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'Iron Man's' wingman, Terrence Howard, talks Air Force

Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard describes his experiences and impressions of the Air Force during an interview May 27 in New York. Mr. Howard visited two Air Force bases and trained with Airmen while preparing for his role as Lt. Col. James Rhodes in the movie Iron Man. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jack Braden)

Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard describes his experiences and impressions of the Air Force during an interview May 27 in New York. Mr. Howard visited two Air Force bases and trained with Airmen while preparing for his role as Lt. Col. James Rhodes in the movie Iron Man. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jack Braden)

NEW YORK (AFPN) -- Air Force and Department of Defense officials agreed to highlight Air Force capabilities and Airmen to a worldwide audience in the summer blockbuster "Iron Man," primarily because the story included character Lt. Col. James Rhodes, played by Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard.

"The character of Colonel Rhodes reflects our warrior ethos and the professionalism that is so important to our Air Force culture," said Lt. Col. Stephen Clutter, the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office director.

Mr. Howard spoke with Air Force members May 27 in New York about working and training with Airmen while researching his role for Colonel Howard, an Air Force test pilot and acquisitions officer, who is the DOD liaison to the fictional Stark Enterprises, a company that deals in cutting-edge technology for the military. 

"As a civilian you have a 'me mentality,' but in the Air Force it's a 'we mentality.' Mr. Howard said. "To get out of the 'single-person place' I've been in all my life, that's a hard thing to do. To become an actor is more egocentric, so becoming part of a unit, an organization, was something I'd never experienced before."

Spending time visiting, training, running and eating with Airmen at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Nellis AFB, Nev., allowed Mr. Howard the opportunity to meet his real-life counterparts, said Capt. Christian Hodge, who was the project leader for the "Iron Man" shoot.

"I found the officers to be much more compassionate then I expected," Mr. Howard said. "They had a sense of responsibility toward life and honor, toward every single military members under their command, that I did not expect."

Brief hopes of joining the Air Force when he was younger were dashed when he was told he could not be a pilot because he wore glasses, he said.

His love of flying easily made his flight in a T-38 Talon one of the highlights of his research, the Chicago native said.

However, he strongly advised against eating candy bars before flying as he described the loops and turns the pilot took while soaring over the Sierra Mountains.

"They told me to have something in my stomach, but I don't think a candy bar was the right 'something.'"

However, he did say he enjoyed the flight, he said.

"It was quite beautiful. It's the thing dreams are made of," he said. "I'd do it again; I want to get to where I can really enjoy it. The pilot said you need to do it seven or eight times to get past the nausea."

That comment illustrates the tenacity with which Mr. Howard often immerses himself in the environment of his character.

"You have to sincerely become a part of what you are doing," he said. "This allows you to speak from a place that is true when you say, 'These are my brothers and my sisters. I've got your back and you've got mine.' You're not just barking back lines; you're saying what you feel."

That genuineness was not reserved only for the screen, said Capt. Mary Danner, who was Mr. Howard's escort during his research for his role.

"Everyone -- Airman, civilian, contactor or dependent -- who wanted to meet him, get an autograph or have a picture was given what they wanted," Captain Danner said. "That is of course until I would step in and put an end to it in an effort to keep him on schedule."

Mr. Howard also took time out to surprise a fan, a breast-cancer survivor who works on Edwards AFB, just to meet her and take a picture, Captain Hodge said.

When not filming or greeting fans, Mr. Howard spent time taking part in discussions with scientists and generals on topics from space properties and exploration to aircraft mechanics and the effects of flight on the anatomy, Captain Danner said.

With a degree in chemical engineering, he has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, she said.

That thirst seems to spill over into everything the charismatic 6 -foot-2-inch actor does.

"Mr. Howard worked very hard to ensure Airmen would be proud of his character," Colonel Clutter said. 

"I think (Mr. Howard) made the Air Force proud and did a fantastic and honorable portrayal as Colonel Rhodes," Captain Danner said. "The feedback on the movie and his character has been overwhelmingly positive."

"We're also proud of the fact that the airman battle uniform makes its Hollywood debut in the film," Colonel Clutter said. "And many of the Airmen in the film are real Airmen, playing themselves as extras. The director, John Favreau, loved that because it added a dimension of realism to the film. We're extremely pleased that the movie has done so well."

"Iron Man" is the second major blockbuster movie Air Force officials have recently supported. The first was "Transformers" in 2007, which grossed about $707 million worldwide. "Iron Man," in just a few weeks, is already nearing a half billion dollars worldwide.

Mr. Howard, who is currently performing on Broadway in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," will begin filming for "Iron Man II" in March, with a release date of April 2010, he said.

"We just finished working 'Eagle Eye,' which stars Shia LaBeouf, Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, who plays an Air Force Office of Special Investigation agent, and who has a heroic role in the film," Colonel Clutter said. "And we are currently working pre-production on 'Transformers II.' There will definitely be some more great Air Force depictions in Hollywood over the next few years -- just from stuff we're working now.

Air Force officials said they would continue to take advantage of opportunities to build awareness and inform the American public about the Air Force through movies when the characters and Airmen portrayed reflect our core values.

By officially supporting these projects, officials are able to ensure the depictions of Air Force capabilities and Airmen are as credible as possible, while educating the public and building Air Force morale. 

His experiences with the military made it hard to leave the base at the end of the day, Mr. Howard said.

"An actor picks up something from every experience," he said. "When you work with comedians you pick up a sense of carelessness, an easy-goingness. When you work with doctors you pick up life-changing seriousness. Being around the military you pick up a sense of responsibility toward life and honor. I'd never felt that sense of duty toward other members of the human race before, that love for one another that military members have."

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