TERRENCE HOWARD EYES THE ARMOR
On the set of ‘Iron Man,’ the actor reveals his No. 1 reason for signing on as James Rhodes—he wants to play War Machine
By Rickey Purdin
Posted September 2, 2007 10:00 AM
Wizard recently visited the set of the highly anticipated “Iron Man” film, which hits theaters May 2, 2008, and will be the first feature out of the gate from fledgling Marvel Studios. In a roundtable interview, actor Terrence Howard, who plays Lt. Col. James Rhodes, talked about his bench-press contest with Robert Downey Jr., his crush on Gwyneth Paltrow and why spoilers endanger his job security.
What attracted you to this role?
HOWARD: War Machine, the whole idea of being able to play a superhero, so to speak. Getting able to go up in jets because the Department of Defense took me up in a T-38 and an F-16. They might let me go up in the B-1, I hurled, like everybody hurls, but all those ideas, man, that was it for me.
Kevin [Feige] says that you were already attached, or that you were being talked to being in the film even before Jon [Favreau] came aboard. How early on was that?
HOWARD: About a year before they got it started. I got a great manager who was all over this a long time before and me and Avi Arad had spoken. And then about six months later it all happened. I mean I was taken by surprise by it, still I’m shocked by it.
We saw some footage of you…
HOWARD: Oh, that was great. I got to shoot that M-50. That was one for when I was up with…nah I can’t say that. [Laughs] Well, I had some fun with the Air Force. The Air Force took me out on some of their real training stuff and let me play.
What’s been the hardest part for you?
HOWARD: Well, like if you remember in the comic book, even though Rhodey’s by the book so to speak, he’s a bit of a rogue in his own nature. But since we’re working with the Department of Defense, we have to pull back because of trying to appease them being so generous to us. So that’s been the hardest thing—to be true, as true to Rhodey as the comic book and still satisfy the needs of the Department of Defense.
What can you tell us about the arc your character goes through the movie. Started with the straight-laced and kind of setting up towards…
HOWARD: Well, I think it’s pretty much a three-picture arc. So we’re right in the very beginning of that, of him having to consider that perhaps there is a different way. You know my character starts off in complete disgust of how Tony has lived his life, but then he realizes perhaps there is a different way to live one’s life. So that’s where we are now, we’re in the debate of whose way of life is the right way. Is it the military and the strict disciplinarian way, or is it being an independent-acting and -behaving individual? That’s where it’s at.
Have you worked with Robert before, and what was it like working with him?
HOWARD: I love him. The first film I ever saw him in was “Weird Science,” which I watched like 400,000 times. And so when I saw him that’s all I wanted to talk to him about. [Laughs] I mean, he had heard all those questions before, but he was a fan of mine and I told him that the reason that I really wanted to do this movie, especially once I found that he was doing it, was I wanted to work with him because I wanted to learn from him. I mean, he’s brilliant—every day he rewrites his script, every single day. And the stuff, we have great writers, but every day he would sit there and spend the first hour and a half making it perfect, making it better. He has this light, jovial nature about him that floats everywhere, floats everywhere and then for when he’s focusing in on something, its powerful, it’s magical. He’s really, probably one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with in my life and I look forward to learning a little more from him
What have you learned from him?
HOWARD: Well, nothing looks so unnatural as an attempt to look natural. You know, you start off when you’re on the outskirts of the business, way over there, you’re able to do whatever you want to do because nobody’s really checking on you. But to get welcomed inside and then everyone expects so much from you, you find a way. Like the last film I did, I was so busy trying to be the good actor and not to ruffle anything that I don’t think I did the service that I was supposed to do to it, because as an artist you’re not supposed to think. An artist is supposed to stand apart and have a different point of view, and what I’ve noticed about Robert, Robert is just himself. He has no other point of view except his own, he believed in it wholeheartedly and you’ve got to win him over with convincing argument. You know to have that type of backbone in a business where they remove your backbone slowly and surely. He’s been through so much. I loved him for that. And that’s what I’m learning from him.
We’ve heard that there might be a lot of improvising between the actors and some of them might be a little more strict than some of the actors. What was your take on the improvising atmosphere, what was the experience?
