Maybe you were introduced to Terrence Howard acting opposite Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland's Opus . Or maybe it was in the Hughes brothers' hard-boiled Vietnam flick Dead Presidents . Perhaps it was with his stellar performances in Hustle & Flow (which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination) or, more recently, in the 2005 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Paul Haggis' L.A.-based ensemble drama Crash .

Howard returns to the big screen in the starring role in Pride , co-starring Bernie Mac, Kimberly Elise and Tom Arnold. The film, directed by South Africa's Sunu Gonera, is inspired by the life of Jim Ellis, an aspiring athletic swimmer in his youth who moves to '70s-era Philadelphia with the hopes of getting a job as a teacher.

After graduating with a degree in mathematics, Ellis finds himself fighting against staggering odds to establish an all-black swim team in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He continues at his task in relative obscurity for decades, but a chain of events would get his story to Hollywood and into Howard's hands.

“I knew about Jim Brown, I knew about James Brown and I knew about [Ellis'] nature, but I didn't know his personal work until I sat down with him in this place called Spring Mill Cafe,” admits Howard. “I'd just come off that whole Oscar nomination [process], and I was exhausted, tired of smiling and doing all of that stuff. Jim looked at me, and in one moment, he calmed my nature.”

Everyone knows that after an actor gets a tap from the Academy, tons of scripts for potential gigs get redirected to their inboxes. So, why did Howard choose to enact the role in the first place? The actor doesn't mince words when asked how the first meeting with the real Ellis panned out.

“He leaned forward, smiled and said, ‘why do you want to play me?' And I didn't have an answer,” he says point-blank. “The only thing I could say was, ‘because of the question you just asked' ... [Ellis] has the ability of subtle suggestion, and everyone who listens to him becomes [engulfed] in that. I wanted to know where does his power come from and then, after going and watching him coach, I still don't know. Perhaps it's just the fact that he cares – he genuinely cares.”

In Pride , comedian Bernie Mac takes on his first dramatic turn as Elston. It's no question that Mac can bring the funny, but the burning enigma is: can he act in the dramatic milieu?

“To have the comical wit means you must be smarter than everyone else around you,” Howard states. “[Mac] understands the dramatic pauses. That's the beautiful thing about him. I'm a drama king. I talk in this mellow, melancholy way, and that's just my nature. Bernie kept it honest, and I love that about him.”

If you circle back to the thrust of the film, Ellis' life, you'll see that it was a complicated one (some personal aspects were dropped from the film altogether), but it is still the glue that holds the Pride storyline together.

Terrence explains why: “[The complications are] what makes him a hero. He's able to lift up, lift off of the things that would normally hold us all back and, for the greater good, extend himself and not [worry] about the personal loss because he's thought of the mutual gain for everyone.

“To this day he still smiles, he still wants to get one of his swimmers on the Olympic team. He's always looking towards the future, and that's what helps us overcome our faults. We all make mistakes, but he hasn't allowed any of those faults to stop him. He has a determination to do things his way, which is the right way. I have a great deal of respect for this man.”

Pride releases in theaters March 23.