When Oscar nominations were announced, "I was alone at [L.A.'s] Four Seasons," says Howard, who received a Best Actor nod for his role as pimp-turned-rapper DJay in Hustle & Flow. "I got up at 5:19 a.m. and turned on the television. I heard some angelic voice say, "Terrence Howard.' That was one of the best moments of my life. My first call was to my mom [Anita, 53] in Pittsburgh. I could hear the big smile on her face. She just started a second course of chemo. This was something to pick up her spirits."
IT'S A DATE
"I'm going to take my son, my mother, my aunt and my mother-in-law" to the Oscars, says Howard, who is separated from his wife, Lori, 34, with whom he has three kids ages 12, 10 and 8. "Right now I'm away, but there will be a time when I'm never apart from them," says the 36-year-old actor, who lives in Philadelphia to be near his children. "You have to be away to support your family."
"[Lori] is a great mother," says Howard of his estranged wife. Eventually he hopes to wed again. "But I may wait. I've done everything impetuously over the last few years. Laurence Fishburne gave me good advice. He said, "All these women will come to you. Sometimes you can just watch them go by.'" In December Howard briefly dated Marc Anthony's ex-wife Dayanara Torres Delgado, 31, but "our lives are so different," he says. "I live in Philadelphia with my children, and she lives [in Los Angeles] with her children. You can't make that work."
In 1971 Howard's father, Tyrone, 55, fatally stabbed a man during a fight in a Cleveland department store and served nearly one year for manslaughter. "My dad went to jail, and when he came out he was militant about having honor," says Howard, who was forbidden to play with tough kids in his inner-city neighborhood. "We were in the projects, and you got to think that most of those kids are now in jail or dead. Me and my brothers were always able to avoid that because of our upbringing."
ADVICE FROM COSBY
At 19, Howard landed a guest role on The Cosby Show, only to see his scenes cut. Livid, he confronted Bill Cosby himself. "I just wanted to hear an apology for taking me off the screen," recalls Howard. "But he gave me some good advice. He said, "I don't tell people that I'm going to be in something. I let people call me and tell me they saw me in something.' His words have lasted longer than my anger."
Howard sees some parallels between Hustle's DJay and Cameron, the TV director he plays in Best Picture nominee Crash. "The soul of the men is the same," says the actor. "But Cameron had learned to compromise. DJay refused to compromise." After a decade's worth of supporting roles (including one opposite 50 Cent in '05's Get Rich or Die Tryin'), he credits his sudden success to fellow actor Fishburne, who told him he was choosing safe parts instead of tackling riskier leads. "He told me, "Stop riding everyone's coattails,'" says Howard, who will star in an upcoming movie about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. "[Laurence] was right. I was just doing the safe thing. I was a bottom-feeder. I was catching some lobster down there. But you get too big to be on the bottom."
IF OSCAR DOESN'T WORK OUT ...
"I'm a contractor," says Howard, who pursued a degree in chemical engineering from the Pratt Institute before tackling acting. "I still have a job—it's on hold. I'm restoring a 200-year-old house in Philadelphia. My client is nice enough to let me off the job for some months."