Feb. 17, 2006 -- It was the one role that 36-year-old Terrence Howard tried desperately to turn down. DJay, a Memphis pimp at the center of the movie "Hustle and Flow," represented the kind of African-American stereotype that Howard hates.
As Howard told "Nightline," he initially refused the director's offer to play the lead character.
"I didn't really want to do him, I really didn't," Howard said. "I told the director for seven months that I didn't even want to read it because I thought it was a stereotype and a black exploitative movie."
Director Craig Brewer eventually persuaded him to redeem the black pimp, to dismantle the stereotype and give DJay some depth, understanding, even sympathy.
Howard's performance as a man who tries to leave the sleaze of the street behind and find purpose as a vulnerable rapper is overwhelming. The role he didn't want has now won him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
"It's great, because the only affirmation I had was from the mirror, was from my own spirit," he said. "I think that's what's most important, especially for your artistry to remain true. You have to be the greatest fan of your own work and hope that someone else can gain a message out of it."
Researching the Role
Howard says the key to his performance was telling the truth and not selling a stereotype. To do that, he researched the role of pimp and prostitute.
"I had heard of the stereotypes but we had three years to make this movie -- it took three years to get the financing for it. So I thought all I needed to do was to watch American pimps and, you know, I'd understand," said Howard.
Howard said he started talking to pimps and prostitutes, asking them where they came from and what their life story was.
"You get to the point when you ask, 'Why did you become a pimp?' And they explain that to you, and all you see is the human story. You see beyond the stereotype," he said.
One of the pimps said to Howard, "How would you feel if, in order to eat or pay your bills, you had to send your sister out to go and perform an act that would break your heart? But this is what I have to do every day."
"Now, how could I play him as a stereotype, how could I characterize him? You just can't, you just can't do it with a clean conscience," Howard said.
Howard's commitment to authentic storytelling stems from the example of his father. As a 3-year-old, Howard was in line with his two siblings and both his parents to visit Santa Claus in a department store. He says that his father was called a "n-----" and accused of jumping the line.
A fight erupted, and Howard said his father stabbed the man in self-defense. The man died and Howard's father went to jail for manslaughter.
"When you see your father make a stand for honor, how do you shrink away from that?" he said. "My father is one of the most gentle people on this planet. And to have him respond, you know, he responds as a result of something very strong. ... And the term that hurts us so much, that n----- term was used. But all those things helped shape my future, help shape the way I play character because I saw the truth."
Telling the Truth
Racial conflict was the central theme of Howard's other major movie last year, "Crash," which also won an Academy Award nomination for best picture.
"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."