CCI XTRA: Terrence Howard, the Iron Man in the War Machine

Terrence Howard has been nominated for Academy Awards and Golden Globes and appeared alongside such talents as Bruce Willis ("Hart's War"), Richard Dreyfus ("Mister Holland's Opus") and Jamie Foxx ("Ray"), but little did this actor know he was about to join what could possibly be one of the most star-studded casts in comic book film history. As James Rhodes, Howard takes center stage alongside Gwenyth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. in this year's most buzzworthy film coming out of San Diego Comic-Con International, Marvel's"Iron Man." Amongst the hustle and bustle of San Diego, CBR News got the chance to sit down with the only person Tony Stark has ever trusted with the Iron Man armor.

Black superheroes have been a rarity in comics and are even harder to find on the silver screen. While Wesley Snipes starred as Blade in three feature films, the character was a vigilante and more of an anti-hero, especially in comparison to Howard's character of James Rhodes. "I feel like Sydney Poitier and Jackie Robinson right here," Terrance Howard told CBR News. "Now you know I got to do what they've pushed the envelope on for so many years to be held responsible at the same time for how that character is conducted, then perhaps in the future they'll green light other characters or other ethnicities will have the chance based on how this is excepted. I never thought about it like that, I didn't recognize that."

If Howard will be donning the Iron Man armor in the film, he wouldn't say, but he did remark, "You've got to remember, the reason that Marvel wanted to be independent on this project right here was so that they would not have the constraints of a studio that was more concerned with marketing than being concerned with the historical authenticity of the film. You know, that's what's more important to be true creatively cause this is a very smart audience now. Thirty years ago an audience, if they didn't like something, they could have their voice heard through three or four critics. Now, each person can get on [the Internet] and say, 'I don't recommend this movie because they forgot this and they forgot that.' I mean, we're so much more accountable and we realize that the audience is so much more intelligent than marketing research shows."

Another thing Howard was tight-lipped about was if he had the opportunity to work with Samuel L. Jackson or Hillary Swank, both of whom are rumored to appear in "Iron Man." Howard did comment that it seems the production is laying the groundwork for other films by having certain characters show up in "Iron Man." "They're more concerned with the future, you know with the future aspects of it," Howard said. "It's like, yeah you can go and throw a bunch of preservatives in a piece of food and sell a million pieces of it at but then in two years from now when the scientific research comes out nobody's going to buy it anymore. But if you stay true and start grassroots and touch on the imagination of this intelligent audience then you've got a lifetime buyer and that means great for me cause that means I get to go and be in the avengers, because I put on the suit and go in the Avengers. I get to be War Machine. I get paid, man!"

As for what he found to be the most challenging part of portray a superhero, it was "to find something super in you," Howard said. "To find something that, you know, where you take a stand on something and didn't make a compromise because that's what a superhero is. It's not just the man that stands up, it's like he's gone beyond the call of duty, beyond the call of humanity and say 'you know what, I'm going to be a man today. I'm going to be a real-life man, I am going to sacrifice everything that I have,' and I'm weak, at nature. You know, I've got the same problems everybody else has and to stand up and say I'm going to be more than that, that's the best part of it."

When pushed a bit further on the armor, Howard said, "You got to remember in the comic book," Howard explained, "James Rhodes puts on that suit and, as a result of the neural net pattern that Tony Stark has and has designed the suit accordingly to the frequency of his brain, it changes Rhodes' thinking pattern. Whether Rhodes becomes smarter or not, it's left to be told but Rhodes changed from being a traditionalist to now a rebellious man. So I can't say yes but I'm definitely not saying no."

The movie version of James Rhodes is a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. As for his origin and his interaction with Tony Stark, Howard said, "I am a liaison between the Acquisitions Office of the United States Air Force and Stark Industries. So, on a day-to-day basis, Tony brings all of his new technologies or possible technologies to me first and then I say this has viability within the United States military. You know, whether it be were going to move it down to the Navy, whether it be a Marine application. Most of it stays with the Air Force but we also have us [James Rhodes and Tony Stark] as going to MIT together."

Portraying a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force compelled Howard to research his role. "I just went up with the Air Force, [I] spent a lot of time with them, I got to fly jets," he said. "You just don't go up there and sit in there, that's the thing about these jets let me tell you. You have nothing to hold on to in there except this joystick and the only time they give you the joystick is [when] the person up front will shake it and when he shakes it you know that he wants you to take it. You go four hundred miles an hour up there in a jet with a wingman there, and they're telling you to roll it, I got to do that. So we went through flight simulators for weeks and then finally I flew three or four times with the United States Air Force in T-38s, F-16s, [and] F-15s. I mean, I'm bad now. I can land a plane!"

