Terrence Howard takes pleasure in keeping you on the edge of your seat. Whether he's portraying a crazed bank robber, as he did in "Dead Presidents," or a wisecracking, no-nonsense playa, like the one he portrayed in "The Best Man," Howard manages to give a flavorfully dangerous twist to his characters--and to humanize them as well. But even for an actor used to playing outsiders, his latest role, in Craig Brewer's new film "Hustle & Flow," seemed like a stretch: a pimp going through a midlife crisis? "I didn't really want to play a pimp at first," says Howard, 36, over an ordinary breakfast of bacon and eggs at L.A.'s not-so-ordinary Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "But then I thought, 'This guy isn't the typical person, but he's facing the typical question we all face, no matter who we are--what's next?' "

"Hustle & Flow," set in a slow-paced but ominous Memphis, Tenn., tells a familiar story: a man who yearns for a better life--in this case, the rap career he'd dreamed of before turning to crime--and who finds out that the mean streets aren't so willing to let him go. But the film made a splash at this year's Sundance Festival, thanks largely to how convincingly Howard breathed life into DJay, a pimp who longs to escape from the 'hood and would never, even in anger, hit one of his hookers. "I've heard people say that I'm too nice of a pimp in the film," he says. "I ask them how many pimps they know. Right here, I bet you more of these men in this swanky hotel have hit their women than half the pimps I know."

Howard, who grew up in Cleveland, has seen his share of a world that produces people like DJay. When he was 8, he watched as his father killed a man with a knife--in self-defense. (His father served five years for manslaughter.) "When it happened," he recalls, "the man's kids were there, too, and I kept thinking then that we'd both lost our fathers that day." But Howard also saw a way out: his grandmother was a stage actress in New York, and he remembers visiting Manhattan with his brothers during the summer and seeing her perform in Central Park. "It was the perfect fantasy, you know? Watching her getting onstage and being totally different from the woman I knew at home. It would freak me out, but at the same time I loved it--and I wanted to do the same thing."

He went to Pratt Institute to study chemical engineering, but--not too surprisingly--acting proved to have more allure. And it's odd, considering the sort of characters he now plays, that his first gig, back in the '80s, was on "The Cosby Show." "I got on the show after begging the casting person to see me," he remembers. "We did the episode, I told all my friends it was coming on, and then they cut me out at the last minute. I was furious. So the next day I went to Mr. Cosby's dressing room and asked him why I got cut out. He didn't seem to appreciate that too much. I never got back on the show again." He spent the next dozen years doing guest parts on such shows as "NYPD Blue," "Soul Food" and "Living Single." Next came supporting roles in "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Dead Presidents," but never a leading role, despite a growing reputation. "You know, it goes without saying that things are different for people of color," Howard says. "I work to pay the bills, not to listen to the hype. I've been the next big thing in this business for a few years. It's funny to me when I hear it now, because I know the way it works. I'm not confused."

If the attention Howard's getting for "Hustle & Flow" doesn't put his equilibrium to the test, he's got two more films coming out this year--"Four Brothers," directed by John Singleton, and "Get Rich or Die Trying," in which he costars with the rapper 50 Cent. Then, like DJay, he's faced with that universal question: what next? Well, right now he's in talks to star in a Joe Louis biopic, which could begin filming in early 2006. Now that Howard's amply demonstrated his hustle and flow, we wouldn't bet against him.