Film

Interview: Taraji P. Henson on Comedy, Keeping Busy and Being Ahead of the Curve

I first met Taraji P. Henson a little more than 10 years ago when she was promoting one of the most important roles of her career, that of Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a part that earned her her one and only Oscar nominee. At that point in her career, she’d already made a name for herself in such film as Baby Boy, Hustle & Flow, Four Brothers, and Talk To Me, but Benjamin Button saw her play various ages and show a range that remains breathtaking. Henson’s career as a dramatic actress has been expanding recently thanks to her starring role in Fox’s “Empire” (which shoots in and around Chicago) and her most recent movie, the comedy What Men Want (a remake of the Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want from 2000). She plays female sports agent Ali, who is boxed out by her male counterparts but gains an unexpected edge over them when she develops the ability to hear all men’s thoughts.

What Men Want

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Henson still knows how to bring her dramatic game to her most recent roles, as she did in the groundbreaking 2016 work Hidden Figures. But it’s her more vibrant work in such films as Think Like A Man, Think Like A Man Too, the actioner Proud Mary, and the recent Tyler Perry drama Acrimony that have gotten her the most attention in her downtime from “Empire.” I sat down with Henson in Chicago recently to discuss What Men Want, her history in comedy, and what she looks for in a film to do when her series work is on hiatus.

I wouldn’t expect you to remember, but the first time we met, you were here for Benjamin Button, almost 10 years ago to the day.

Oh my god. That was a crazy whirlwind time, because I did seven cities in seven days.

But it paid off because you got the Oscar nomination.

[laughs] There you go.

So in the original film [What Women Want], the premise begins with the belief that women are a mystery to men. But when you reverse that, you run up against the problem that men aren’t a mystery. So in this film, how do you use your powers? Are your goals different?

Well, Mel [Gibson, in the original] was trying to take a woman’s job, so he was using his powers to get ahead. And it’s the same with Ali—she hates it at first; she doesn’t want it. She’s like “What the fuck is wrong? Get these voices out of my head.” But then when she goes back to Erykah [Badu]’s character, Sister, she says, “You’ve got to use that to your advantage, honey.” Then the light goes on in her head. She was never going to use it; someone had to tell her her to use this to her advantage after getting passed over for a promotion. But of course, whenever you try to take a shortcut, like with anything in life, it blows up in your face, doesn’t it?

Did this project come to you, or did you have a hand in developing it?

It came to me. Brian Robbins, when he was president of Paramount Players [he is now President Of Nickelodeon], he called me because I’d auditioned for him for Norbit. I remember that audition like it was yesterday because he was cracking up; he was so into me. But as luck would have it, Thandie Newton got it, but Brian remembered me years later. So years later, we’re both doing our thing, I’m doing Cookie and movies, and he called me and said “We want you to do this.” And that’s because he remembered me and how funny I was. And you have to remember, I’ve been doing dramatic roles.

I was going to say that. I always think of you as someone who is extremely funny, but not necessarily doing pure comedies very often.

Thank you.

And this is a really physical comedy. Tell me about throwing yourself into it like that and going bigger.

I come from theater, so when I came into the film industry, the note was always “Can you make it a little smaller?” [laughs] And I grew up watching Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, “Solid Gold,” Flip Wilson. Back then, we had a 13-inch, black-and-white tube television, so you had to get up on that thing. I was so intrigued with comedy, and I always wanted to see what their faces were doing, and my mom was like “You’re not made of glass. Sit down!” I guess because I grew up in the ‘hood—life in the ‘hood ain’t easy. I was an only child and didn’t have a lot of people to play with, so I had this really creative imagination. I just loved to laugh and loved comedy; it was an escape for me. I even talked my father into taking me to see Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip when I was nine. He said, “Don’t tell your mother.” That’s good stuff.

