Sometimes a part is more than just a part. Sometimes a director is more than just a director. Sometimes, when the two come into an actor’s life together, they change it forever. That’s what happened to Terrence Howard when he went to read for Lee Daniels’ movie The Butler.
“I read initially,” Howard remembers, “and screen tested for the role of Cecil, and I read with Cuba. Cuba made some great choices that Lee was dumbfounded by, and I made some good choices. And Oprah and I had some great chemistry. But at the end of the day, the age thing, we couldn’t overcome that. So Lee offered Cuba the role of the other butler.”
And, in a normal situation, that’s where the story might end. But Daniels—and perhaps fate herself—had other things in mind. “Lee said, ‘Terence, I really want you in this movie,’” Howard remembers, “’but I don’t know what I can do for you. I’ve just got this one little thing, this guy Howard. It’s such a little bitty part, and you’re too pretty for it. We really need to ugly you up.’ And I said, ‘How many scenes?’ And he said, ‘It’s really just two scenes. But if you do it, I will do for you what I did for Mo’Nique in Precious. She only had two scenes. And if you give me all you got, I’ll give you all I got.’”
It’s the kind of offer that’s hard for an actor to say no to, the kind of offer that makes an actor willing to go the extra mile for the role. But not many actors would go as far as Howard did. “He said, ‘Maybe we can give him a scar, or an eye patch or something,” Howard remembers. “But everybody’s done that. ‘Or we can bald him on top,’ but then that takes away his appeal. So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this crown on my front tooth.’ And he said, ‘TT, don’t you do it.’ But we set up a dentist to pull it.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Howard has a broken front tooth covered by a crown, and he had the crown pulled off for this part.
The results went far beyond what either Howard or Daniels could have envisioned. “That freed me up,” Howard says, his eyes moistening, “from this mask of genetic symmetry that I’ve been hiding behind. And I realized that for 23 years I’ve been hiding behind this mask, hiding this broken tooth. And I found my creative spirit came alive because I no longer was doing an impersonation of Terence Howard. I was really being Terence Howard. And I don’t think my work has ever been more free. And I’ll thank him for the rest of my life. If he and I never work together again, he gave me my creativity back.”
Howard’s new look initially threw his famous co-star off her game a bit. “Oprah’s always looked at me eye to eye,” he says with a grin, “and talked about how beautiful my eyes are. But the moment I showed up on set with that tooth, she couldn’t look me in the eye anymore! She kept looking at the tooth, and trying to look away, and looking back… But after a couple of days, she was back in my eyes again. And I found my real beauty.”
“And you know,” he continues, “This character didn’t lose that tooth in any kind of honorable way. He lost it messing around with somebody else’s wife. He had been the cause of his own pain, but he was still going to make the rest of the world pay for his loss. For the rest of their lives. “
Howard the actor used the tooth as a metaphor to reach deep into Howard the character. “Howard, even though we share a name,” he continues, “I didn’t see Terence Howard in there. I saw some dude from the hood who had become a sellout because he had lost his will to make a contribution like he was supposed to. He was just a naysayer, a rejecter. He was Pharasaical in his stance. And he was tearing down the black community by tearing down the family structure. There was a self-loathing. But we had to make him likeable. And most people who live inside a pained body hide behind jokes and levity, but there’s nothing joking about the things that they do.”
He taps into an honesty that is characteristic of his director. “Lee is watching you,” he says. “And he’s so honest with his own life that he forces you to be honest too. You’ll be in the middle of a scene, thinking you’re doing it, and you’ll hear him yell ‘Bullshit! Bullshit! Do it again!’ And he’ll say, ‘Are my words tripping you up? Get rid of the damn words then. But make it real. I want to believe it.’ And he’ll come back in and say, ‘Did you believe it?’ Turn to Oprah, ‘Did you believe it?’ Turn to the boom operator, ‘Did you believe it?’ And he pushes you to that point where your bag of tricks runs out and all you have is the length of your nature, of your creativity, that’s dusted away, he makes you polish that, and you start growing from your heart. And you try things. He makes you feel safe. But then when you get too safe, he takes away your security blanket.”
The results are astounding; Terence Howard holds the screen in both of the scenes he’s in, and is one of the real touchstones of the film. And, he says, he owes it all to Daniels. “Anything that I accomplish in that movie,” he shrugs, “is nothing compared to what Nicole did in The Paperboy, or Halle did in Monsters Ball, or a lot of others. But he gave me back my creativity, and I wish there were more directors like him. And that’s more akin to truth than flattery. He is magnificent.”