''Pornography pops up and ooh! I want to see that,'' Terrence Howard coos. ''I don't want to want to see that...but I want to see that.''
The star of the fact-based drama Pride is explaining why he's had the TV set removed from his room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. The 38-year-old actor was raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith and says he hopes to get right again with the religion someday but not today. ''It's those little personal, moral battles,'' he continues. ''God! Ooh, man! Sometimes during those nights in those hotel rooms, I'm like, 'Should I? No. Should I? No.'''
Professing a love for tawdry pay-per-view fare with titles like When Couples Seduce (Howard's example not ours) may not seem like the best thing for a leading man to say to a journalist, but Howard sees honesty as the utmost of virtues. ''I'm just a man like everybody else,'' he says. ''I got the same faults. I've got the same desires.'' And being able to tap into those flaws certainly has not hurt his career. In last year's Best Picture Oscar winner, Crash, Howard earned raves for his emotional performance as an emasculated TV director. He was also a 2006 Best Actor nominee for Hustle & Flow's DJay, a pimp struggling for redemption through music. Though he had done solid work in dozens of films (including 1999's The Best Man and 2002's Hart's War), it was these fragile characters that made the handsome, hazel-eyed ex-Clevelander one of Hollywood's most sought-after new talents. ''People went from calling me 'that actor' to 'Terrence Howard' to 'Mr. Howard.'''
Sipping a Diet Coke in a bit of shade out of the Los Angeles sun, Mr. Howard clad in a drab Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, jeans, and worn cowboy boots is about to add a more noble character to his repertoire. In Pride, he portrays Jim Ellis, a real-life Philadelphia schoolteacher who, in the 1970s, formed an African-American swim team for inner-city kids, fighting prejudice, neighborhood thugs, and local bureaucrats. It's a step up from the lowlifes Howard embodied in films like 2005's Get Rich or Die Tryin' and 2006's Idlewild and for that, the actor is thankful. ''I enjoyed that I got to be a father to all of those boys,'' says Howard, himself a dad of three (Aubrey, 13; Hunter, 11; and Heavenly, 9).
Still, as much of a Samaritan as Ellis was, Pride's script reimagined the man with a darker, criminal past. ''When you look at coaches [in films],'' says South African director Sunu Gonera, defending the artistic license, ''it's always the glossy coach that never does anything wrong. Terrence is not afraid to be vulnerable. He's got a real authenticity.''
Ironically, it was that devotion to authenticity that gave Howard pause during shooting. ''Terrence spent the most time with me out of all of the people who did the film,'' says Jim Ellis, 59, who still coaches swimming in Philly's Nicetown neighborhood. ''He wanted the picture to be closer to reality and not Hollywooded up. He started asking me about certain things, and I'm saying, 'No, that didn't happen.' And you could see him getting upset.'' Concludes Ellis: ''I was in a way as well, but the studio had to compress 35 years.''
Howard is no less touchy about the details of his own life. For several years, he has been estranged from Lori, his wife of 14 years. The 6'1'' actor has been linked to former Miss Universe and ex-Mrs. Marc Anthony Dayanara Torres, 32; Memoirs of a Geisha actress Ziyi Zhang, 28; and, most recently, supermodel Naomi Campbell, 36. Irritated at the mention of these alleged relationships, Howard lights a cigarette and insists he has not given up on his marriage. ''My wife filed for divorce a year and a half ago,'' he says. ''I'll never sign the papers. I'll never pull the trigger on my family.''
As for Campbell, Howard says, ''She has an incredible business sense. I gain a lot when I spend time with her.'' He adds, paraphrasing the Bible: ''Him who is dealing with wise people will become wise.... Iron is supposed to sharpen iron.''
By that axiom, Howard's acting chops should be razor-edged. Last November, he and Richard Gere wrapped an action comedy tentatively titled Spring Break in Bosnia. Director Jon Favreau cast him with Robert Downey Jr. in next year's adaptation of the Iron Man comic book. And this fall he stars with Jodie Foster in The Brave One, directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game). ''I saw Hustle & Flow twice in two days that's how much I loved that movie,'' Foster says. ''[Howard] was the only name we ever talked about.'' Yet she found him less than confident. ''The first day of shooting with me, I don't know if he got self-conscious, or nervous,'' she says, ''but he was really unhappy, pacing and saying, 'I suck, I suck, I suck.' What happens is that he just starts doubting himself.''
Howard says he didn't realize at the time how fully invested he was in the role of his conflicted cop. ''I thought I supremely sucked in that movie. Then I saw it, and I realized my insecurities came from the insecurity of the character. Now I look at it like 'Oh, that worked.'''