HOWARD: Well, Jon Favreau’s an improvisational actor. So he brings those sensibilities to his directorial work. He trusts what the actors are going through, where they’re going to do. There’s one particular scene that just blows my mind in this movie where we were having a press conference and Robert just decided to tell the entire press to sit down, on the floor, 400 people. After we had already lit it to shoot it with them standing. It was brilliant. Jon went with it, we relit and it just took the scene to a whole another place. If I’ve ever, I didn’t know that Jeff [Bridges] didn’t like improvisation because Jeff is freaking brilliant.
We’ll start off in the morning and talk through what’s there and we look around the room and say, you know, “Who believes it?” And if we don’t believe it, then we’ll start having a conversation: “What would you say?” Sitting there and having that conversation of what would we say and they have a little Dictaphone, like this, sitting around and another one that’s like that. And we’re all listening to it, and the next thing you know they’ll come back in an hour and have written out everything that we were able to put into it. So it starts off with a structure but then we let the plant grow and then we trim it down and it’s perfect. It ends up being absolutely perfect. But Robert is the kind of improvisation, because every single take, he will adjust the word or phrase that just gets a little more closer to home. You know, his light just gets brighter and brighter and brighter. I mean, everyone is sitting there watching him like he is a mad genius. He is.
So did you base any parts of your character, even if you’re just laying your simplicities on them, but that you worked with or met on the base?
HOWARD: General Thomas. He’s so insightful, he’s the chief of the head of command at Nellis Air Force Base and a black general. And I have never heard of a black general in my life, so I was happy to meet him. [Laughs] But he’s so insightful, so sweet, very sweet but very direct about accomplishing. The first thing he told me, because I shook his hand respectfully, I felt strongly and he slapped my hand away and he said, “You fly a $200 million aircraft, act like it.” So I shook his hand and tried to break it. [Laughs]
What kind of physical training have you done?
HOWARD: Robert and his competitive ass…you know, I almost pulled my shoulder trying to keep up with him because here I’m 40, 50 pounds heavier than him, so I’m in there lifting and I push up about 225, knocked it out 10 times. Robert wanted to go and do 235, and he did it. So I’m going to push it up to 245. But I took him out running and gave him some nice cramps while we were in Long Pine. [Laughs] He couldn’t walk for a couple days; that was really nice.
When we interviewed you last time, you said you were training with Will Smith’s trainer doing five miles a day. You still doing that?
HOWARD: I’m doing six now, but I found the best way to do it is not to do it straight, you know do a mile and a half that’s running for 15 minutes, rest for an hour, do another mile and a half, so you go the first three and then in the evening do the same thing. And you can sprint it and it doesn’t hurt your legs or anything like that. It’s great now, I was actually able to pull off a hundred pushups without stopping, without resting. You know, we all do that, we all try to do it, I can do a hundred pushups without resting now. So I’m all right, I’m still on it.
Now Jon looks like he’s been doing something?
HOWARD: Oh, Jon is great, man. I watched him drop 70 pounds in the process of shooting this thing. He’s been eating 900 calories a day. That’s it, and directing this movie. He’s completely slimmed down, have you all seen him yet? And he’s still on it, he’s still on it.
What about working with Gwyneth? Have you had a scene with her?
HOWARD: We’ve had a couple of scenes, but Gwyneth is hard to work with because she’s so beautiful and you try not to flirt with her, you don’t want to flirt. But you’re hoping somewhere in your heart, I’m hoping she likes me. [Laughs] I’m hoping that means she likes me and is gonna leave Coldplay to come and hang out with me. Because I got three more pictures, two more pictures to work on with her.
What was it like working with Jeff Bridges?
HOWARD: He surprised me because he is so good at improvisation, he’s so comfortable it just flows. He reminds me of Nick Nolte in that sense, and they both, they’ve always been competing giants anyway. But he’s like that and one of the first times when we got together he took me in his trailer, we smoked cigars, drank some vodka and played guitar for four hours after wrap. And he’s a brilliant musician and a great songwriter. Jeff is beautiful and he kept giving me hints on how to play my character around, which I love.
Are you willing to do that?
HOWARD: Yeah, oh yeah. I love his work. So for him to tell me…Gwyneth has given me points. Same thing with Robert; we all do that, and everybody is completely secure.
Do we see the birth of War Machine here?
HOWARD: You read the comic book? If you read the comic book then you kind of know what happens. But you still have to wait because you all ain’t taking away my next two movies. [Laughs] I ain’t thinking about you all. I like you all, but man….