In June of 2007, CBR News visited the Southern California set of “Iron Man,” the new film based on the classic Marvel Comics superhero. In what will be seen in the Jon Favreau-directed film as Tony Stark’s workshop, filled with classic cars, computers and other assorted Iron Man accoutrements, we spoke with the cast and crew of the hotly anticipated adaptation.
We bring you the second of those extensive interviews today with the Academy Award-nominated Terrence Howard, celebrated for his role in the landmark “Hustle & Flow” as well as appearances “Crash” and “Ray.” In “Iron Man,” Howard portrays Jim Rhodes, military man and confidant to Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark. Fans of course know Rhodes as the man who will become the armored superhero War Machine, a destiny Howard spoke with us about in this candid conversation about “Iron Man.”
Tell us a little about your character, Jim Rhodes.
Well, my character is a young man that grew up in the military, went to college as a result of the military, father was in the military, grandfather was in the military. So I am truly a son of the U.S.A. And sometimes a son wants to leave home, just to venture out, but then he always makes his way back, that’s my character.
See, 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, “Perhaps there is a different way.” My character starts out 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, the military and the strict disciplinarian way, or his, as being an independent acting and behaving individual. That’s where it’s at.
What attracted you to this role?
War Machine; the whole idea of being able to play a superhero, so to speak. Being able to go up in jets. The Department of Defense took me up in a P-38 and an F-16. They might let me go up in a B1. All those ideas, man, that was it for me.
In “Iron Man,” do we see the birth of the War Machine?
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 y’all aren’t taking away my next two movies. I like y’all, but, man.
So you read comics growing up?
Yeah. It was funny, I called my father and I asked him — because he used to be a big Iron Man fanatic and he loved the War Machine aspect of it — “When you were reading it, when you were younger, did you have any idea that inside your loins would be the one putting that on?”
Marvel Studios Present of Production Kevin Feige indicated you’d been cast before director Jon Favreau came aboard. How early on was that?
About a year before they got it started. I got a great manager, Victoria Fredericks, who was all over this a long time before. Me and [former Marvel Studios CEO] Avi Arad had spoken at [producer] Mike Medavoy’s party, one of the parties he throws, and he smiled at me like we were going to work together. And then about six months later, it all happened. I was taken by surprise by it.
Did you tell your manager, “Hey, keep an eye on ‘Iron Man'”?
No, she was like, “I’ve got something that I’m working on.” For like a year and a half she had been pursuing it because she knew that they had planned on doing it, so I was lucky.
Coming from your dramatic work on films like “Crash” and “Hustle & Flow,” “Iron Man” is a considerably different role for you. Do you see this as a contradiction to your earlier work, or a natural progression for your career?
Well, a great director said to me once, “Limitation brings about genius.” And those other characters I had, like in “Crash,” I had an emotional breakdown. When you have an emotional breakdown, anything goes. “Hustle & Flow,” the character lives completely outside of society’s laws and regulations, and “Get Rich or Die Trying,” it was a character that had decided to hate the world because of what had happened to him in his youth. For me to be limited by what the Department of Defense sets out in military guidelines for an individual, to learn that discipline, I think in the long run will make me a much better actor. Even in this one, I sit back and I wait and wait and wait for those moments when I can get active, and when they let me out, I’m so thrilled. But I find myself walking in this disciplined manner from spending a month on a military base. I’m about to ask them to actually make me an honorary colonel.
Are any parts of your character based on anybody you worked with on the base?
General Thomas. He’s so insightful; he’s head of command at Nellis Air Force base. A black general, I had never heard of a black general in my life, so I was happy to meet him. 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, and he slapped my hand away. And he said, “You fly a 200 million dollar aircraft. Act like it.” So I shook his hand and tried to break it.
What’s been the hardest thing about this project?
Well, the hardest thing for me — if you remember in the comic book, even though Rhodey is “by the book” so to speak, he’s sort of a rogue in his own nature. But since we have the Department of Defense that we’re working with, then having to pull back, because we’re trying to appease them being so generous to us. But that’s been the hardest thing, to be as true to Rhodey as the comic book, and satisfy the needs of the department of defense.
Have you been paying attention to the fan community surrounding Iron Man and what they’re expecting from the film?
What I keep seeing the most, what they’re waiting for, is what I’m sure a lot of you guys are waiting for: “Will Iron Man follow the full course that the character does?” Because you have to remember, when the coming book came out, to have a character that was an alcoholic and all of that, and all those troubles, that was a big thing in the ’70s. So is that here, do you see that in this movie or not? All that is what they’ve been asking. And I’m glad that they’re concerned, and I can’t wait for them to come and see the movie and find out. I think this may end up being one of Marvel’s best movies because they were able to stay true because they’re doing it themselves.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?
