Fear and Hustling: “Hustle & Flow’s” Terrence Howard: The performance that made him a star

Chicago native Terrence Howard’s 17-year film and TV career underwent a seismic shift with his star turn in “Hustle & Flow,” the Memphis hip-hop drama that sold to MTV and Paramount Classics for a record $9 million at Sundance.

This year alone Howard appears five films.

They are “Crash,” “Lackawanna Blues,” “Four Brothers,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” and the Oprah Winfrey-produced made-for-TV “Their Eyes were Watching God.”

Howard will be the honoree of the Chicago International Film Festival’s Black Perspectives Program this October. He spoke at a recent IFP/Chicago screening of “Hustle & Flow”

The hustle that inspired the film
Terrence Howard:
This film came together as the result of the vision of one man: [writer-director] Craig Brewer.

One day as he was on the way home from shooting his underbudget film [“The Poor and Hungry,” 2000] Craig was accosted by a pimp with a blonde prostitute sitting next to him in his car. The pimp was talking a mile a minute, like “she’ll do anything you want.” Craig said no.

He kept trying to walk away and the pimp kept driving next to him. He said “do you want to buy some weed?” and Craig said no. Finally the pimp said, “do you want to buy this car?”

When Craig got home, he couldn’t stop thinking about this pimp. What is this man’s life like? What is it that he wants? That became “Hustle & Flow.”

Craig always said he wrote the script with me in mind. But I read the first draft, and it said [my character] DJay was dark skinned. I said, “you didn’t have me in mind.” But he said what he had to say to sell it to me.

Every studio rejects Craig Brewer’s screenplay
Craig brought the script to me three years before we got to make this movie. He kept getting turned down by every studio in town. No one would give us the money. Craig was hustling as much as he could. His wife was stripping at the time.

He turned down $10 million for a deal to do it with a rapper. He said, “I’m only going to do it with Terrence or I’m not going to do it at all.” [Producer] John Singleton finally reached into his own pocket and put up $2.5 million to make the movie.

Howard fears pulling off the pimp role
[Producer] Stephanie Allain approached me with the script poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel and said “this is a great part.” I said “what is it?” She said “he’s a pimp and he sells weed and he wants to be a rapper.” I thought, “you’ve got all these stereotypes. If I do this my career is over.” She called me every week for seven months before I read the script.

I didn’t know if I could pull it off. I tried to give the role to Larenz Tate. I was afraid. A week before shooting I called Craig and told him I couldn’t do it. Fear is a wonderful thing. I’m still scared looking at it now.

A few months before shooting, I still wasn’t ready to rap. I’m not a fan of the violence that is so prevalent in hip-hop. I’ve got three kids. I didn’t want to perpetuate anything like that. I said, “let me play guitar and sing.” They said, “no, he doesn’t have any of those talents. All he can do is talk.” That was the best thing a director could say to me. He forced me to work outside of my range.