The Hardworking Taraji P. Henson

taraji-p-henson-benjamin-button-premiereOnce again in the spotlight, a new generation is getting to know the talented Taraji P. Henson. Read my interview with her and discover why everyone is buzzing about her to this day.

I was so happy to read that Taraji P. Henson Is Finally Having Her Moment With “Empire” (BuzzFeed News). That title captures what a lot of people are feeling about the attention and awards buzz Taraji P. Henson is receiving for her performance on Fox’s new television show Empire. No one deserves this attention more than Taraji. She received a Golden Globe for her performance this past weekend, and most certainly stole the show. She passed out cookies to people as she made her way to the stage. An homage to the character that has taken her to the international fame and professional recognition she’s been long overdue to receive. Always a sweetheart, her story bespeaks a woman for whom obstacles  were not able to break her.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Henson back in 2009 as an undergraduate student journalist. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and there was a lot of buzz that she would win at that time. Henson

A Curious Interview with Tariji P. Henson

Stephanie Jevtic

January 12, 2009

Tariji P. Henson opened up her hotel door at Trump International Hotel Towers to talk about “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and her Cinderella journey to huge Oscar buzz. Her passionate performance as Queenie, the savior and adopted mother to Benjamin Button, has Cate Blanchett running for her money. Critics agree that a supporting actress Oscar is very possible for Tariji. Her versatile gifts had been in the shadows until “Hustle & Flow,” where she played Terrence Howard’s wife singing the Oscar winning theme song “It’s Hard Out Here for A Pimp.” Now it’s her time to shine, let’s get to know her.

How did you become involved with the film?

I went in to audition, knowing who was attached: David Fincher, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, etc. I didn’t think I had a shot, but I thought why not? I wanted to make an impression, for Fincher especially to see my work and think of me for future projects. In Hollywood they go by numbers, they look for big names for box office draw. It can’t always be about creativity, a movie needs visibility too. I knew how the system worked, I was realistic. I knew that a callback, a series of test screens meant nothing. Lorraine May Field saw my first audition and cried like a crazy woman; she noticed something special in me and pushed for me to be seriously considered. I tested in front of Fincher later on, knowing this meant nothing official but definitely something good. Lorraine cried in front of him highly recommending me. I got the job and was so excited. Lorraine and I are really great friends, I’m glad I met her.

What attracted you most to the project? It’s very different from your past work.

I was a big fan of David Fincher, “Fight Club” name any film. I thought bold choices, he makes bold choices and I’m a big risk taker, I liked that most. He never did a film like this with a sort of fairy tale element to it, period, tender, and familial. Brad Pitt as well, not doing a pretty role and a lot of risks with production and unique storyline. Not to mention the technology, so amazing.

You are a real rising star, “Hustle & Flow” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” bringing you attention and acclaim. Tell us how you got into acting?

I chose Electric Engineering as my major, but my father said after that first year that destiny was telling me I shouldn’t be doing that for my life. A “D” in Pre-Calc proved that to me, so I majored in Theater instead. Later I was a single mom in L.A. with my son, doing temp jobs. You get scared when things aren’t working out. I’m a fighter, so I never stopped working hard. Deep down you know what you want, you just have to be unafraid and know what you need to do to get it. And it was all chance: the right place, the right time, and the right people.

What did you use to create the character of Queenie? She is not originally in the original short story, so how did you start from scratch?

Eric Roth is one of those writers whose script can paint the movie in your mind. I wrote the back-story for her, an exercise actors do to create a history. I studied the turn of the century, people of the different decades and how the body decays. You may notice how her right arm becomes stiff when she’s older. The movie is about life cycling, so it was important to show Queenie’s process and transformation physically and emotionally over time. Her passions and what made her tick, all of this I got inspired by the women in my family; three generations of women gave me different character traits to play with for Queenie.

The most important thing was acing the beginning, when Queenie first sees Benjamin on her doorstep. It had to be perfect, instant chemistry and understanding. When she picks him up and falls in love with this baby the audience has to be convinced of what Queenie sees in Benjamin. She sees him as a miracle and feels maternal bond with him. The movie loses its interest without Queenie’s interest in Benjamin.

Talk about the CGI staging; Brad Pitt goes from decrepit enfant to teenager. How were your scenes staged with him?

I was talking to people with blue socks on their heads! Stunt men were suited in blue, with their faces blacked for Brad’s to be placed on. Brad was in the studio for much of the beginning, his face and expressions did the acting while physically it was computerized motion. I have a vivid imagination so I could’ve played to cardboard boxes if I had to.

How was working with Brad Pitt? 

You do get that star struck feeling meeting Brad Pitt, like every female would. Actors live between the takes, Brad and I can turn the acting on and off very easily. Getting too into your role can make you go nuts if you can’t separate it from yourself and let it go. So everyone is laughing and having a good time on breaks; the tone on set is important to a good working environment.

Filming in the south rather than the original setting of Baltimore, was there an effect being in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina?

The movie goes from 1918 after World War I, through the 1930’s with the Great Depression, and so on. There was an emotional atmosphere in New Orleans you could feel, and it helped in channeling that mindset of going through hard times. You have to laugh to keep from crying in life you know?