Story by Curtis Waller and -Todd Williams
Photos by Michael Melendy for Steed Media Service
It’s not everyday that you get to watch a young actress take her first steps toward superstardom; but when naïve streetwalker Shug stepped up to the microphone in Hustle & Flow, and meekly uttered those infamous first lines of “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” you knew that the young, doe-eyed actress cooing that hook was destined for greatness. Not that Taraji P. Henson wasn’t working her you-know-what off prior to that starmaking performance. The Washington, D.C., native had been on both the big and small screens since 1997, when she made her screen debut on the hit WB sitcom, “Smart Guy.” Henson made a name for herself on the small screen, but it was her memorable performance in director John Singleton’s hit 2001 film, Baby Boy, that really got audiences’ attention. The experience was enjoyable for Henson, who was voted one of the “10 Sexiest Women of 2001” by Black Men magazine for her role. Nonetheless, the diminutive starlet’s flirtation with fame didn’t go to her head, and she worked even harder. Henson is nothing if not tenacious, and she understands that her profession is one where, fair or unfair, you’re only as good as your last role.
“When you’re an actor in this business, especially a black female actress, you [can] only hope to even have a career,” says Henson. Nothing worth having comes easy, and Taraji P. Henson is living proof — she’s had to fight for every role she’s gotten. Case in point: when Singleton was casting his 2005 crime drama Four Brothers, and despite working together successfully four years earlier on Baby Boy, Henson still had to prove herself. “I made him give me that role,” she says.
In the new film, Talk to Me, Henson stars as Vernell Watson, the loyal girlfriend to controversial Washington, D.C., radio personality, Ralph “Petey” Greene, as portrayed by Academy Award-nominated actor Don Cheadle. “She’s a spitfire,” says Henson of her character, a former exotic dancer who is the often-philandering Greene’s biggest supporter and confidant. Henson once again gets to flex her cinematic muscle alongside an Academy Award-nominated actor.
“Working with Don Cheadle was the best experience of my career,” says Henson. “He is at the top of his game, he has a career and a body of work that I only dream of having.” Working together was a dream for Henson, and more than a little serendipitous. “We actually have the same agent,” she says. “And my agent gave me the highest compliment – he referred to me as his ‘female Don Cheadle,'” shares Henson, grinning.
She was more than a little pleased with the comparison. “My knees buckled,” Taraji exclaims, laughing, “Those are big shoes to fill, and I think I’m the one to do it.”
The frank actress’ gift for gut-busting comedy and wrenching drama are on full display in the role, and Henson affirms that the on set climate would often shift with the wide array of moods in the subject matter. One segment of the film in particular was hard for her and the crew to relive — even though most involved were too young to have any firsthand memories of the tragic reality.
“The day we re-enacted the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots… that’s just a very chilling image. It was very still and calm,” she says solemnly. “It was very fun most of the time, but [that] was a very emotional day.”
While talking about the strength of ’60s activists, Henson can’t hide her disappointment in what she sees as a lack of that same strength today – particularly when it comes to injustice and the war in Iraq. “I think that the ’60s [and] ’70s were the most important [time] in our history because that was a time where, as a nation, we could stand up and really make things happen,” Henson believes. “I think we lost so many great leaders that that [strength] has been beaten out of us as a nation. [During] Vietnam we didn’t take it, and now this war [is] going on, and it’s like we don’t even have the strength to even [protest], we don’t even have it in us to stand up anymore.”
Her sharp sense of humor and openness are indicative of a person who’s secure in who she is, and who – stardom be damned – doesn’t use fame as an excuse to take herself too seriously. An admitted extrovert, (“I’ve always been a ham,” she confesses), and a longtime admirer of Meryl Streep, Henson became serious about acting as a student at Howard University. A mother herself, Henson has relied on her family to help her maintain that grounded outlook, even in the face of uphill battles professionally and astounding personal tragedy. Her son’s father passed away unexpectedly in 1997, and Henson soldiered on; performing her duties as a loving mother with the same focus and energy that she brought to her burgeoning career. Both the personal and professional aspects of her life are driven by the same motivator. “I think my power as an actress comes from the core of me – love,” she says matter-of-factly. “I think I’m able to play those characters because I am not afraid of love, I am not afraid to be loved, [or] to love.I can be hurt 5,000 times, [but] each and every time I decide to love … I give 1,000 percent.”
Giving “1,000 percent” and having the cojones to take on roles that audiences wouldn’t expect have paid huge dividends for Henson. Her turn as a gun-toting lesbian assassin opposite first-time actress Alicia Keys in this year’s shoot-em-up Smokin’ Aces was an eye-opener and showed the actress’ versatility – and helped Henson get in touch with her inner-Rambo.
“There’s something about shooting a gun that alleviates a lot of pressure,” she admits playfully, but doesn’t believe owning a gun is in her (or anyone else’s) best interest. “It’s too easy,” she says devilishly – indicating that she may not use her better judgment if she had constant access to a firearm outside of shooting a film. Firearm safety notwithstanding, the actress is definitely interested in taking on more action roles – hoping to play a “black female hero” in the near future. She’s also currently filming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.
“This [will be] the biggest movie for me; it’s certainly the most challenging character that I’ve portrayed thus far,” she acknowledges. “My character ages from 26 to 71.” Henson enjoys learning history while she’s working. An early 1900s period piece, . Button has required a significant amount of research for Henson, which she finds fascinating. “Just knowing what happened before you were here,” she says. “How we got to where we are – it’s empowering.”
Her interest in the stories of the past runs deep; in addition to the aforementioned Pam Grier-esque badass she wants to play, Henson would love to star in the life story of her idol, Diana Ross. But, she’s patient in her ambitions. “The world needs to know who I am,” she admits, before she’d take on a job of that magnitude. “I’m a fan of hers, I respect her,” she goes on to say about The First Lady of Motown. She’s also been talking with her Hustle & Flow and Animal co-star Terrence Howard about working together yet again in a remake of the 1974 Diahann Carroll/James Earl Jones film, Claudine.
There’s nothing officially in the works as of yet for either project, but a girl can dream. Dreams have gotten Taraji P. Henson far. After all, she moved to Los Angeles years ago with only her son, Marcel, $700 in her pocket and that tenacious can-do attitude. With her ambitions including producing and directing, belief in herself and dedication are imperative to making her dreams reality. But she knows that already. Already working on a production with her manager, she feels she’s got a lot to learn before wearing a director’s cap. “You learn as you go,” says Henson, whose first production will be a comedy.
Looking to provide an avenue for more women of color to have opportunities in filmmaking, she encourages others to not let perceived obstacles deter them from working towards their goals. “Whenever you see a person that’s successful – it’s not overnight,” she advises.
There’s one more dream that she’s working hard to make a reality – getting a starring role alongside her favorite leading man. “I gotta work with Denzel at some point,” says Henson, smiling. “Come on Denzel – what are you waiting for?”