By Chesley Turner
Photography by Randall Slavin
“My first nine months of existence were inside a very powerful woman – my mom.”
Power. It’s an enticing subject. Its definition changes constantly. The power of influence, and the power of money, and the power of love, and the power of humility. Do we bow before it, or do we stand against it? Terrence Howard shared his perspective with an almost philosophical stream of metaphors.
“For me, power is the ocean. Power is water. Under every circumstance it’s able to remain water, but it can adjust to the circumstances, whether it’s in a plasma or a vapor or a solid or a liquid. Basically the greatest power is the power to compromise, from what I’ve seen in the universe.”
When you’re up against it, Howard says, it’s best to go with the flow. “It’s the universal cooperational [sic] law that most people lose in thinking that power is standing firm and not changing. But it’s moving according to the greater need. That’s the power. Because, yeah, I could stand up and fight the ocean, or I can actually surrender to the waves and not extend any energy and maybe at 100 feet below I can get the current to push me where I want to go…. It’s power in cooperation and not in competition.”
While it sounds very zen and centered, “cooperational law” might be a little more difficult to achieve in real life than he lets on. There have been trials Howard has come up against that made it difficult to keep his cool. When asked for an example, he immediately answers, “You know, the Iron Man situation.”
He elucidates, dredging up what seems to be a frustrating memory. “According to what we had worked out in the contract, I was supposed to take over the franchise from the second expression of the franchise. And when they decided to go in an opposite direction, you know, it was devastating. I tried too fight it and carry on.”
Certainly, it’s a circumstance that still baffles many Iron Man franchise fans, but as Howard says, he had to figure out how to move forward. “The interesting thing was I developed a fascinating philosophy, a very simple one. It’s called reorienting oneself. Because oftentimes, when we’re going up, as everything does in the wave particle theory – everything goes up and down – when we’re going up we’re always looking up. But then the moment we start going down, we start falling, because guess what? We’re still looking up. And therefore we’re not facing in the direction in which life has turned. So if we reorient ourselves into the way life is going, we can gain terminal velocity, and because of the particle wave field, everything is going to go up and go down and go up and go down, and you can gain enough momentum off of the bottom to where you will miss the next down-field, the next portion of it.”
That’s a complicated, pseudo-philosophical perspective told in semi-scientific terms, but the crux is in the moral: “Once I surrendered to it – you know, okay, I’m no longer in the good graces of the comic world and society has been told that I’m this bad person, so okay, let me go play bad guys for awhile. I went back to playing bad guys and work has been great!”
Howard, who has played everything from a rapping pimp to an end-of-life-care physician, has found it necessary to overcome some course-altering change in his own life. But there’s a lesson to be learned there, too. Referencing Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book, Who Moved My Cheese, he observes that the biggest problem most of us have is trying to deny that change has occurred. “If you lose your leg and your ability to walk, you know, crying over it and complaining about it is not going to change the circumstance. In order to win, you have to maintain and live with the limitations or the greatness that’s given to you, and everything works out fine. People praise the sunshine and curse the rain when they’re one and the same.”
While Howard began by examining the idea of harnessing personal power, he’s quick to point out the abuse of power in our country’s government. Congress today is at a head-butting standstill, and that’s because of the illusion of power. “They believe that if they push their ideals and are more dogmatic about it and ignore the needs and necessities of others, you know, ultimately everyone will acquiesce to the illusion of power. They have the guns.”
Then he quotes Stalin, “you know, the dictator of Russia. He said, ‘Those who have to vote don’t have the power…. He was never able to change that consistent hold over Russia.”
So what about the U.S.? From where Howard sits, it’s becoming a police state. “With the government and the Patriot Act and all these things, our Constitution is no longer being used. And the Constitution was held up to build the independence and the freedom and the moral growth of the country. But we are now in a very sad state.” Then, with an unexpected but brief change in tack, he begins to speak about America’s current state of affairs as something of a necessary evil. “But it’s a necessary state, because the transition out of this will lead to a more enlightened state. And it may be 100 years, it may be 200 years. But,” he gets back on course, “if we continue in the direction that we’re going in, we’re forced to reap the rewards or the negative fruits of our actions. And if we don’t start standing up for the people and demand that the Constitution is respected, then we will find ourselves in a totalitarian state.” Again, Howard changes direction, circling back to interpretations of power, “And the bankers will continue to dictate. Mussolini said the best way to describe Fascism was corporation mixed with state, and that’s what’s really running our country now, the need for money. And money is a great thing. It’s a great tool to be used if used properly but it’s a prison (if) used improperly. And that’s where our politics are now, you know. They’re stuck on money and the illusion of power.” With a final shift of topic, he ends with a kicker, “And love is the greatest power there is.”