Because you have this big block of time in your year that is devoted to this one thing, it doesn’t give you as much time to do films, but you still manage to squeeze in two movies per year. Has the process changed for you in terms of picking roles to do when you’re not doing “Empire.”

I’m always looking for what I’m going to be doing on my hiatus. I’ve been waiting my entire career to get things cracking like this, and finally it’s cracking. And I can’t sit down, which is why I don’t have a wedding date yet [Henson is engaged to former NFL player Kelvin Hayden]. The phone is ringing, baby. I love characters and character work, so if I get a script and I feel like it’s something I’ve never done before, I want to do it. If the script scares the shit out of me, I have to do it.

So fear is a motivator.

It is because that means I’m going to change in some way. And if I change, the audience will.

One of the things I love about Ali is something that reminds me of you. You have worked so hard to be a person who can get a movie greenlit; you are that person now. And the one thing she does not lack is knowing her value; she’s just trying to get other people to see it. I feel like that is so much in line with who you are.

[pretending to fan herself] Oh, baby, that’s been me my whole life. “It’s going to take everyone a minute to catch up, but when you do…” And what’s crazy is that I was told that when I first signed with my manager so many years ago. There was a manager and she said to me, I’ll never forget it, “Let me tell you something, sweetheart. You got it; you got all of it. It may take this town a while to figure it out, but you stay the course, because you got it.” When she told me that, I didn’t get ahead of myself. So when I did Baby Boy, and all the journalists were like “Your career is about to take off,” I heard her in the back of my mind. I knew instinctively that Tyrese [Gibson] was going to have a different career than me, and he was new; I was the veteran actress. And what happened? He went on to book two franchise movies—Fast and the Furious and Transformers, and one he still gets fucking paid off of. They’re still making them. Here I am, 20 years in the game, I don’t have a franchise [laughs].

There are so many good supporting players in this movie. It’s like you said, “Don’t even write the scene unless you’re going to populate it with these cool people.”

Yes, it was very much like that. “Don’t you bring me nobody that can’t handle themselves. I need actors, I need people that are going to challenge me.” A lot of times, I drive. If I see a lull, I’ll take a scene, I’ll take the reins and carry us to the end. That’s just me; it’s in my DNA. I don’t know any other way to be. But I love to share. I don’t want to be that. I want someone to challenge me, to knock me off my heels. “I didn’t see that coming.” That’s where real magic happens, in that space.

The relationship you have with Josh Brener was the one I kept focusing on because he’s the assistant who wants a shot at being an agent, which is normally the female role. So you reversed the gender of both characters.

That’s what was great about this film, the way we flipped everything, even with the single fathers—there are a couple of them here.

I feel like the timing of this film and story could not be better. As you’re making it, what was going through your head with regards to what you wanted people thinking about when they leave the theater and the conversation you hoped they were having?

For me certainly, I hope people in power positions—male or female—when you see this film and you know the disparity between male and female…and I’ve been in situations where female who run things don’t give females what they deserve. It’s been embedded in us that the man should do this and that. A lot of times, females fall in line with that. You’d be surprised that just because the woman is a boss doesn’t mean she’s going to bring all the women up. I want people to know that this is a real issue, and we can’t do it alone. We can march but we need you to reach across the table to help us. We can’t hijack you for our checks…well, we can [laughs].

Do you know what you’re doing in your next hiatus yet?

I’m still trying to push the Emmett Till story through. I’m producing that with Laray Mayfield, and we have John Singleton attached as director. We have a script; we’re just trying to get it pushed through. Come on!

I’m also excited to see this film you’ve got coming out with Sam Rockwell later this year [The Best of Enemies]. I did a little research about the real-life story and couldn’t believe where it went.

It’s a very real story, and they’re real people. I didn’t get a chance to meet Ann [Atwater]; she passed away, but I did know that she hand picked me to play her. She passed away not too long ago and then he did right behind her—like lovers.

Taraji, thank you so much. Best of luck with this.

Thank you so much.

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