As for the question that every interview with an actor in a comics movie must have, was Howard a fan of comic books when growing up? "You know, I was a fan of X-Men and they made me so mad when they killed the Phoenix [in 'The Dark Phoenix Saga]'. You know, I didn't want Phoenix to die for nothing. I thought there were other possibilities. Hopefully, they'll bring her back." He continued to question why they couldn't have just gotten Artie to "come around her to depower her instead of having Wolverine kill her."

When asked if he was ready to see himself immortalized in plastic as an action figure Howard said, "I would like that." As all action figure questions go, it was immediately followed up by Howard being asked if he would play with himself. "I've done that once or twice before but now I'll have a little buddy to play with [laughing] yeah, I think I will play with myself."

What was it like working with Robert Downey, Jr. and did he learn anything acting alongside him? "There is a bit of magic that [Downey] has to him," Howard said. "There is a fearlessness but a vulnerability at the same time. So, for me, I learned that nothing looks more unnatural than an attempt to look natural and you can just be the character and it's okay to be uncomfortable at times because that's what we are. I learned how to be a real actor working with him. I learned how to be spontaneous. I learned how to stand up for the authenticity of the script and the story. You know, because there are times when we had a great script but we had surpassed what was written on the page . You're looking at $2 million or $3 million days that we would go and sit down and rewrite the whole character, rewrite that script for the day because and spend five hours [doing it]. We wouldn't get our first shot off for five or six hours because someone had integrity. Robert has the most integrity I've ever seen an actor."

Did Howard and Downey get any time to hang out off set? "We're a weird collection of molecules, me and him. You know, we get together and there's camaraderie; it's a brotherhood that's formed, I don't know from where. Yeah, we hung out a lot. We went running, we went shopping up in Lone Pine in the department stores and grocery stores. We were real people. We talked about life's issues together you know he has similar situations with the new wife, the ex-wife that he's fiducially responsible to and emotionally responsible to. I had the same thing, we've traveled down so many parallel roads that, yeah, I love that man."

As for the improvisations and the willingness to rewrite the script on set, "Well that's Jon Favreau that gave us that. Because of him being an improvisational actor, he directed it in an improvisational way and he's a brilliant man," Howard gushed. "He can think at the speed of light but he's also humble enough to recognize the genius of other people. You know, when Jeff Bridges would have an idea and immediately John's like, 'if it's great it's viable,' and we will spend three hours making it work. With Robert, the same thing. With Gwenyth, the same thing. With me, little ideas that I thought weren't even important [Favreau] would rally behind and do whatever they had to do to make it work and no ego. No egos on this film."

With the first footage of 'Iron Man' being premiered at Comic-Con, what did Howard think of what they showed? "I thought the footage was incredible because it was a real. This is without the special effects, beyond the CGI of him flying; everything else was pretty much straightforward. So now, I can't wait to add the CGI into that."

What kind of an experience was it to work with Jeff Bridges on the "Iron Man?" "You guys remember the film he did with Robin Williams, 'The Fisher King'? I loved him from way before that and after that," Howard said. "I just watched him, we set up in his trailer and smoked cigars and played guitar. Me and him played for three or four hours at a time. Brilliant songwriter but as an actor he knows exactly what's needed and he will change and adapt. He will change your position as an actor, he'll put his arm around you and be like, 'You know, I was thinking over here if you played your character a little more duplicitous at this moment, it would work perfect for me."

With so many great actors on the set, the ensemble naturally offered each other advice. "There's times where Robert would be stuck and I'd be like, 'You know what, do this right here just try it,'" Howard explained. "Because I'm watching from a third person I don't have the pressure of making the decision, and Robert would do the same thing with me. Same thing with Gwenyth. She remembers everything right away, photographic memory. So she could look at the new pages that we wrote, that we spent six hours rewriting these three new pages; she will read it once and not miss one word getting in front of the camera. Shortest takes in the world."

  "Iron Man" quite naturally has staring straight at it the eyes of comic book fandom. Has that added any pressure for Howard? "No, cause I love this character and at the end of the day it's how I want and what I want on the stage anyway," he declared. "So, I hope you all like it!"

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