It’s evident that Howard’s mind moves quickly through his interpretation of our current state of affairs. His commentary, like stream of consciousness analytics, tumbles from one topic to the next, skipping from one loose connection to another. He leaves the listener with more than just a statement. It’s more of scattered impression that skims the surface of deeper thoughts.
In an upcoming film, Cardboard Boxer, Howard plays what he describes as, “an ex-homeless individual.” His character, only recently off the streets himself, spends his evening helping those who are still battling homelessness. Co-starring with Thomas Hayden Church, Howard remarks on the subject of the film in respect to the power theme. “These rich kids who come from Beverly Hills and pay $20 to these homeless people and have them beat each other up knowing they can’t get the medical help for it, but the desperation for food, you know, the reality of that… I didn’t even know that those things were occurring.” Howard enjoyed the chance to empathize with the homeless, though he says he wishes there was more opportunity to actually help them during the film’s making. “I find it hard to work with a lot of charities because there’s so much press involved, and manipulation involved. So what my wife and I have been doing, you know… people think the homeless need food. Okay, they need food, they need food. But what they really need is water. They don’t have any place to drink. They can’t wash up. Where can they go to get a drink of water? There’s no fountains anywhere. They can’t go in a restaurant. They can’t go into a store. So we go around and we try to hand out water. Just something simple like that.”
That stream of consciousness takes over again, as he shifts from the idea of physical charity to intra-personal and even spiritual charity. “The charity of smiling and greeting people – because we treat each other as if we’re not necessary. It’s been estimated that there’s probably 20 billion human beings on this planet throughout the history of humankind. And if we were to put every human being that’s ever lived on this planet in a different solar system within our own galaxy, there would be over 200 billion solar systems without any human beings in them. And if another human being saw another human being – like, we’ve never seen another person from another planet – but if we had the opportunity to meet another human being, in a different solar system, there’s no way we would ignore them or deny them the conversation. We would beg them not to leave. … The greatest charity that I think we can give, is that love, that smile. Give the people what they need, just to be acknowledged, to be acknowledged with the dignity of being alive.”
So where did all this philosophy and peripatetic thought process come from? From some amazing women. When Howard was a boy, he lived with four generations of women in his household. And with great pride, he enumerates exactly how each one left their mark on him.
“My great great grandmother used to say, ‘Just be still. Just be still, Terrence.’ And I didn’t understand the full power of just being still. But now, looking back, the sun doesn’t spin around like the Earth does. It doesn’t revolve around anything like Jupiter. It just stays in its place. The most powerful things in the universe are still. They aren’t moving. They allow everything else to move around them.
“My great-grandmother Minnie taught me – and (she’s) why I became an actor – she taught me the Five Ws. She said if you know these things, then you are never nervous: who are you; what are you trying to accomplish; when are you going to accomplish it; where will you accomplish it; and why does it need to be accomplished.
“My grandmother Margie, she taught me to just smile. ‘You’re beautiful. Just smile.’
“And my mother taught me: in every person you meet, there’s a little piece of God in them, and that’s who you talk to. You just make sure that they see it in you, first.
“So those are the things that I live by.”
Which begs the question: Really? Always? Because anyone who’s read the tabloids knows that Howard has had his fair share of scrapes and run-ins. He doesn’t deny them, but he reasserts the intention to move on.
“Now, you know, during my 20s and 30s, you know, I abandoned some of those (ideas) and took some other routes, and I was a Prodigal Son. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of simple love. And now I’m still growing. I guess I’ll spend the rest of my life making up for some of the mistakes that I made. It’s okay. I just hope by the next lifetime, I’ll have learned all the lessons.”