One day, the 14 Freeway was blocked because there was all this wind coming down. And I had to be on set, and the set was about 20 miles away. And I knew we had the Department of Defense working with us, and there’s an Air Force base nearby. So I’m like, I’m not going to make it to work for the next two hours. So I called them and I was like, “Call the Air Force and tell them to send a helicopter for me.” I go to arrive on set with this huge– We landed on top of a sand dune. That was the coolest thing.
What can you tell us about working with Robert Downey, Jr.?
I love him. My first film I ever saw him in was “Weird Science,” which I watched like 400,000 times. And so when I saw him [on set], that’s all I wanted to talk to him about. I mean, he had heard all these questions before. But to find that 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 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 day. And we got great writers, but every day he would spend the first hour and a half making it perfect, making it better, and there’s this light, jovial nature about him that floats everywhere, and therefore when he focuses in on something, it’s powerful, magical. He’s really probably one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with in my life. And I look forward to learning more from him.
What have you learned from him?
Well, nothing looks so unnatural as an attempt to look natural. When you’re on the outskirts of the business, way over there, you can 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. For me, personally, 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 sit. An artist is supposed to stand, have a different point of view. And what I’ve noticed about Robert, he is just himself. He has no other point of view except his own. He believes in it wholeheartedly, and you got to win him over with a convincing argument. To have that type of backbone in a business where they remove your backbone slowly and surely, after he’s been through so much, I love him for that. And that’s what I’m learning from him.
Was there a lot of improvisation on set?
Well, you have to think, Jon Favreau as an actor; he’s an improvisational actor, so he brings those sensibilities to his directorial work. He trusts what the actors are going to. 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 standing. It was brilliant, Jon went with it; they relit. And it just took the scene to another place.
What we do is we’ll start off in the morning and talk through what’s there, and we’ll look around the room and ask, who believes it? And if we don’t believe it, then we’ll start having a conversation, “What would you say?” Sitting there we have that conversation of what we would say, and they have an old Dictaphone like this sitting around, and we’re all listening to it. The next thing you know, they’ll come back an hour later and have written out everything that we were able to put in to it. So it starts off with a structure, but then we let the plant go, and then we trim it down, and it’s perfect. It ends up being absolutely perfect. But Robert is the king of improvisation, because every single take he will adjust a word or phrase that just gets a little more closer to home, his light just gets brighter and brighter and brighter. Everyone is sitting there watching him like he is a mad genius.
What kind of physical training have you done in preperation for your role as Jim Rhodes?
Robert and his competitive ass, I almost tore my shoulder trying to keep up with him. Because here I am, 40, 50 lbs. heavier than him, so I’m in there lifting, and I push up about 225. Robert wants 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. He couldn’t walk for a couple of days, that was really nice.
Is this the best shape you’ve ever been in?
Oh, yeah, I’ve got titties. I don’t need my girlfriend no more.
I watched Jon [Favreau] drop 70 lbs. in the process of shooting this thing. He’s been eating 900 calories a day, that’s it, and directing this movie. He has completely slimmed down. And he’s still on it. I think him and [longtime collaborator and “Swingers” co-star] Vince [Vaughn], because he’s getting a little money, you get a little comfortable. Look at what I’m eating. But running six miles a day allows me to eat the salt and the sugar that I want.
Tell us about working with Gwyneth Paltrow.
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 with her, but you’re hoping somewhere in your heart, “I’m hoping she likes me.”
And working with Jeff Bridges?
Jeff surprised me, because he is so good at improvisation. He’s so comfortable. He reminds me of Nick Nolte in that sense. 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 song writer, you know? Jeff is beautiful. And he kept giving me hints on how to play my character. I love his work, so for him to tell me–Gwyneth is giving me points, same thing with Robert, we all do that. And then you know everybody is completely secure.
Have you been able to get your comics-reading dad to the set?
No, I just got my mom out here. My dad, he wanted me to buy him a boat, and so I told him to go build my house. When he finishes my house, he’ll get his boat, and then he can come out here.
What did your mom think of the set?
She loved it, she always thought Robert Downey Jr. reminded her of my brother. And she went up to him and hugged him like he was her son.
Considering this cast, do you think we’re getting to the point where the Motion Picture Academy will recognize the work in great comic book adaptations?
If you look at the stuff that Robert does in this movie–I mean, at the end of every take, someone is applauding. He’s brilliant, so if anybody ever gets an Academy nomination for a comic book, I think Robert might be one.
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