Life is more than drama for Washington, DC native Taraji Henson. The doe-eyed actress has a penchant for evoking tears with her various performances, however she is working tirelessly to build a versatile on-screen presence. A Howard University graduate and stage actress, Taraji began her mainstream career on television with spots on shows like Sister, Sister, E.R. and Felicity. After a few years of television, it was her breakout role in the 2001 film Baby Boy alongside Tyrese that raised her stakes in Hollywood.
While shooting her next movies, Taraji embarked upon the the Lifetime channels series The Division, ending the run in 2004. In 2005, the highly acclaimed movie Hustle & Flow was released to audiences, and Taraji Henson became a household name. It didnt hurt that she sang on the chart-topping original soundtrack for the film either. She followed with roles in Four Brothers, Animal and Smokin Aces, while simultaneously keeping up her television work with parts on CSI, Half & Half and House MD.
We recently spoke with Taraji about a number of topics that have affected her career growth, as well as her adamant desire to stay away from being typecast. Now on the verge of releasing her new film Talk To Me, Taraji is serious about opening the minds of her fans. The movie stars Don Cheadle as a vibrant, politically active radio host with a jaded past, and Taraji had a lot to tell us about the ways she embraced the 60s era for her role.
AllHipHop.com: When you seek out a role, what is it thats most important to you about the character that you play? Do you look at the other actors and parts in correlation to your role before you pick one?
Taraji Henson: Certainly that, when I knew Don Cheadle was attached [to Talk To Me], who wouldnt wanna work opposite Don Cheadle? Certainly whoevers playing opposite me is a big factor, but its not like people have given me scripts. I have to fight for every role that Ive gotten except for Four Brothers, John [Singleton] just gave me that one. When Im looking at a character Im just looking for a human, somebody thats dimensional, that has layers and [is] not one-note. As humans we have multi-layers and different sides. Even if the character isnt jumping off the page, I will bring those dimensions because I want people to identify with this person. I want people to walk away and be moved by the performance, because I feel like if no one walks up to me and says, Girl, you in that movie then I didnt do my job.
AllHipHop.com: Have you generally found that the scriptwriters have had a back story for your characters, or have you had to make them up?
Taraji: Sometimes its in the script, sometimes its not right in black and white. They dont say she was born in such and such, she had this and her mother died. First thing I do is read the script and I pull out all the information that is written there, and I also pull out what other people are saying about that character and take that in. From there I build the story, but I do back story for all of my characters whether its in the script or not. Most times what you need is in the script, but then you have to add to it to give the character the dimensions that they need.
AllHipHop.com: In Smokin Aces you worked with Alicia Keys, in Baby Boy and Four Brothers you worked with Tyrese, and Three Six Mafia consulted for Hustle & Flow. What has been your experience working with [musicians on set]?
Taraji: Well, Im gonna get out of you what I need, unless youre just dead or a vegetable. You will feel the presence of what Im doing, which hopefully will in turn trigger something in them to give back, because Im not gonna look right. [laughs] Ive done it for so long and I come from theater, I know how to do that. Im gonna get what I need from the person Im acting with whether they are blind, deaf or dumb. [laughs]
AllHipHop.com: Who has challenged you the most in your career, and who was the most fun to work with?
Taraji: I would have to say Don Cheadle, because he is the greatest to me. His body of work – he doesnt play the same characters over and over. Hes not afraid to go wherever the character needs him to go, whether its putting on a dress and wig, it doesnt matter. Im a character actress, and Im trying to build that repertoire of work where every character is different and its like, God is there anything she cant do? Thats how I feel about Don, and I say fun because this project talked to me. It was so much fun, musically driven and it was a rollercoaster ride. We had a ball; we watched old footage from Soul Train going down the Soul Train line.
When we first arrived in Toronto we did the hair, camera and makeup tests it was like Hey Don, Hey Taraji, Im so glad you working on this, Yeah me too – and then they put the wigs on us, and the chops on him and the clothes. We stepped out of that thick trailer and it was just Petey and Vernell right there transformed before your very eyes. I was like, Hey sugar, he was like, Hey baby, and that was it. Vernell and Petey were born as soon as they donned us with those wigs.
AllHipHop.com: Did you learn anything about the 60s that you had never known in researching that role?
Taraji: Yes I learned a lot – a lot of things that you have to learn when youre in school, youre kind of like Eh. You memorize it to get through the test, you really dont keep it. Having to go through that decade [of the] 60s through 70s doing all of that research, we reenact the whole Martin Luther King assassination. I know people were affected, but I didnt know to what level. I wasnt even born, so I cant even fathom that movement, I can feel it from my people but I wasnt there.
