By Courtney Garcia, theGrio.com (Article originally published on theGrio.com.)
In his films, Terrence Howard has portrayed the hierarchy of power’s incarnations: a hustler and pimp; a World War II colonel; Cassius Clay and Nelson Mandela. What people may not know about the ”Dead Man Down“ star, however, is that in real life he’s actually an influential scientist.
In fact, Howard’s passion for scientific exploration may soon overtake his interest in the movie business altogether.
“I have greater things I can contribute to the world of science than an actor,” the 43-year-old tells theGrio. “I had a conversation with Sidney Poitier. I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you going to do another movie?’ And he said, ‘I’m not going to do another impersonation of myself. I might have ten years left in my life, and I don’t want to waste it doing something I’ve already done before.’ If I can’t learn from a character, if I’m just going in and taking from a bag of tricks and choices for a character, I don’t want to do it. It’s pointless for me because I have to grow as a human being, and I don’t want the safe road.”
Howard’s interest in science sparked in his youth, and he went on to study chemical engineering at Pratt Institute in New York. The actor says he has since received his doctorate, and recently started a diamond-growing venture for which he has filed for about 23 patents over the past several years. Subsequently, he furthered the mark of a world icon along the way.
“I finished Einstein’s equation, which only works in infinite space. It does not work in confined space, which we live within in the physical factor,” Howard explains. “I found the connection between light and its colors; sight and its sounds; and matter and its shape.”
With real life so stimulating, Howard insists he has made it a point to keep his priorities in check by only taking on acting roles that offer him the chance to learn about humanity. In his new film “Dead Man Down,” in theaters this Friday, he portrays the role of Alphonse, a Corleone-esque mob boss caught in the crossfire of his own missteps. Early on in the movie, Alphonse finds himself the target of an assassination plot, and must retrace his dark past in order to safeguard his questionable future.
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Though first impressions suggest Alphonse is inherently evil, Howard says he has a lot in common with his character, a biracial man simply trying to his place in society.
“He was part of a disenfranchised social group as a young black man,” the actor remarks. “Being a light-skinned black man growing up in the 70’s, black people didn’t appreciate him, white people didn’t appreciate him. When I was a kid I was called a ‘no nation motherf*****’ primarily because I couldn’t hang out with black people; I couldn’t hang out with white people. My character just wants to be accepted. He wants to respected.”
And, like his character, Howard says he faced the same scrutiny growing up in Cleveland that can lead one down an ominous path.
“As a child, I was always told to turn the other cheek, but turning the other cheek was cowardice,” he remembers. “I realized I wasn’t turning the other cheek out of strength and love for my brother, I was turning the other cheek because I didn’t want to get hit again. You make those compromises and sooner or later, those hits build up until you have a ton of animosity that you want to throw out. And when you finally let go of that animosity, you find that the world is beautiful.”
As part of his research for the role, Howard deferred to his longstanding interest in scripture. He based Alphonse on the biblical figure of King Solomon, a man who inherited the kingdom of Israel only to lose it for disobeying God’s laws. Howard additionally studied the writings of Kahlil Gibran, author of “The Prophet,” and specifically the writer’s observation, “Of good men do we turn criminals out of our inhumanity towards each other.”
What struck Howard as particularly unique about “Dead Man Down“ was the idea that there were no bad men or good men, merely those who rallied between the darkness and the light. The concept of revenge also plays heavily into the narrative, and how retaliation can stem from a core of evil.
“What cinema is about is to teach you about humanity, and the choices that we’re making,” Howard observes. “Whether it’s good or bad, that the audience can watch and hopefully gain some kind of understanding of how to place the stumbling blocks of yesterday in a way that they will become stepping stones for those that will follow us.”
As for his own role in Hollywood, Howard admits acting pays a lot, but describes it now as “walking on water for tips.” His primary focus is to achieve his purpose in life, and says he will continue on in the movie business if it allows him to advance personally.
“As human beings we are refusing to evolve and recognize our greater strengths,” he observes. “As an actor, I’m able to transcend into someone else’s life. Dematerialize and materialize back into my own. But I’m still carrying with me the frequencies of them, and learning more about the walks of humanity. I’ve seen so many sides of humanity and I’m learning that you have to reorient yourself, and move within the way of amplitude, and refuse to become an isotope.”
That is, in chemistry terms, of course.