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In the 'Flow'

On and off the screen,Terrence Howard drifts no more

LOS ANGELES -- Sundance was good to Terrence Howard this year, and not just in the obvious ways. Sure he had roles in three movies entered in the film festival. Yes he won an ovation all his own. And indeed the film he stars in, the one everyone is calling his breakout, won a coveted Audience Award.

But all the attention, the accolades, had nothing on what Howard's ex-wife did. She kissed him -- on the lips, right there in the theater, in front of everyone. It was a kiss that took the self-described former scoundrel six years to earn.

As Howard recalled with the smile of a man who has found his way home, ''That was the spark, that was the thing. We got married a month later."

Despite the temptations that come with sudden stardom (even if that overnight success was more than a decade in the making), this time Howard has every intention of making his remarriage work. He says his wife left him because he'd been a rascal, someone who ''didn't realize being a man meant standing for something . . . I thought you could break your word and still be a man."

Howard says he knows better now, and that his six years in relationship wilderness made him a better husband. He says they also made him a better actor, since he now understands what it is to hunger for something you can see but not have.

That understanding came into play in his star turn as DJay, a dope-dealing, prostitute-slapping Southern pimp with prodigious rapping talent and the proverbial heart of gold in ''Hustle & Flow," opening Friday. The 36-year-old actor says it also gave gravitas to his role in ''Crash," where he stood out in a star-studded cast as a silently seething and then exploding movie director suddenly defined by his blackness.

''The trials that you go through . . . ," Howard said over copious amounts of tea with lemon and honey. ''The director [of 'Hustle & Flow'] said we're creating a man, we're not making a boy. We're making a 35-year-old man who's wondering where his life is . . . You don't have that at 25. At 25 there are still parts of your body you're unaware of, not to mention your spirit."

In describing DJay's desire to turn his own life around, Howard recites poetry and literature and offers his own analysis of the disadvantages faced by children growing up in urban poverty rather than suburban luxury. At various times during a lengthy conversation at a hotel restaurant, Howard invokes Malcolm X, Morgan Freeman, his father (''He told me you got to take the OK times and save them for the times when things aren't OK" and also made his children copy the dictionary by hand), and rappers whose foul-mouthed lyrics make him wince in disgust. He talks about science with the same lyricism as he does acting.

Howard, who grew up in Cleveland and Los Angeles, says at one time he was intent on being a neurosurgeon, then a veterinarian, then a songwriter. He always wanted to understand how the universe worked, which he says is why he decided to major in chemical engineering at Pratt Institute. He was, however, also attracted to the idea of acting by his grandmother, New York stage actress Minnie Gentry. But that dream was almost derailed by Bell's palsy, which paralyzed the right side of his face for about a year when he was 18.

Howard says that his family was too poor to seek immediate medical attention beyond the emergency room, no steroids were prescribed to reduce the swelling, and that eight months later a doctor gave him only a 5 percent chance of recovering the feeling in that part of his face. So Howard the budding scientist went to work. He says he used the wires from a radio transformer to shock his face, figuring it would stretch the nerves and rejuvenate them.

''I got scar burn marks all over my face, but about eight months later I had most of the movement back," he said, running his fingers over the barely visible marks. ''Still, my lip won't go all the way up, and one side of my face is stronger, so I'm conscious of it when I watch my movies. When I get really emotional and stuff they act independently, but I was able to overcome that. I learned so much about myself during that period."

Not so many years later, Howard was discovered on a New York street by a casting director. He says he got the first part he went out for -- in an episode of TV's ''The Cosby Show" -- although it was all but cut. Then came ''Mr. Holland's Opus" in 1995 and a spurt of attention, followed by a decade of steady, sometimes scene-stealing supporting roles in movies and television. Today he's recognizable but lacks widespread name recognition. His recent roles may be changing that.

As Howard put it with a small smile, ''I've had a lot going on."

For starters, Howard was in one of 2004's big audience pleasers, ''Ray," in which the self-taught guitarist and pianist played musician Gossie McKee. This year, all told, he may appear in as many as seven films, which include ''Lackawanna Blues" on HBO and ABC's ''Their Eyes Were Watching God" earlier this year. He's also working on director Jim Sheridan's much-anticipated ''Get Rich or Die Tryin,' " starring 50 Cent. Even Beyonce got on the Howard bandwagon, dragging him onstage for a lap dance of sorts during the BET network's recent awards show.

But it's his role as DJay that stands to move Howard into the big money and real stardom. Howard appears in almost every scene.

''This will make a huge difference in his career," said co-producer John Singleton, who wanted Howard from the outset and also cast him in ''Four Brothers," which Singleton directed and which also opens this summer. ''Hip-hop isn't really even his bag. That's all acting. He makes you believe this guy loves rap and rapping."

What Howard brought to the screen beyond a solid crunk beat, which he caught by hanging out with southern rappers, was an ability to humanize rather than vilify a character who is not overtly likable, according to Singleton. Howard wasn't afraid to show his softer side on camera, and he isn't in person, either. He still gets misty remembering Sundance, where the $3.5 million ''Hustle & Flow" sold in the hottest bidding war in years.

''When I saw [the movie] at Sundance I cried," Howard said. ''This cheek right here" -- and here he runs a finger down his right cheek -- ''I thought it would have a crevice forever. I looked and saw everything I was trying to accomplish had been realized because I believed it, I believed what I was doing onscreen."

Later, sipping still more tea, he talked about the instant fallout from a role that has the right people talking: ''Now I'm seeing tons of scripts. The quality is improving, but it's like, God, I have this cornucopia of choices before me but I have to eat them all before 12 o'clock. No way can I say I'll do this one now and this one seven months later. I have to choose between a treasure chest full of gold or a chest of rubies or diamonds. It's hard, it's hard."

Again, he's not really complaining, although he would like to slow down. His mother recently completed months of chemotherapy, and from the road Howard says all he could do to ease her experience was buy her a juicer and argue with her oncologist on the telephone. He also missed his kids -- he's thinking of home schooling them so they can travel to movie locations with him.

''There's so much that I've missed out on in my life that I need to slow down a bit just to find me," Howard said. ''A lot of the work I have been doing has been the hand-to-mouth work just to keep me going. Hopefully soon I'll be paid a little better and be able to expand it out a bit and wait a year for the next project.

''Look, I love the business and all that," he added. ''But I have so many other aspirations. I want to go back into science, into teaching. I would like to do a great film every year and a half, if there's any such thing as a career based on that. I want to be home more."

Home is the boondocks outside Philadelphia, where Howard says he attends retirement parties and mortgage burning parties and generally moves about unnoticed. He went there for one reason only -- to re-woo his wife, a full-court press that even he compares to stalking. At various times it involved weeding her garden when she wasn't home, as well as washing her car.

It was, he says, worth every indignity.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at lgorov@aol.com.

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