Terrence Howard is back on television and loving every minute of it. The man who is as well-known for his tremendous acting ability (The Butler, Ray, Hustle & Flow, The Best Man, Pride) on-screen as he is for his difficult life offscreen is back on the small screen as Lucious Lyon, the patriarch of a musical empire in Fox’s ratings juggernaut Empire. Howard is no stranger to television, having starred in HBO’s award-winning miniseries Lackawanna Blues and ABC’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, both based on iconic literary works. His last foray into network television on the short-lived television series Law & Order: Los Angeles made many wonder if Howard would ever return to television in a weekly series.
The Root caught up with Howard at SCAD Atlanta’s aTVfest to talk about why he decided to return to TV, and what it’s like playing the media mogul and working with Taraji P. Henson again.
The Root: What brought you back to TV?
Terrence Howard: This world we're living in today—there is no distinction between whether you’re onstage, film, or on TV. I’ve played the movie star, or attempted to be a movie star and all of that. The work that I find on this show is more challenging than 90 percent of the roles in film, and that’s what you want as an artist. You want to continue to be challenged. Every week I’m challenged to see if I can keep up with Lee’s [Empire creator and executive producer Lee Daniels] imagination. With Lee’s creativity and Danny’s [Danny Strong, writer and executive producer] broad view of how he sees the world, I find myself growing as an artist in this place.
TR: What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about playing the character of Lucious Lyon?
TH: I love the fact that Lucious is unapologetic about who he is, and that Lee has given him a backbone of pure determination. I love that about him. What I don’t like about him is his inability to connect with the people that really mean the most to him. He’s definitely trying to reach some of his people but cannot connect with people he should.
That’s what I also love about him. I love that you struggle with trying to connect and that you can’t, because it’s the human condition. Not everybody is like us. We can connect. There are people that are like him, that simply can’t, and you are portraying that. It’s really hard for me not to connect. So when I see a character not doing it, it’s beautiful.
TR: Lucious was pretty brutal to Jamal when he was a child. Can or should Jamal ever forgive Lucious?
TH: I don't think Jamal has to forgive him because Lucious has never asked him to forgive him for who he is. When I was a kid, my dad—every father, like I’m sure everybody whether you’re white, black, Spanish, Indian, whatever—every father has said, “I brought you into this world. I’ll take you out of it.” Along the way, Lucious hasn’t pushed Jamal, put anything on him that someone else hasn’t put on him.
There’s always going to be an equal amount of pressure placed on everyone in society. If Lucious hadn’t been that way with him, Jamal may not have survived the environment that they grew up in. Jamal learned a valuable lesson—he learned what the devil looked like.
TR: How has being a part of the Empire cast changed you?
TH: I love the fact that I have grown, not just as an actor but as a creative being. To see past this moment that has bled into my personal life and influenced the person that I want to be in the future is humbling. I’m someone that is brutally honest about myself and others—it’s who I am, you know. You either like it or you don’t. And I spent so many years trying to please everybody around me and I was becoming fake, which I didn’t realize. Now, I know that being who I am is OK.
TR: What’s it like to work with Taraji P. Henson again?
TH: She’s like my wingman. What Taraji and I have realized is that we really know and understand each other. She reminds me of my aunt, my father’s sister, who is the funniest and wittiest and most honest person that I’ve ever known. Taraji says I remind her exactly of her father.
It feels like we have been a million things to each other a thousand times over in different lifetimes. We’ve been brother and sister, we’ve been father and daughter, we’ve been son and mother, we’ve probably been husband and wife in so many different lifetimes that there’s this accumulated love and disappointment and hope that we feel for each other. I hope that another actor can find someone that complements them and challenges them as much as she challenges me and I try to challenge her.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.