Throwback Thursday: When 'Empire's' Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson First Did Hip-Hop

Hustle & Flow Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Hustle & Flow Still - H 2015

The duo first co-starred in John Singleton's 2005 film 'Hustle & Flow.' Says the director of his breakout Sundance hit: "We were in the sweltering summer heat watching Terrence give his first lines of dialogue, and we knew this was Oscar material."

This story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Decades before being cast as drug dealer turned music impresario Lucious Lyon in Fox's hit Empire, Terrence Howard had starring roles in everything from Dead Presidents to Crash. But it was his turn as the pimp and aspiring rapper DJay in 2005's Hustle & Flow — a sort of hip-hop Rocky — that brought him an Oscar nomination. THR said of the Memphis, Tenn.-set film: "While flavored with pimp world drama — crazy bitches and cruisers — Hustle & Flow is, at heart, a sweet story of redemption."

Hustle had been a phenomenon at that year's Sundance Film Festival. After a bidding war, it was bought by Paramount and MTV Films for a record $9 million and grossed $23.6 million worldwide. "It was the breakout hit of the festival," says then Paramount Classics co-president David Dinerstein today. "I've never seen anything like it. Audiences were awed." The Craig Brewer-directed film had been financed by John Singleton, who put up his house as collateral to make the $3.5 million movie. Singleton says as soon as filming started, he had no regrets. "We were in the sweltering summer heat watching Terrence give his first lines of dialogue and we knew this was Oscar material," recalls Singleton, who has directed an episode of Empire. "Every time he hits the screen, he's watchable. Even when he seems to be doing nothing, something electric is occurring."

Empire, which concludes its first season March 18, reunites Howard, 45, with Taraji P. Henson, 44, who played Hustle's pregnant prostitute Shug, whom DJay realizes he loves. Though Howard lost best actor to Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman, Henson did get to sing the film's anthem, Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," at the Academy Awards. After the song won the Oscar for original song, host Jon Stewart noted, "For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one."