"Crash" explores ethnic tensions in Los Angeles, where different races collide in a series of chance encounters. Howard plays the role of an affluent movie producer whose wife is groped by an LAPD officer, played by Matt Dillon. When the movie producer fails to defend his wife's honor, he incurs her wrath, but his refusal to be provoked ultimately determines his survival.
"'Crash' did a great thing," Howard said. "It didn't give any answers; it just asked the right question, with the proper tone that allowed it to resonate in our hearts. The racial relations in 'Crash,' you know that's just a small side of it. Most of it is what happens when you fail to do what's right for somebody else, and for yourself, how does that affect the next person?"
Howard's approach to acting as finding the truth in a character is something relatively new for him.
"Everything is based upon truth. When I started acting I thought it was about lying. My first resume was all lies, because I couldn't get in the door without lying. So I put 20, 30 different lies on the page and said, 'OK, I've been training for 20 years, and I've done all these plays,' and then they saw me. So I thought that was how you worked," he said.
But an encounter with Richard Dreyfuss changed that.
"He said to me, 'Don't you ever let anyone steal a frame from you. I like you but you will not steal a frame from me, and don't you let me take a frame from you. And the way you do that is you always tell the truth,'" he said. "And it changed my whole view of it, because the truth is the only thing that's gonna resonate with the audience."
The truth of his talent is now out there, too. He is nominated for best actor, along with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix and David Straithairn. In his next film, he'll work with Oscar winner Jodie Foster. Are the days of playing pimps now behind him?
"Craig Brewer really wants to go back and revisit DJay. He wants to see what his life is like when he gets out of jail. Where he goes to," he said.
Howard says he, too, is "very curious" about what happens to DJay. But there's one thing he knows for certain.
"But you'll never see me play a stereotype."