An Interview with Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson’s name certainly is unique, but that’s not to say she’s a household name yet. Not that she isn’t deserving, with a couple of powerhouse performances in underappreciated films, first as the prostitute Shug in “Hustle and Flow” then as Vernell in “Talk to Me” already in her repertoire, as well as a season as Whitney Rome on “Boston Legal.”
Henson is looking to break out with her role in David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” hoping that a little screen time with a couple of actors named Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett will earn her a little of the recognition that’s eluded her thus far.
JS: There’s been some Oscar buzz for you for “Benjamin Button.” How has that affected your professional life? TH: Of course I’m honored, but I’ll leave that to the stars. I gotta keep my feet on the ground.
JS: You’ve worked with pretty big stars before, but can you tell me about this time, especially working with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. TH: You know, you just rise to the occasion, or you end up on the editing floor.
JS: What brought you to this project? TH: Well, I never really thought I had a real chance at getting it. When I read the script, I was like “Wow, whomever gets this part is going to be really lucky.” A lot of times when it’s a big studio film with big names attached they stick with big names, so I really never thought I had a shot. I was actually already booked on “Talk to Me,” and was ready to go and do that, so I was like “I have a job.” But I just tried to make an impression on [casting director] Laray [Mayfield] and hope that she’ll remember me and maybe cast me for something later. I never really expected much beyond that. So she called me in, and I went in a start to read, and she started crying. I was thinking “wow, this is a nut job.” She later told me my performance moved her to tears, and that “Hustle and Flow” pretty much got me the job. She had me pegged for Queenie two years before “Benjamin Button” was greenlit. She kept me in David Fincher’s consciousness in that time. So she [told me she] took my audition tape to him and said “you can either make your job harder and look at some of these, or you can just look at this tape.” She started crying before the tape even started, and he asked “Why are you crying? The tape hasn’t even started yet.” She said “there’s just something special about this girl,” and he told me he agreed. It was so flattering.
JS: I’m interested in your process for getting into character. Your characters in “Hustle and Flow” and “Talk to Me” were very different. How did you approach them, and Queenie as well? TH: First of all I don’t judge, because Vernell in “Talk to Me” and Shug from “Hustle and Flow” could have been quite stereotypical characters. But I try to find the humanity in them, and find out why they got where they are. There’s a reason why people are loud, you know? There’s a reason why Vernell was over the top. She had to be to match Petey. It takes a certain type of woman it takes to love a man like that. What I do is try to find the why, what happened to this person for them to step down that path. Make them people instead of caricatures, so that the audience can empathize with them?
JS: And pushing that into Queenie, how did you apply it to her character? TH: That was great, because black characters, like the mother, caretaker roles usually end up coming off as a Mammy type role, but what I found intriguing is that [screenwriter] Eric [Roth] didn’t write her that way, and David Fincher and I certainly didn’t want to portray her that way. So we just made her a real woman. Nurturing but not mammy. I had to research the period, and on the aging process, what happens to the body. And I went to a family get-together at my grandmother’s house. She had 8 children, 5 of them were women, and there was a woman there at every age I had to portray. So I just sat back and watched. I paid close attention to my grandmother.
JS: How was it working with Brad Pitt, one of the most gigantic movie stars on the planet? TH: It was intimidating at first, but I got over it. I let myself get to that place, then I got past it because it was time to work. I didn’t want to end up on the editing floor, so I had to bring my A game.
JS: Any surprises from any part of the production, that you weren’t expecting? TH: I wasn’t expecting Brad Pitt to look at all of my films. The film was in the can, it was a year later, and we had to do some reshoots. So we’re on the set, and he said “we had a Taraji fest.” I was like “What’s a Taraji fest? I wasn’t invited.” He said, “no, silly, I watched all of your films.” And I was just so flattered that I made such an impression on the set that he had to see what I was all about. That was so flattering.
JS: My sister is a big “Boston Legal” fan, and I told her I’d ask this. How was it working on the show, and working with Shatner and Spader? TH: They approached me shortly after I finished “Hustle and Flow.” They were interested in me joining the cast. I don’t remember what was going on, but it didn’t work out. Then they approached me again a couple of years later, and it was perfect. I had nothing going on, and we thought it was perfect, and we signed on to do a season. And it was incredible working with William Shatner, Candace (Bergen), James (Spader), John Laroquette, just incredible people to work around.