Taraji P. Henson’s talent leads to many types of roles
Taraji P. Henson breathes rarefied air in Hollywood. She’s one of few actresses who has enjoyed mainstream success and acclaim while maintaining a devoted fan base that spans wealth, generations and geography but is also decidedly black. She’s the “around the way girl” — as her memoir released last year is titled — who made it big, nabbing an Oscar nomination for 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie Lyon on “Empire” and three Emmy nominations.
But she’s never forgotten from where she’s come. Like her film debut working with John Singleton on 2001’s “Baby Boy” as the scorned girlfriend of Tyrese’s titular character.
Perhaps that’s why many critics often find themselves perplexed by the 47-year-old’s choices in roles. How on Earth, they say, can such a talent go from mesmerizing in the Oscar-nominated (and box office smash) “Hidden Figures” last year to the far-from-perfect action thriller “Proud Mary,” which came out in January, to “Acrimony” from critical pariah — yet prolific multi-hyphenate — Tyler Perry?
“I’m in love with the craft of acting,” Henson said. “It’s like Prince and Michael Jackson with music. Could you see them never playing music? I see them now, and they’re not here, because they put so much of themselves in their music. That how I am about my art.
“I’ll never get to a certain level where I don’t do this anymore or that anymore. If it’s a good script, I’m doing it. … I don’t care if it’s a million-dollar movie or a five-dollar movie. If I’m connected, I’ve got to do it.”
In “Acrimony” Henson plays Melinda, a devoutly faithful girlfriend-turned-wife who tires of standing by her devious boyfriend-turned-husband (Lyriq Bent). At one point she becomes enraged when it appears her college sweetheart has, once again, betrayed her trust.
This film marks the third time Henson and Perry and have worked together, following 2008’s “The Family That Preys” and 2009’s “I Can Do Bad All by Myself.” As to why she keeps returning to Perry’s writing and directing tutelage, she says simply, “I trust him.”
“He gives me good jobs and good roles,” she added. “The first time I worked with him, I got to work with Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard and Sanaa Lathan who I all look up to as an actress. Why would I turn that down as an artist? The next time we worked together, he called me the day after the Oscars when I was nominated and gave me my first leading role in a movie.
“He would always say, ‘I’m going to work with you again, but it has to be right.’ So, I knew when he was calling that he had something great.”
The Times caught up with Henson to talk about her latest role, how critics have responded to her work over the years and what she’s begun to learn as she continues producing her own projects.
Q: Why did you say yes to this role?
A: Because it reminded me so much of Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction.” That’s the carrot Tyler dangled in front of me … then I read the script and I was, like, “I’m in.” What I didn’t know was that he was trying to shoot it in 10 days. Because who does that?
He originally wanted me to play the (character in college and as an older woman), but “Empire” wasn’t going to let me off all of those days so he broke it up. And (Ajiona Alexus), who plays me as Cookie, plays the younger me in “Acrimony.” She naturally has light eyes and wears dark contact lenses for “Empire.” This time I wore light colored contacts to match her eyes. So my portion of the film (was completed) in five days.
That’s crazy, is it not?
Yes! And it’s not like it was an easy character to portray. This woman is complex as hell and I literally had no time to research or do anything. I just had to really trust the process, my training and what was on the page.
How does that work for you, then, to still be in the mindset of the complicated character that is Cookie and then jump over to play this similarly complex character that manifests herself very differently?
That’s the excuse I tried to give Tyler (not to do it), and he didn’t go for it. He said, “You’ve been living with Cookie for three years. Shut up and come down here and do this movie.” He told me to stop being dramatic. (laughs)
And the way I choose my projects … I only do projects that scare the life out of me. That way, I know I have to face my fears and it’s something that’s going to grow me and change me and transform me. I like roles that challenge me and this did in more ways than one.
So you find comfort in being uncomfortable?
I love a challenge because otherwise what am I doing? If it’s not challenging me, I’m not challenging my audience. And that audience, they get tired real quick. You can’t keep playing the same roles because it’s expensive to go to the movies. It’s time-consuming, and people have got problems to tend to and families. I want to make it an enjoyable moment. I work so hard and try to put so many different characters in the can because I want people to trust me. Like Meryl Streep: You’re going to see anything she does, right? There are certain actresses where you know that if you pay your money, you’re going to be entertained. That’s what I work so hard for.
How do you think that approach has served you?
I think it’s kept me relevant. And it’s kept me working, that’s for sure.
But we know of actors who, once they nab that Oscar nomination, no longer appear in a certain type of movie they might have built their career doing.
I’m going to show you the blueprint to stay relevant and have longevity: I don’t want to target one audience. My work is all over the place. My first television show was on Lifetime as a series regular. The next time I do something with Lifetime, it’s a TV movie, (“Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story”), I get an Emmy nomination. Not to toot my own horn, but that’s a beautiful cycle of life if I’ve ever seen one. But what if I said, “I don’t want to do Lifetime. I’ve been there and done that?” I wouldn’t have gotten my first Emmy nomination.
See, I don’t judge it. I’m not trying to gain anything from it. I don’t pick roles for the Oscar or the Emmy.
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