though you’re being asked general questions, it’s because they have to answer to a general audience. Still, that’s not as much fun because it seems more contrived compared to you and I having this conversation. I know you’re my last interview, so we can go longer. I don’t have to cut off at 10 minutes, so you can talk…I know my publicist is going nuts right now, wondering what I’m saying!
[Laughs] That’s a good way of looking at the general junket questions. To start with, I’ve heard you say every role feels like you’re picking up a piece of yourself. When you’re playing an antagonist, is it still the same feeling?
I tend to believe the past, the present, and the future are occuring simultaneously. The past is here in the present, and the same goes for the future. We’re living in this dichotomy of emotional, mental, and physical dimensions. Perhaps in the future I tap into an emotion that I’d play [in a film]. You can’t just create somebody out of thin air. There has to be something to tap into; it has to come from somewhere. Certain parts of your nature can turn into great acting. It’s nice doing something you know, if that’s not too convoluted…
I understand. For your character, Alphonse, what is your entry point? Where do you find empathy?
At the beginning of the movie is me finding one of my best friends in a refrigerator and getting these death threats and horrible statements. I’m playing a character who doesn’t know which way to turn, so you can empathize there. Your empathy may go away, but you gotta find empathy. We’ve all made choices we’d reconsider getting the opportunity.
You mentioned how you can’t just build a character out of thin air, but how much of the character comes from [director] Niels Oplev as a collaborator?
He’s so passionate. Whether he’s given two or fourteen hours, he is always enthusiastic, right until the last day. When someone loves what they’re doing it pours into the work, and it’s hard finding [those guys]. He has a very specific frame in which he works. Some directors are, like, “Oh, we’ll see what happens!” Niels is, “No, I know what I’m creating.”
You have to stay within that frame he gives you, and he gives you all the leeway you need inside of it. He has a great deal of respect and has a strong idea of his vision.
It must be rare working with a director who can always maintain their enthusiasm, since it’s a pretty stressful job.
They also don’t want to seem vulnerable and open to certain ideas. Niels isn’t like that. He tells you exactly what he needs. It’s great when you can go watch playback and say, “Oh my goodness, that really works. The good thing is, I’m going to get the credit for it!” [Laughs] When it comes to something that doesn’t work, he’s really sweet about it. It’ll just be, “Oh, we tried that and it didn’t work. It was an accident, you know?” You learn along the way not to ask for forgiveness or permission.
So it’s good a thing never to get too precious when watching a take that doesn’t work?
Right. If you saw me in the morning before I washed my face…I mean, what a little coffee and makeup can do for you? [Laughs] I don’t care what it takes. Like I said, the past, and the future are happening right now. If I picture myself as the emperor of all things and the most beautiful man in the world, I wouldn’t care what anyone else thinks. Hopefully I’d be crazy enough to believe it! It’d be a good feeling.
[Laughs] I’m guessing it would. How do you feel about your performance and the movie itself transforming in editing? Is it ever a concern of yours?
I never read the end of the movie. I usually don’t read the last 20 pages of a movie until we’re shooting it. I don’t like to know where it’s going or having the expectation. You just move along with it. I don’t know…I love following the character’s direction, where it goes, and the moral quagmire we get led to [in Dead Man Down], and I don’t mind continuing my life that way, not knowing where I’m going and trying the best I can.
I try not be too concerned of what happened yesterday or in front of the camera. I mean, who cares about the mistakes you made? This is a progressive thing until we die, and it moves on from there. You do the best you can no matter which way it’s going.
Dead Man Down opens in theaters March 8th.