Taraji P. Henson


I wear wigs a lot, especially for photo shoots. I have this girl Kendra who braids my hair. She braids so intricately, so beautifully. So I’m trying on the clothes and the silk scarf I have on my head slips off, and I say, “Hey, look at my cornrows, aren’t they beautiful?” Bruce Weber is standing there and he goes, “We’ll shoot that.” And I go,“What? We’ll shoot what?” And he says, “We’ll shoot your hair just like that, it’s beautiful.” And part of me was like, No, no, no, NO! This is the hair no one is supposed to see. This is like behind-closed-doors hair. I feel naked. I feel like a plucked chicken…or a wet one. A baby chicken! But Bruce says to me, “It’s not about the hair, it’s your face.” So I just decided to trust the artist’s vision. As an actress that’s what we do. We are vulnerable every time we put our art out there. Underneath that hair is my soul, and it’s me, it’s mine.

You want to talk about real? You want to talk about the truth? I am 45 this year, and look at my career. Maybe I wasn’t here to be hot and young, but I still look hot and young. Early on, I prayed for longevity. I had to plant my feet into the earth and pray to God and say, “This is what I want.” I thought, Brace yourself, this is a man-made world. Calm your tits, this is just the ride.

My dad was my champion. He’s the reason I’m an actress. I remember calling him one day, so frustrated. I was like, “I’m not getting anything.” And he said, “You asked for LONGEVITY!” and I was like, Uh, yeah Dad, I didn’t think it would take this long. After my first big role, I said, “Oh my God, Daddy, this is it.” He was like, “Do you understand that is nothing compared to what is coming for you? That sun is going to crack open and shine so bright.” He looked off in the distance and said, “You are going to be a sensation.” And I was like, “What the fuck do you see? I want to see what you see.”

Dad was truth serum. Completely uninhibited. I would have to give a disclaimer to my friends: don’t take anything he says too personally, that’s just the type of guy he is. He once literally tossed my gay friend in the closet and said, “I’m going to throw you in the prayer closet and see if you don’t catch fire.” Then he went upstairs laughing: “I love you, Jeffrey, I’m just playing with you. Come out here boy. You gay and that’s all right with me.” My friend didn’t take offense to it. I had already given the disclaimer so he knew.

My dad died right before I went into production for Benjamin Button, and I was devastated. I was compartmentalizing my pain, but this movie forced me to deal with it. Just as my father died I was playing this woman named Queenie, who runs an old-age home, and all she does is deal with death every day. God is interesting. A few months later God says, “I’m also going to take your cousin.”

Let me take you on a trip. My cousin had been battling AIDS and he passed away on the same day that my character died. This is my cousin who took me to drag shows. He told me about down-low brothers, he may have saved my life. He also taught me about being a lady. He told me ladies carry clutches on the red carpet, so sometimes when I don’t carry a clutch I feel I’m disgracing him. It’s the simple stuff you miss in a person. No one ever taught me how to properly put toilet tissue on the spool, with the flap hanging toward you, not underneath. He taught me that, and it lives with me to this day. Whenever I go into someone’s bathroom and their tissue isn’t the right way, I look up in the sky, and I go, Damn!

The day of my cousin’s funeral was the day we shot Queenie’s funeral for the film, and I was upset because I couldn’t be there for him. They had prosthetics on my hands to make them old and the prosthetic kept lifting off of my left hand. I kept telling the makeup team—because David Fincher is very meticulous—“You better come fix this.” I talked to my godmother as soon as I got off and asked her about the funeral. She said, “It was beautiful…except rigor mortis started setting in, in his left hand.”

That’s how powerful art is. It can turn a hateful person into a loving person. It can turn a racist into a person who loves. Art uncovers the truth. My driving force is the truth. I want to breathe truth into every character no matter how ugly or pretty, whether I agree with them or not. Maybe God just put truth serum in my blood. I can’t lie. I have no mask. The truth will manifest on my face.

Take Shug, the pregnant prostitute, the thumb-sucking baby mama from Hustle & Flow. For me she was a diamond in the rough. When I first read that script I remember thinking, How can I get people to go out into the world and save a ho! She could’ve come off as dumb and slow and no one would care. I had to give her the why. She was abused, so it was easy for someone to prey on her. I needed to give her a bit of fight, like if she got that chance, if somebody sowed a good seed in her, she would be an incredible citizen. I think that’s why I gravitate toward those characters, to give them some kind of royalty they wouldn’t necessarily see in their own circumstances. I’m not prostitute-ho material. I’m not going to let a pimp control my mind. I’m too strong for that. Yet I had to hide my power and let Shug’s quiet strength show.

I’m about to play Gertrude, Richard Pryor’s mother, in a Lee Daniels film. You will see her go from this young, beautiful woman who is a prostitute to someone beaten down by life. She has no teeth, no hair—just a broken woman, everything taken from her. And I love her. I’m drawn to characters that scare the shit out of me because I know they are going to unearth something in me.

Then there’s Cookie. The drug-selling, the truth-telling, time-doing…Cookie is the walking, breathing truth. She says it, however embarrassing it may be for you, she says it without blinking. She has an innocence. If you took a child and you never made them afraid, in a society that never tainted children, it would grow up to be Cookie. Society teaches us to be PC. If I ask you a question the first thing that comes to your mind is the truth. But we have been trained to stop, breathe, listen, and manipulate our answers. Cookie does none of that because of what she’s been through. She survived 17 years in a cage and she came out of there with her soul intact. They didn’t break her. That’s the superwoman power that she has. When you have that, when you understand the truth of your strength and your power, nothing can stop you.

See Taraji reprise her role as Cookie in Empire Season 2


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