Terrence Howard Interview: “Law & Order: Los Angeles”‘ New D.A.
By Fred Topel
HollywoodNews.com: Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard joins the new spinoff Law & Order: Los Angeles. The formula is 20 years old but he brings a fresh perspective to it. Howard plays D.A. Jonah Decker in the Order part. After the police catch the suspect, they turn it over to the courts to try the case. Howard was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Hustle & Flow,” and he demonstrated the same dedication to his craft on TV in a conference call with the media.
Q: What experience have you had with attorneys and how has that been useful to the character?
TH: Well, I’ve often been told that attorneys would make tremendous actors and actors would make marvelous attorneys. Any time you’re in a situation where you have to adapt to an audience, adapt to a jury, improvise because of new information being presented and because of a change in a script and change in a character, all of those things are just part of being present and in the moment. I think most great attorneys, prosecuting attorneys or trial lawyers, have to be very present in the moment, have to listen, and have to have intelligence as a great debater, actor or attorney.
Q: How did you approach the role?
TH: Well, the first thing that I did is I spent time in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. I spent a great deal of time exchanging numbers with the attorneys there, even some of the judges. We spent time in the judges’ chambers. They gave us that opportunity. Then we sat down and mock played outcomes of things and walked me through the courtroom. One of the things I learned is what you do when you have a witness on the stand, you block her. You stand between that person and their attorney so that they can’t get cues from them. Picking things up like that and knowing to approach a particular defendant and showing the jury that they don’t need to be afraid of them, speak with the authority of the law and just read as much information as you can on an individual case but also on the precedents because it gives you a better chance when you’re inside that courtroom, you feel like you’re actually there. You feel prepared for things that may be said or not mentioned.
Q: Were you a fan of the shows yourself?
TH: I didn’t think that I was but when I watch reruns now, I know everything that’s going to happen. Remember, some of the Law & Orders didn’t give you the verdict. They left it right there and I always wanted to be able to ask those questions, so I get to ask all those questions now. My 15-year-old son, we’ve been watching Law & Order together since he was nine. While the other kids were watching Transformers, he would look for Law & Order.
Q: What is the most challenging thing you’ve found about the show so far?
TH: The thing is these are real occurrences, or as close to real as you can get. I know real people’s lives were affected by choices we’re making. So still trying to remain personal but professionally distant from them, it’s hard. There’s an episode where I end up breaking down and crying while I was questioning someone on the stand. I know that doesn’t really work for television, but I became emotionally involved in what she had gone through. The most challenging thing is to not become the father in the situation and just be the attorney.
Q: Are you more hard edged DA to Molina’s softer side?
TH: No, I believe my character, I based a lot of him from Thurgood Marshall in listening to a lot of the trials that Thurgood went through. Thurgood had a huge soft spot but his belief in principal outweighed any amount of mercy. He believed in being long suffering and that means being in a position to change a situation but refusing to do so in the hope that the person will make amends. Now my character doesn’t want people to be found guilty. What he hopes is that his defendant will prove his innocence. He cares about the truth. I love that about him but sometimes he can forget to play. I wish that he would lighten up but everything goes straight to his heart and it feels like he’s being personally attacked when a victim has been attacked.
Q: Do you have input into the character?
TH: That’s a double edged sword. If I go to wardrobe the very first day and I meet with them and tell them exactly what I want from the character, and I go to the set designers and the writers and tell them exactly what I want, I’m going to end up doing an impersonation of myself. If I let the wardrobe chose my wardrobe, then I have to adjust to that. If I let the writers challenge me, fine because I have to beat myself up to find a way to make this fit my understanding, and then make it fit with the Law & Order movement. So I love the challenge of it and I don’t want them to tailor things to how I’d say them. Every week I’m challenged and I want it to continue.
Q: How have you acclimated to the grind of a TV schedule?
TH: There’s no grind associated with it. You have to remember I started with stage. Stage is grind. Then I did soap operas. I did that for about two years. Those are grinds because on the stage you get to dig in and dig in and you keep rereading the script and keep relearning the character and find maybe there’s another choice that works better. That’s a grind. Being these are people’s lives, the first half of the show is a crime mystery. The second half is a moral mystery. I don’t think anyone approaches a moral mystery as a grind. They have to find the answer and you search you heart, very little of your body. It’s more on your heart. The lines are easy to memorize. It’s the common flow of a conversation. This is probably the easiest work I’ve ever done because I get to see my character grow. I don’t have to relearn it every day. If the good continues on like Law & Order, I’ve got 20 years to discover this moral side of me. So I don’t look at it as a grind.
Q: What are your personal views about the judicial system?
TH: The beautiful thing about our judicial system is it’s something that’s praised all around the world when it’s done right. The fathers of the constitution and the fathers of these initial laws made them as ambiguous as possible to allow growth. Unfortunately some people will come in and will use very twisted words and a very twisted ideology to turn what was meant to blanket and cover all mankind and they’ll use it to choke mankind. It creates a great challenge in me to sit up there and to proclaim truth but then how we interpret it, that’s what makes the difference in how it’s interested, how it’s delivered. People have used the law to lie. There are a number of laws still on the book that are not beneficial to the American people. A lot of those laws unless we can see them exercised in a courtroom so they can be brought up on appeal so we can say a law isn’t a good law for the American people, I think this is a great forum to correct the laws that are not beneficial but praise the laws that are.
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