Fresh from the plaudits he attained with the award-winning Hustle and Flow, Terrence Howard is on a roll. The quietly enthusiastic actor, who is currently shooting the mega budgeted Iron Man, shows off his sensitive self as real-life Jim Ellis, a swimming coach coping with a racist post-sixties America in Pride.
Loosely based on a true story, Howard confesses that he almost turn the role down of real-life Jim Ellis. “It was a role that I took with a great deal of trepidation because Jim is such a real life individual and there’s a little something about his action and his view point. You can’t really imitate that so in order to play him I had to understand his principles,” Howard explains.
Pride is set in 1973, and Jim Ellis, a college-educated African-American, can’t find a job. Driven by his love of competitive swimming, Jim converts an abandoned recreational pool hall in a Philadelphia slum with the help of Elston, a local janitor. But when city officials mark the new Philadelphia Department of Recreation for demolition, Jim fights back–by starting the city’s first African-American swim team. Recruiting troubled teens from the streets, Jim struggles to transform a motley team of novices into capable swimmers–all in time for the upcoming state championships. But as racism, violence and an unsympathetic city official threaten to tear the team apart, Jim must do everything he can to convince his swimmers that victory, both in and out of the pool, is within their reach.
Howard says he knew nothing of the real Ellis prior to taking this on. “I’d never heard of him and I didn’t know he breathed oxygen.” But once he agreed to play the character, Howard immersed himself in research. “I learned from a number of different swim coaches and spent a lot of time having them train and teach me how to swim. I also talked with a lot of swimmers and mostly the young swimmers moved me the most.”
In taking on a real life character, the trick in this case, says the actor, was to avoid undue clichés. “You can’t make a lot of this stuff up, because it’s already an established fact. There’s so many facts supporting who this man is, he’s well known in the swimming community and so you can’t fabricate and fluff through a particular area that you don’t fully understand. You have to subscribe yourself to the true events that took place which is difficult.”
Yet at the same time, Howard concedes, while the film is based on a real-life character, there is more fiction in this piece than fact. “Oh there were a great deal of liberties taken with regard to his story, but not his message, not his program, you know?”
Howard says he remains lucky that Hustle and Flow did what it did to boost his career, recalling “I never thought that film would be so successful for me.”
And that success has hit pay dirt, with Howard coming up in several new films. “Yean man, I’ve been very blessed, and I think the film I’m most excited about is August Rush with Robin Williams.” He is also thrilled about the eagerly awaited Iron Man. “I play a guy named James Rhodes, who becomes War Machine, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. I’m the liaison between Stark’s Enterprises and the military in the department of acquisitions. It’s a huge movie, something I’ve never really experienced before.” It seems that no more hustling for one of Hollywood’s bright new stars.