Taraji P. Henson conquered fear a long time ago. Good thing, too.
Years ago, when she was fresh out of high school, the 38-year-old Washington, D.C. native almost let her fear stand in the way her dreams of leaving her mark on the acting world. It took failure in a career she hated to make her reach for success in the one she wanted.
Today, Henson has it all figured out. In a lavish suite high in Chicago’s new Trump Tower, she’s deep in her promotional schedule for the newest and most-high profile film of her career—The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which also stars a chronologically challenged Brad Pitt—but she’s taking it like a pro. Her look is polished and sophisticated, her posture upright and feminine, and her answers delivered with the pinpoint precision and genuineness of a woman on the brink of the success of her lifetime.
She didn’t know it at the time, but within two weeks of our interview Henson would receive an individual Screen Actors’ Guild award nomination for her role as Queenie, surrogate mother to Pitt’s character in Benjamin Button (another fear she had to overcome), and the film itself would earn a multiple Golden Globe nods, including one for Best Picture.
But it’s clear Henson isn’t the kind of actor that needs gilded affirmations to measure success. She just wants to push herself, she says, and never let her fear of the unknown hold her back again.
Tell me a little about your character, Queenie, and why she makes the choices others couldn’t. Why does she see Benjamin differently?
She thinks she’s barren at the beginning of the movie. She thinks she can’t have her own kids, so the stakes are higher for her. She runs an old-folks home, and is surrounded by death and decay. Everything around her is old, and smells old. What Benjamin represents for her is life. Even though he looks odd, he’s still a baby. It’s a new scent in the house, it’s a new scent for her. She’s a nurturer anyway, which is why she runs the household. They say when you age, you pretty much revert back to being a baby. She’s a mother figure to the people she cares for. But what I thought was so brilliant about the writing and the direction, and what I’m most proud of about my portrayal, is that we didn’t play her like a stereotypical “mammy” character. Each of us wanted to stay away form that. We’ve seen that image before. It’s a new day. We wanted to make her a real woman instead of a stereotype or a caricature.
She made some pretty tough sacrifices. How did you identify as a mother?
That’s what you do—you make sacrifices. As a parent, you can’t think only of yourself. There’s someone else you have to consider. I didn’t have to research that much.
What about the script appealed to you the most?
Eric Roth is a brilliant writer. You have some writers who are good at dialogue but horrible at telling the story, and then some who are good at telling the story but are horrible at painting the picture. Eric is a well-rounded writer. You can see the story as you’re reading it, and the way he writes is how people speak. Knowing he adapted the story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, which I didn’t read until after I did the film, I thought his choices were bold. It was bold of him to make Queenie a black woman in the early 1900’s in America, when race was driving force. That excited me most. A script like this does not come along every day in Hollywood—it was flawless. It was such a great read. You start, and the next thing you know it’s finished and you’re crying. If I can read that, and feel all the emotions as if I was already watching the film, you know that’s incredible.
What did you expect from [director] David Fincher?
I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I was excited to work with him, being one of the great directors of our time. I knew to expect greatness, because that’s what he produces. But he’s extremely nurturing for a man, which I didn’t expect. Not that all men aren’t nurturing—I’m not trying to make a generalization like that—but most men leave the nurturing stuff up to women. But I felt very safe with him. He cares about everything. He’s obsessive, and so am I. He’s a perfectionist, and so am I. I never thought in my life I’d meet someone who obsessed more than me. We connected on that level. He’s known to do a lot of takes, which I admire. And I loved it, because it’s rare that you get a chance to not rush. There was not one moment rushed in the film, and a film of this magnitude needs that kind of nurturing and that kind of time. It’s very rare for me to want to lie in a male director’s lap and suck my thumb and have him tell me a bedtime story, but that’s what it was. Let me paint THAT picture for you.
I have to ask you this, and I’m sure all the others have already—
How was it working with Brad Pitt?
