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May 2005
Crash: An Interview with Terrence Howard and Ryan Phillipe

Crash: An Interview with Terrence Howard and Ryan Phillipe

By Todd Gilchrist

Terence Howard and Ryan Philippe have had markedly different career trajectories, but in Crash, they come together in magnificent form. As a movie producer and the cop who helps him, the pair have startling, magnetic chemistry, and prove to be one of the year's best on screen pairings. Paired for a recent interview with blackfilm.com, Howard and Philippe discuss the larger social context of their new film, and explain the challenges of leaving one's mark on the face of Hollywood.

What's the most heroic thing you've ever done?

RP: Do you ever want to call yourself heroic at any time? I don't know. I'm always looking for the chance to save somebody. It hasn't happened yet.

Was there any experiences in the film similar to those in your real life that you drew from?

RP: For me, not a whole lot. I think Terrence probably has a better answer to that question.

TH: My life's experiences, I've always had, my uncle used to call it antenna. I know what's going to happen oftentimes before it happened when it's involving me. I've always been able to avoid circumstances like that. But watching the things that my family members did -- my grandfather was someone who stood for himself. He was told by the Buffalo police department never come back up there again. So he comes back up and they say that he jumped out of a moving vehicle, handcuffed, and tried to run down the alley and climb a 12-foot fence and got shot 11 times in the back. But he was someone who stood for himself. So I've always had a natural fear of the police, of the abuse of their power, not of their individual position. I was always very careful with how I dealt with them as a result of this information being passed on to me. So that was the closest thing I had to that experience.

How do you the film deals with racism? What's the toughest things you have to deal with in your life?

RP: The toughest things related to race?

No, no. What would be that element in your life?

RP: We're actors. We've got pretty good lives. We don't have a lot to complain about. We have a great job, where you get to put out something positive like this that might make people think, that might make people feel. I don't know. You can find little things to complain about, but who really wants to hear it? You try to focus on the positive I think. There's always difficulties and challenges in every life. I don't care how much money you make, where you live. That's something this film speaks to. Race gets in the way, in my opinion, in this film. It's more about the human condition, about how similar we all are when you get down to the basic needs of being a human being. So we could talk about things like "I hate this," "This happens to me," but that's not really the point. I'm healthy. I try to be a decent human being. I have a great job. It's nice to be in a situation where you're talking about a movie you believe in, that you feel like is worthwhile. So I'm staying on the positive tip.

Do you think the buzz around the film is going to change your images? Or is it something that people just get carried away with for this film?

TH: No, when you hear a buzz around a beehive, you know they're making honey in there. Something good, something that's true. So this film, there's honey in it. There's something that's soothing, something nutritious in this beehive that's been created [as he puts honey in his tea]. So I'm not worried about how it will be responded to, how people will respond to it. But ultimately, I think it will end up in the hands of the educators and will become the tool used in this human rights evolution as time continues on.

Can you talk about the scene with Matt and Ryan as cops pulling over Thandie and Terrence?

RP: It felt real. I know it was difficult for Terrence, that situation. You do have put yourself, you have to go there, you have to look at the ugliness, you have to scare yourself. I saw him go to that process. For me, it was hard to stand there and watch, 'cause I'm not that kind of person in real life. I would not stand by helplessly. But I think it was a lot more difficult for my friend here.

Working dynamic?

TH: You've got a group of magicians, craftsmen.

RP: Like-minded people too.

TH: Yes. Here, each and every person created those four walls. I couldn't escape from the circumstance. I couldn't look in Thandie's eyes and find an avenue where the tension wasn't so high. I couldn't look to Matt and have him let me off the hook. And I couldn't look to Ryan because they were all so engrossed in their parts. We were able to create a bit of magic right there. For that moment it all felt real. I was trying the hardest not to cry, standing there, instead of me literally trying to fight -- another actor might be trying to cry -- I was trying not to cry. I was trying not to be afraid. And I caught myself in a moment trembling. That wow, does this person really live inside of me? Would I allow something like that to happen because I felt like that would happen. I couldn't wait till they said "Cut." I couldn't wait till the director let us off the hook and let us go home that night.

What happened after the scene?

RP: It was weird, man. You want to like each other, and you do like each other. You know fundamentally there's nothing -- but like it was weird being with Matt all the time, and when he was in character and he's trying to find the truth of what he was doing. It's definitely weird when you finish a scene like that and you're all heading back in the van together to ride back and there's not a lot of talking. It's like everyone's kind of thinking. But we all know why we're there. We know that we would have to go to these dark places in this movie. And it needed to be done, but that's also exciting at the same time. I love moments in movies that make you uncomfortable. I love moments in movies when you think, "Should I be watching this?" If a film can take you to that place of truth and of discomfort, that's powerful.

TH: I remember Matt afterwards at the end of the night apologizing to me, and it was sincere. Literally apologizing to me for what he had to do right there and he was so concerned with Thandie. He was trying to be real with it, and Paul wanted him to go further and further, and he felt a bit reserved and I saw him struggling with being able to go there. I was struggling. Ryan was struggling. And Thandie was struggling to allow this to happen. And he just kept apologizing to us. He kept apologizing.

