"Beyoncé gave me a lapdance..."

Terrence Howard, Crash’s king of cool, on learning how to Hustle & Flow

How did you get involved with Hustle & Flow?
I wasn’t in Hustle & Flow…[laughs]. No, they tried to get me to do the project for about seven or eight months and I refused to read it because of the way it was put to me. I was told, “He’s a pimp and he wants to be a rapper.” I had said around that time that I didn’t want to play any of these type of characters. I want to play characters that are upstanding and I felt like there were so many of those stereotypes being permeated. I said, “Thank you very much, but it’s not what I’m trying to do.”

So how did you end up making the movie?
Stephanie Allain was producing and she cast me in Biker Boyz. It was only a four-day role and she put me up in the Chateau Marmont in my own bungalow for two months! She came to talk to me about the Hustle & Flow script, even though I’d refused to read it before. I eventually read the first page and began to get interested. I flipped through it so quickly and immediately got on the phone to Stephanie to see if the role was still available. She said she always wanted me to play the role because every other person in the world wanted to play him as a stereotypical pimp, and she knew my trepidation meant it would come from an honest place.

Did you research the role to keep that honesty?
After talking to something like 123 pimps, I met this one guy named Tweety Bird from Cleveland and he was so very honest because he told me how to talk to the women, he showed me how a pimp operates. The pimps I talked to missed a chance in their life at some point because I asked all of them what they wanted to be as a child, and only four or five came from a prominent lifestyle and had made the willing choice to go there and force someone to sell their dignity. All of these guys are born with the proverbial gift of the gab and in the same sense, they’re selling their own dignity at the same time.

Congratulations on your Oscar nod for Hustle & Flow, which is a small independent movie. How hard is the journey from Sundance to the Oscars?
Thank you. Well it’s satisfying to see the artistry and hard work rewarded. It was an independent film and Sundance was its birthplace. I saw the movie at the festival and I realised the impact it could have. Whether it makes a whole lot of money means very little to me because there was so little ventured in doing it. I’m just hoping people will walk away with a message. It may take some time for the audience to discover the little gems inside the story – if you’ve seen it, I hope it will influence you to chase your dreams because that’s really all we have. The minute you stop dreaming, you stop living.

Crash also received a few Oscar nominations. That must feel pretty good…
Yeah, it’s such an important film. It’s been the highlight of my career thus far because I feel like a human activist just participating in it. I think it’s a film they really need to introduce into the middle schools and the high schools because it confronts that casual racism that’s permeating through society – it seems almost acceptable right now and sooner or later someone has to make a change.

Your character is pushed into a corner and he reacts…
He’s a young man who was forced to compromise his human dignity for the sake of having success in this world but he’s confronted and embarrassed in front of his wife. How do you recover from that? How do you give her back her dignity? He’d never learned to make a stand and it’s so important for a man to stand up as a man but it took those extreme circumstances for him to learn that’s it’s more important to die as a man than to live as something less.

Was that something you can relate to?
No, it was hard for me because thankfully it’s never been part of my life. I’ve always stood up for myself and I had to allow myself to become afraid of Matt Dillon and afraid of society.

Your outstanding performances have put you firmly in the spotlight in the last 12 months. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you?
Beyoncé gave me a lapdance on the BET (Black Entertainment Television) awards, right there on the stage, which was… [laughs] But she pulled my hair back and I’m so sorry she did that. I had to go and do photo shoots afterwards and you could see her handprint on my hair in about a thousand photos.