February 2017 - Cover Story: A Conversation with C. Thomas Howell
Throughout his 40-year history in the entertainment industry, C. Thomas Howell has created many memorable characters, but during this interview, NME discovered that at least one character may have caused him regret. As I prepared for Howell’s appearance at Albuquerque Comic Con in January, I was excited to talk to him about one film I look back at fondly, unaware of its surrounding controversy, Soul Man. But before we entered that topic, we started with how he began in the business. Howell didn’t plan to have a career in acting. With a stuntman for a father, he thought he would enter the family business. “I didn’t expect to become an actor. My father was a stuntman for years and I thought I was going to be a part of the family business. It wasn’t until I did The Hitcher that I decided I would truly pursue acting.”
Many are happy he did. In addition to Howell’s appearance in Albuquerque, Ralph Macchio also attended the con, creating something of an Outsider’s reunion. With over 200 projects under Howells’s belt, including roles in E.T. and Red Dawn, just to name a couple, the role of Outsider’s Ponyboy Curtis stands out strongest for some fans. Howell spoke fondly about his time on set. “It was an amazing experience. The cast and crew work well together and it felt like a family on set.”
This is where the conversation took a turn. At the age of 10, I watched the movie Soul Man, the story of a young man, Mark (played by Howell), who takes advantage of a college scholarship by darkening his skin and applying as an African-American male. Mark finds out that the choices he made were not what they were cracked up to be, as he briefly experiences what Blacks in this country have to deal with on a daily basis. I was so excited to ask him what it was like working on the film with James Earl Jones and Rae Dawn Chong, but the response I received, rather quickly when I mentioned the name of the film, caught me off guard. “We thought we were doing something good, making a good movie with a great message. We didn’t mean to hurt people. Could we do it today? No. If I had the choice would I do it again—don’t know.” Howell thought that Soul Man was a creative, comedic way of addressing an issue in this country. He never thought a movie he did would land, 30 years later, on a list of the most racist films ever made. He shared that his son, Liam, found a copy of the film and has expressed that it’s one of the best films his dad made.Howell has had mixed responses from fans. “It really depends on who I’m talking with. I’ve had people express how much they love the film and others share how they felt it wasn’t appropriate. It’s difficult at times and shows the world we are living in today.”
Howell is now a veteran of both film and television projects. When it comes to which one he enjoys more, Howell share benefits of both. “I will say I’ve enjoyed both film and television. I've really enjoyed the roles I've been receiving later in life. The characters have been interesting and bold.” The characters Howell has played in Southland, Criminal Minds, and Grimm, alone, have showcased a full range of his talents. In some instances, he thought particular roles would last longer. “My character [Agent Weston Steward on Grimm] was hopefully going to be more developed, but the producers felt that my character would be the thing that escalates Nick’s storyline, so it didn't last as long.”
Howell, with years of wisdom and lessons learned over the course of his career, has been enjoying the more recent roles that have been coming his way over the past few years. He noted that the money-driven (versus the artistic) aspect of Hollywood has ballooned, often negatively affecting the quality of roles he sees. However, he feels fortunate, lately, in that respect. “I’m really enjoying this stage of my life right now. The roles I’ve been receiving have been some of the greatest roles of my career.” Attempts to get upcoming projects out of Howell, including an anticipated Marvel® release, were like cracking a safe. “I have a new show airing on Cinemax in June—it’s called Outcast—and a new Marvel® project that I can’t get into or Stan Lee will come and beat me!”
Over 40 years in the business—Howell has seen and learned a lot. His excitement over what the future holds for him tells me that he is not going anywhere anytime soon. But I had to ask, if it was all to end tomorrow, what he would like his legacy to be. The response was simple. “I want people to remember me as an actor who loved his work and his family.”
In an alternate reality, Christopher Thomas Howell could have jumped out of buildings or performed stunts with horses. Lucky for us, he got bit by the entertainment bug and embraced his love for acting. Howell’s roles—complex, iconic, controversial—continue to be memorable for his fans and make us excited for the next one to come.