Not exactly. Mine was, ‘What was it like playing Brad Pitt’s mother?’
It wasn’t sexy. It’s not what I thought of when I made my list of who I wanted to work with—of course Brad was at the top. I thought it would be one of those hot, sexy scenes, where we play partners as cops or something—but never his mother! But it was fun, and he’s a great guy. And I enjoyed getting to know him as a person outside of the celebrity thing.
What is the film’s biggest strength, in your opinion?
I think it encompasses everything that goes with great filmmaking, from technology to costumes to cinematography, and the best of the best in the craft of acting and directing. It runs the full gamut of filmmaking. It’s an amazing piece of work that I think will be around for a long time.
Is it true you were almost an electrical engineer?
Kind of. I auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., for high school, and I didn’t get accepted. I thought that meant I couldn’t act. So when it came time to go to college, I went “iny-miny-miney-moe” and picked electrical engineering [and attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. While I was there, I had a longing, still, for the theater. But fear is a powerful thing if you give it that kind of control. I remember how my face was pressed against the glass of the theater building when they had a casting call for a play. I mustered up the strength—the balls—to go and audition. They said, ‘Come back tomorrow to see if you have a call back.’ I never went back. It was that fear again. To this day I don’t know if I got accepted. But as fate would have it, I failed Pre-Calculus. I needed that. If I passed it, I probably would have talked myself into sticking with [electrical engineering]. So I called my dad, and I was crying because I had never got an F in anything, even when I tried. He said, ‘That’s what you get.’ He was glad I got an F. He wanted me to pursue acting. He felt that was my natural thing. I owed him $7,000 because I wasted his time and money, but I got to get back to what I was supposed to be doing in life. So I transferred to [Howard University]. So it was a detour, kind of a roundabout.
Tell me about your upcoming project, Hurricane Season.
It’s with Forrest Whitaker, and it’s a true story about hurricane Katrina. He’s a basketball coach at a school that was destroyed, but they were able to rebuild and get back some of the players and go on to win the championship. I’m really proud of it.
So you’ve spent considerable time in New Orleans in your recent work. What have you come away with?
Just, how to be thankful for what I have. It’s like Queenie said, you never know what’s coming for you. I’m pretty sure that the people [who were victimized by Katrina] would have left if they knew Katrina was as bad as it was, no matter what it took. But no one expected what came. Benjamin Button wasn’t always set there, either. It was supposed to be in Baltimore. But then creatively, David said, ‘Let’s try New Orleans. There’s something mystical and magical about New Orleans… it’s a character in and of itself.’ And then Katrina happened. And then, we thought it was an even better reason to set the story there. Not only would it help bring money to the city, but we thought, maybe that’s what should be happening [as Cate Blanchett’s character, Daisy, tells the story of Benjamin’s life]. It brings the story up to date. It’s a period piece, but this makes it more familiar for people today.
What’s next from here?
I’d like to get into more comedy. I’m a comedic actress, but I’m glad I’m being taken seriously first, because it’s hard to do the reverse. But I’d like incorporate directing or producing. I still have a lot to learn. It’s a big world.
Quick Questions with Taraji P. Henson
What did you have for breakfast this morning? An egg white omelet with onion, tomato, spinach and turkey bacon. And a smoothie. That’s what I have every morning.
Favorite fruit? Mango. And passion fruit.
Who would you like to have dinner with? Living: Meryl Streep. She’s my favorite actress. Dead: Betty Davis
Who would you like to be for 24 hours? First, Beyonce comes mind, and second, Queen Elizabeth. Why not be queen for a day?
Worst habit? Obsessing.
Favorite childhood toy? Baby alive. It was like the baby in Benjamin Button, but it didn’t do as much. It just moved its head and you’d feed it food, and it had a hole from the mouth to the poop, and you’d feed it the food and it seemed like it was really digesting. It was like having my own baby, except I could throw it to the bottom of a toy box when I got bored.