RP: Which he shouldn't have to do. It had to happen in the story. It was important enough to be told, but you do have those weird residual feelings.

So no joking on the set?

RP: Not a lot. We all got along and enjoyed each other, but there wasn't a lot of joking. You don't do that on this kind of movie too much.

Conversely, in the scene where Ryan blows up at Terrence, who is dealing with Ludacris, actually plays funny...Was that intentional or created through editing?

RP: I think it's that and the reaction to the absurdity of life. You find yourself in a situation where it is, if you were able to stand back and look at it, it's laughable. When you're in it, it's dangerous and explosive.

TH: Sometimes the only way to make palatable that which is appalling and apprehensive is to season it with some humor. I don't think the actors provided the seasoning of humor. I think the nature of the audience is: In order for me to digest this, I'm going to have to giggle with this for a moment." I remember when he came up to save me from my own self-destruction, and him pleading with me, that felt real. Because it seemed like he was pleading to me about my own personal life. "Stop getting in your own way. You're about to kill yourself with all of this stuff here." And I'm trying to tell him, "I didn't ask for your help." That was where unscripted lines that became part of the scenery as a result of the emotions, the emotional pull that was being exerted upon the two of us. He was literally trying to save me in more ways than just the film.

Ryan, what's life like for you now?

RP: Home life's great. The kids are great, happy and healthy. I've reached this sort of wonderful precipice. I've been in this business for a long time at my age. I've just turned 30 and I feel like: my wife's career is going incredibly well; my kids are happy and healthy in schools; we both were able to buy houses for our parents, respectively in the place where they live; and now I'm ready to work on my stuff, my career. I feel like everything's taken care of. I'm just in a really good place.

Did you have a nice 30th birthday party?

RP: Mellow. I got a place in Malibu and I surfed the whole time. I didn't "get" a place. I rented a place for the weekend. I didn't buy a Malibu house for my birthday. I'm not there yet.

Are you comfortable raising children in LA, in this climate that's depicted in the film?

RP: Where you raise your children isn't as important as how you raise your children. I think what you talk to them about, what you expose them to, what you make them mindful of. And you got to do that anywhere you live. LA can be a very open and accepted creative environment. But it is important because there is that odd separation here. It is important to make your kids mindful of other people and other people's plight. I grew up with no money. My kids will grow up with a lot of money. And so it's really important to me, and will always be a part of my parenting, to keep them conscientious and connected socially to other people.

Do you live in LA too?

TH: No, I live in Philly.

What are your impressions of LA?

TH: Something that LA is missing is the seasons. You know, when you meet someone in LA and you see them 2-3 years later, you don't remember where you met them at, because you don't have the landmarks. You can't say "well it was in the fall." You don't know when, so time seems to lose -

RP: That sunny, 80-degree day.

TH: It loses cohesion with reality, and me trying to live here with a family, I would have a hard time with that. I wish I had the constitution that he has, 'cause it is about how your raise your children, but I'm so affected by the people around me, that I need the change in the seasons to help me get over it. I need six months by myself in the wintertime to get over all the stuff that I went through in the summer and spring. I need all of that.

RP: But there's something great about riding waves in January.

What's your role in "My Life in Idlewild"?

TH: In "My Life in Idlewild" I play a corrupt bootlegger, just an antagonist.

Do you sing and dance?

TH: No, I sing with my .45 . Yeah, I'm the heavy in that film. Filmed with Outkast. I crack both of their heads in the movie. He [Ryan] and I have the privilege of working with Andre 3000. He's the Jimi Hendrix of our modern day. His ability to dive into things. I had a great time with him.

How's that different from working with 50 Cent?

TH: 50, his work ethic is unmatched, unparalleled. We'll be shooting for 13, 14 hours, every break, he's inside his studio, his mobile studio right there. And he's willingness to lend himself to Jim Sheridan's vision is remarkable. It's truly remarkable. You'll see some stuff in the movie that you would have never expected to see.

Decision to do this kind of low-budget film?

TH: This was a big film to me, the nature of the script was a big subject for me. Even though it might have lacked the monetary support, it's still, it was sufficient in the emotional conversation that was necessary at the time. Everybody needs that conversation, that inner dialogue right now. In order for us to get past the point we are here.

RP: This is the kind of movie I want to make. It's the kind of movie most actors want to be a part of, unfortunately, there are not a lot of these out there. With the diversity of the cast, of the characters in this movie, that touches on the important social issues. Social issue movies don't make a lot of money. It's not the sequel to whatever film was successful last year. If you can, if you have any potential power to help get a movie made, this is the kind of movie I want to help you make. This means something to me.

Will you production company be doing something like this?

RP: Absolutely.

You both have your own companies.

RP: We do. I'm sure eventually it's going to happen, it's just it's important to a distinction, to separate -- we have this whole other life outside of the business and it doesn't necessarily need to be joined.


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