Star of award-winning TV series Empire and new movie What Men Want, Taraji P Henson tells Sophie Goddard how she battled her way to success, and why age hasn’t stopped her being a bankable leading lady
‘A man hit me on the plane the other day,’ Taraji P Henson recounts, when asked how she’s coping with fame. ‘They think they know you and come and grab you. But Cookie’s a character and I’m Taraji, so I’m like, “Please don’t touch me!”’ she mock-shrieks. ‘I didn’t want to be that person, but now my security flies with me in first…’
The ‘Cookie’ Henson is referring to is the ex-drug-dealing matriarch of Sky Atlantic’s award-winning series Empire, whom she has played since 2015. Dubbed ‘the black Dynasty’, the show’s first season broke records with a cool 17.6 million viewers and has earned Henson a Golden Globe win and an Emmy nomination, as well as a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series – the first female African-American to do so.
But Henson is no new kid on the block. After cutting her teeth as an extra on 90s TV shows such as Saved By The Bell, she went on to star alongside everyone from Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt (her role in 2008’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button landed her an Oscar nomination) to Kevin Hart, Idris Elba and Octavia Spencer (in the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated Hidden Figures).
But last year, things really skyrocketed, with the 48-year-old starring in three films (Tyler Perry’s Acrimony, thriller Proud Mary and the voice of Yesss in Disney animation Ralph Breaks The Internet). How far she’s come floors even her. ‘It’s crazy. I’ve been working so much, then I look up one day and it’s like… Time magazine!’ (She made the annual 100 Most Influential People list in 2016.) ‘My grandmother is 94 and about to witness her granddaughter getting a Hollywood Star. That’s history! You know, a fan made me this jacket from Swarovski crystals with Cookie on. And I went online and saw artists drawing pictures of all my characters. That’s iconic, right?’
She said it. With 13.5 million Instagram followers and Hollywood heavyweights Kerry Washington and Mary J Blige as best friends, Henson is having a pretty good time of it by anyone’s standards. Last year, her partner Kelvin Hayden – a former NFL player – proposed. (‘Yeah, I’m just engaged’ is all she’ll comment on reports they’ve secretly married.) But her ascent wasn’t exactly linear, says the Washington DC native. ‘My passion was acting, but I auditioned for [DC’s Duke Ellington School Of The Arts] and didn’t get accepted. It crushed my ego. I was lost, floating around, trying to figure it out. My friend was studying electrical engineering at college, so I was like, “I’ll do that too.”’
Thankfully, Henson failed precalculus. ‘I called my dad, always my biggest champion. He said, “Well, you had to go away and fall on your face.” I’m glad I did fail because when I decided to really go back into acting I went back with a force and passion that made me the actor I am today.’ The birth of her son Marcell, now 24, was another incentive to grow up fast. Henson was in her junior year aged 22 when she discovered she was expecting with her then-boyfriend, William Lamar Johnson [who was murdered in 2003]. She’s surprisingly stoic about the timing of the pregnancy. ‘I couldn’t have planned it better. I went into labour the day of my last exam. So I had the summer to have him, then just threw him on my back and took him wherever I was going. I never stopped acting and graduated the next year.’
‘Never sleep with your co-star, don’t believe your own hype, stay grounded’
Did she consider changing her career plans to something more stable? ‘Never. Time was ticking. I was in my twenties and you’re fearless then. I was waiting for my chance. I never turned an audition down. I didn’t care what it was for, I was just hungry. When my dad was alive he wouldn’t allow me to quit. It wasn’t an option. Once I had my son I realised, if I quit, I’m teaching him to quit. There were times I got scared and my dad was there to champion me, like, “Hang in there, because you don’t see what I see, it’s coming.” He’d seen my plays, he knew my talent. My mom and my aunt would send me money. There was no space to quit.’
This month, Henson takes the lead in What Men Want, a remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson film What Women Want. ‘I try to stay diverse in what I do because you’re not going to be the leading lady [forever]. But the age thing seems to be slowly changing – look at me! I’m here, Meryl Streep is still working… I’m trying to change all that, you know?’ The film tells the story of sports agent Ali Davis, who after being passed up for promotion in favour of her male colleagues, turns to a psychic to tap into men’s innermost thoughts. ‘That’s a universal thing all women have experience of,’ she says of sexism in the workplace. ‘That’s what made me do the film, it’s so poignant. I’m still fighting, [but] it’s not this dirty little secret any more. I’m like, “Give me my money!” I’ve proven that I’m bankable, but the fight isn’t over. It’s like, “Oh, what you do is ‘cute’…” when actually, I bring in more money than you ever could. But because I’m a woman, you’re going to cap me?’ You can almost hear her eyes rolling.
But while the scripts are coming in thick and fast, Henson isn’t taking any of it for granted. ‘It feels good to not have to audition and to be green-lighting a movie. But what fulfils my heart is when I walk on set and see people working and I’m the one paying their rent. People talk about wanting to be a superstar, well, that comes with responsibility, baby. You can’t be out there doing crazy things. Lindsay Lohan is a prime example. Every time she got into trouble, my heart was hurting…’ She trails off. Is there anything she wishes she’d known before starting out? ‘I’ve learned a lot – never sleep with your co-star, don’t play yourself or believe your own hype, stay grounded, watch your circle…’ she reels off a list. ‘But I’d tell my younger self, “Don’t change a thing,” because obviously, I did everything right.’ Can’t argue with that.
What Men Want is out on 15 March