Terrence Howard knows he isn’t perfect.
“I’ve made terrible mistakes throughout my life,” the Empire star, 48, says in the current issue of PEOPLE. “I was dragging baggage with me that was crippling me mentally and physically. But I finally feel I can put that to rest. I can breathe again.”
From childhood, Howard had been exposed to the violent side of human nature. At the age of 2, he saw his father, Tyrone, fatally stab a man while their families waited in line to see Santa Claus at a mall in Cleveland.
Tyrone, a carpenter, served 11 months in prison. Howard’s mother, Anita, filed for divorce after his release, but he remained a force in their lives.
“My dad whooped me every day until I was 14,” says the actor, who grew up poor with three brothers. “Then he said, ‘The street will whoop you from now on.’ ”
He was right. A sensitive child with “a big mouth,” living in the projects, “the kids would do horrible things to animals in the neighborhood,” Howard recalls. “I’d try and save them and take the beating instead.”
But in his adult life, Howard became the one that was physically violent.
In 2001 he admitted to hitting his first wife, Lori, and in 2013 his second wife Michelle Ghent was granted a restraining order against him on the grounds that he hit and kicked her during a family vacation and threatened to kill her. (Howard has claimed self-defense in regards to the Ghent altercation and in a 2015 divorce hearing his lawyer argued that he signed their spousal support agreement “under duress.” The judge called Howard a “bully” but ruled in the actor’s favor. The decision is currently under appeal.)
But, instigated by the death of his mother in 2008, Howard has spent the last few years on a path of self-reflection.
“I was raised believing the man is in charge, but I’ve realized marriage should be an equal partnership,” says the actor.
By the time he met his third wife, Mira, in 2013, Howard — who was once a Muslim and contemplated becoming a Jehovah’s Witness like his first wife and their three children — had given up organized religion and found “truth” in nature and science.
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“Two weeks after meeting Mira, I gathered up things associated with my past and found a nice hill and buried them all there,” he says.
A week later, he proposed. “Mira settled me,” Howard says of his wife, 39, a former model and restaurateur.
“Our marriage is effortless,” she adds. “Relationships are hard work, but we really don’t fight.”
Stress is still a factor in Howard’s life, but he’s found a unique way of managing it.
“I’ll just watch a tree’s limbs sway back and forth or take my shoes off and put my hands on a tree,” he says. “It makes me feel part of the whole.”
By keeping his stress in check, his Southern California home with Mira — which is now complete with their sons Qirin, 22 months, and Hero, 7 months — is a peaceful one.
“He refuses to kill a fly,” Mira says of Howard. “And we’re trying to teach our kids not to pick flowers.”
“I know in those two weeks or month of a fly’s life, that’s 80 years for them. And we smash them so quickly. I hope if someone saw me trapped, some bigger creature would help me,” explains Howard.
And Howard admits he’s not above needing help. “I still have growing to do,” Howard says. “I just hope the mistakes I make now are smarter mistakes.”
Empire returns to Fox Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.