Taraji Henson: Phenomenal Woman

  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 […]

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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 channel’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s 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 wouldn’t wanna work opposite Don Cheadle? Certainly whoever’s playing opposite me is a big factor, but it’s not like people have given me scripts. I have to fight for every role that I’ve gotten except for Four Brothers, John [Singleton] just gave me that one. When I’m looking at a character I’m just looking for a human, somebody that’s dimensional, that has layers and [is] not one-note. As humans we have multi-layers and different sides. Even if the character isn’t 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 didn’t 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 it’s in the script, sometimes it’s not right in black and white. They don’t 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 it’s 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, I’m gonna get out of you what I need, unless you’re just dead or a vegetable. You will feel the presence of what I’m doing, which hopefully will in turn trigger something in them to give back, because I’m not gonna look right. [laughs] I’ve done it for so long and I come from theater, I know how to do that. I’m gonna get what I need from the person I’m 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 doesn’t play the same characters over and over. He’s not afraid to go wherever the character needs him to go, whether it’s putting on a dress and wig, it doesn’t matter. I’m a character actress, and I’m trying to build that repertoire of work where every character is different and it’s like, “God is there anything she cant do?” That’s 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,” “I’m 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 you’re in school, you’re kind of like “Eh.” You memorize it to get through the test, you really don’t 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 didn’t know to what level. I wasn’t even born, so I can’t even fathom that movement, I can feel it from my people but I wasn’t 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 didn’t you take me?’ Depressions that people couldn’t come out of, people committing suicide… I didn’t 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 – I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.


For one person to affect that many people, still to this day…we don’t have any leaders like that anymore. It was a time to be alive, because that’s when people didn’t 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 won’t do it. The war that’s going on now was the Vietnam back then, and the people stopped that war and brought the troops home.


We’re just afraid to do that now because every great leader that we’ve ever had was taken out. I think the leaders exist but who wants to risk their lives? To do that is to know you’re gonna die, Malcolm X knew it, Martin Luther King knew it. You gotta know that if you step into that place you don’t have a very long life.


AllHipHop.com: If you could have a dream role of anything you’d 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. That’s 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, he’s 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. I’m thinking it’s my mother calling because she wants to be the first to wish me happy birthday, she’s like, “Taraji, America’s 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 Mother’s Day I get a lot of calls, because it’s 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 Mother’s Day, everybody knows. How do you forget that? “Happy Birthday Taraji, just thinking about you.” [laughs]


AllHipHop.com: You’ve talked about getting cast into younger roles, which is a beautiful thing because you’re youthful, but do you ever feel like it does kind of limit you?


Taraji: Oh definitely, it’s always an uphill battle and a struggle, but I will not be typecast and I will not be stereotyped. If I’ve done that character before and the script comes to me and it’s anything remotely close to another character, I won’t do it. Been there, did it, done it. Why do I need to show someone that I can do it again? No.


AllHipHop.com: I’d 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t out. That one scene where [Alicia’s character] is like, “I need to ask you something – are you gay?” and she’s like “No, what are you talking about?” That’s where I’m like okay maybe she hasn’t 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 they’re very different. Yvette was a little girl, Vernell is a grown woman and it’s a period piece. If it’s situations like that, I’ll 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 can’t be the exact same thing. Right after Baby Boy I was getting a lot of calls to do baby’s mamas and ghetto girls in the hood, and that’s when I went to The Division on Lifetime because I was like, “I have to show these people that I can do other things, I’m a trained actress”.


What I’m having to fight for now – because all of the females I’ve portrayed have been women from the hood or women who weren’t financially successful – I’m having to battle and prove that I can play a professional woman, which is probably the closest thing to who Taraji is. I’m a professional woman, I’m 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 – you’ve done some charitable work for mentally challenged children. Is that something you want to continue through life?


Taraji: I haven’t pinpointed exactly what I want to do, I don’t know if it’s a school or a home. I really don’t know, I know I do want a foundation eventually one day. I just need to know what I’m trying to target and that I haven’t quite figured out. I wanna do what Oprah’s done – she’s going over to countries and building schools. Something that’s gonna be long-term, not just something that’s right now. Something that’s gonna make such an impact and hopefully change children’s lives, children who haven’t been given a chance and hopefully turn them into a contribution to society, so I don’t know yet.


AllHipHop.com: What do you want people to expect from you next?


Taraji: Comedy – actually that’s what I’m best at.  I just keep getting these dramatic roles, I’m not complaining because I actually like it better this way. If I’d hit as a comedic actress first then I’d have to be proving that I could play dramatic roles. Comedy is so easy for me, it’s nothing. That’s why when you go see me it could be the most dramatic role and you’ll still laugh, because I still find the humor in the serious situations. Such is life.