I was having a conversation with [the director] Kasi [Lemmons] and she was like, To be alive in that time, it was like people were dropping dead going into cardiac arrest when they found out he had died, people were screaming, God, why didnt you take me? Depressions that people couldnt come out of, people committing suicide I didnt know that it affected people to that level. People would have jumped in front of that bullet if they would have known it was coming, just to spare him. It was like Jesus Christ had died – Im getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
For one person to affect that many people, still to this day we dont have any leaders like that anymore. It was a time to be alive, because thats when people didnt just take anything, we would stand together as a nation and say, No we are not taking it anymore – but at the same time what that decade did was beat it out of us, because now we wont do it. The war thats going on now was the Vietnam back then, and the people stopped that war and brought the troops home.
Were just afraid to do that now because every great leader that weve ever had was taken out. I think the leaders exist but who wants to risk their lives? To do that is to know youre gonna die, Malcolm X knew it, Martin Luther King knew it. You gotta know that if you step into that place you dont have a very long life.
AllHipHop.com: If you could have a dream role of anything youd want to play, what would it be?
Taraji: Diana Ross, I would love to play Diana Ross. Hopefully that will happen one day.
AllHipHop.com: You were born September 11th and you used to work in the Pentagon, does that ever freak you out at all?
Taraji: Yeah, my stepmother still works at the Pentagon. She was there when the plane hit, and it affected the corridor that she was in, they had to rebuild her whole office. This is the one time I was glad she was a smoker, she was outside smoking a cigarette and that cigarette probably saved her life. Thats the irony. [laughs] She was outside smoking a cigarette and she heard something crash. They were doing construction, she thought a wall fell and something had to do with the construction. This guy ran out with soot and plaster on him, hes bleeding like, Everybody run, run for your life! She said it was just a mess, and I was out here sleep. It was 6:00 am in the morning and my phone rang, all of my family is on the east coast still in the metropolitan area. Im thinking its my mother calling because she wants to be the first to wish me happy birthday, shes like, Taraji, Americas under attack! Get up, what are you doing? I turn on the television and all hell has broken loose on my birthday. I never thought I would live to see something like that.
Just like Mothers Day I get a lot of calls, because its hard to forget a mother. I get so many calls, text messages and emails, but [for my] birthday it would just be my closest people that know me. Now my birthday is just like Mothers Day, everybody knows. How do you forget that? Happy Birthday Taraji, just thinking about you. [laughs]
AllHipHop.com: Youve talked about getting cast into younger roles, which is a beautiful thing because youre youthful, but do you ever feel like it does kind of limit you?
Taraji: Oh definitely, its always an uphill battle and a struggle, but I will not be typecast and I will not be stereotyped. If Ive done that character before and the script comes to me and its anything remotely close to another character, I wont do it. Been there, did it, done it. Why do I need to show someone that I can do it again? No.
AllHipHop.com: Id love to see you play an assassin again because you were a kickass assassin [in Smokin Aces].
Taraji: That was fun! Maybe not a closeted lesbian assassin, but I would do that one again. She didnt really come out and say it, but [Alicia Keys] was her girl and they were really close. For her not to know let me know that she wasnt out. That one scene where [Alicias character] is like, I need to ask you something – are you gay? and shes like No, what are you talking about? Thats where Im like okay maybe she hasnt come out about it.
AllHipHop.com: You do a good bad girl. If we could see you do more bad girl roles that would be hot.
Taraji: I would love to do more bad girl roles. But see now, Vernell in Talk To Me and Yvette [in Baby Boy] are both spitfires, but theyre very different. Yvette was a little girl, Vernell is a grown woman and its a period piece. If its situations like that, Ill play something that sort of kinda has a spirit about Shug [in Hustle & Flow] was totally the opposite of who Yvette was, she was an introvert. I could play another role like that, but something has to be different. It cant be the exact same thing. Right after Baby Boy I was getting a lot of calls to do babys mamas and ghetto girls in the hood, and thats when I went to The Division on Lifetime because I was like, I have to show these people that I can do other things, Im a trained actress.
What Im having to fight for now – because all of the females Ive portrayed have been women from the hood or women who werent financially successful – Im having to battle and prove that I can play a professional woman, which is probably the closest thing to who Taraji is. Im a professional woman, Im intelligent and can hold an intelligent conversation, and I have to prove that I can play this but I play that in real life. Go figure. [laughs]
AllHipHop.com: You also do work with kids – youve done some charitable work for mentally challenged children. Is that something you want to continue through life?
Taraji: I havent pinpointed exactly what I want to do, I dont know if its a school or a home. I really dont know, I know I do want a foundation eventually one day. I just need to know what Im trying to target and that I havent quite figured out. I wanna do what Oprahs done – shes going over to countries and building schools. Something thats gonna be long-term, not just something thats right now. Something thats gonna make such an impact and hopefully change childrens lives, children who havent been given a chance and hopefully turn them into a contribution to society, so I dont know yet.
AllHipHop.com: What do you want people to expect from you next?
Taraji: Comedy – actually thats what Im best at. I just keep getting these dramatic roles, Im not complaining because I actually like it better this way. If Id hit as a comedic actress first then Id have to be proving that I could play dramatic roles. Comedy is so easy for me, its nothing. Thats why when you go see me it could be the most dramatic role and youll still laugh, because I still find the humor in the serious situations. Such is life.