Taraji Henson Defies Odds On And Off Screen

Actress Taraji P. Henson is celebrating her Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Queenie in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where she stars alongside Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt. The Washington, D.C.-native talks about her promising career and offers thoughts on making it as a black actress in tenseltown.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are talking Oscars. And today, we're going to talk to a petite young woman who makes a huge impression whenever she's on the screen: Taraji P. Henson. She may be best known to this point as the prostitute with a heart of gold in the attention-getting 2005 film, "Hustle & Flow," and now she has scored a Best Supporting Actress nod for her role as Queenie in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." I'd like to welcome Taraji P. Henson. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. TARAJI P. HENSON (Actress): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I should say, welcome home.

Ms. HENSON: Yes.

MARTIN: As you are a home girl, born and raised in D.C., and a proud alumna of Howard University.

Ms. HENSON: Yes.

MARTIN: What's it like to be home?

Ms. HENSON: Well, you know, I come home twice a year anyway. I just left here Christmas, so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, let's skip to what really matters. Do you have a pretty dress?

Ms. HENSON: I don't have anything picked out yet. It's too soon. I never really make up my mind until a few days before because it's all about comfort for me. That's a long evening. It's a four-hour ceremony, you know, and then you have the parties afterward, so comfortability is number one on the list, and then sexy, chic and everything else.

MARTIN: Well, you just sound like an old hand at this whole award thing. I know you've been nominated for a bunch of things, but aren't you excited? You just sound like, yeah, I'm going. It sounds like you're going to the Safeway. What's going on?

Ms. HENSON: No. I'm really excited. I still can't believe it, to be quite honest. I guess I'm still walking around in a state of shock, you know. This is every actor's dream, you know, to not only flirt with Oscar but to be nominated for one and hopefully take one home. So, it's just - I don't know. I think I have bouts of Tourette Syndrome. You know, I'll be driving along and I'm perfectly fine, and then it will dawn on me, you know, I have a new title now, and I'll just start screaming, and then I'll get it together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENSON: People are probably thinking I'm crazy, out of my mind.

MARTIN: You mean, you feel like you have to jerk the wheel, go...

Ms. HENSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: I'm going to win on Oscar! I'm going to win on Oscar!

Ms. HENSON: It's sort of like I'm driving along and then, ahhh! And then I pull it back together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Speaking of the Safeway, do people treat you differently?

Ms. HENSON: I don't know if people treat me any differently. I just - I'm noticing that more people know me and know who I am and know how to pronounce my name now. I've been known as that girl. That's that girl from - that's that girl - weren't you that girl in? So, it's just good to know that now the girl has a name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But part of that, couldn't it be your versatility?

Ms. HENSON: I think so.

MARTIN: I mean, you are very different in each role.

Ms. HENSON: I think so. I think this is the film - "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is the film that definitely made everybody aware of me and all of my work. They were able to connect the dots. But before then, I was unrecognizable. And still to this day, I can be in a room full of industry people and they've seen the film, and then they look at me and they don't even know that I'm Queenie, that I play Queenie. So - that's good. I like to disappear in my roles because I don't have an assistant. I still like to go grocery shopping myself.

MARTIN: Well, that's going to change. But you can pick up some celery for me while you're at it, if you don't mind, because I really don't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENSON: You don't like shopping?

MARTIN: I don't. I really don't. Tell me about Queenie, and tell me about - for those who haven't seen it, the eight people who still haven't seen it - tell me about Queenie and tell me about the movie.

Ms. HENSON: Well, Queenie is, to me, the embodiment of unconditional love. And the film takes place in early 1900s. It spans a huge amount of time, actually. Opens with Katrina about to touch down, and then the series of flashbacks that you understand who Benjamin Button is.

But you know, Benjamin Button is left on my doorstep in the early 1900s in a time where, you know, racism is rampant in America. And this woman is able to overlook race and how odd he looks. And she runs an old folks home, and you know, people are coming there to die so she's surrounded by death, and this baby represents life.

When the movie opens, she's barren, she can't have her own children. And what I found so refreshing about the character is that instead of, you know, falling to the negative sides of not being able to have a child -that's something happens to a woman when she can't bear children because you kind feel like that's what we were all put here to do, reproduce. But she still finds joy in life. She's still able to smile, and I think that's why God blesses her eventually.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip. This is where right after Benjamin has been left on the doorstep, and Queenie goes to go - I guess, is it the doctor? Is there a doctor...

Ms. HENSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Who attends to the nursing home patients? So she goes to get him to check out the baby, and this is the conversation that they have. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

Mr. PATRIC THOMAS O'BRIEN: (As Dr. Rose) No room for another mouth to feed here. No one(ph) in the foundation, despite their good intentions, thinks this place is a large nuisance as it is. A baby...

Ms. TARAJI HENSON: (As Queenie) You saying he don't have long?

Mr. O'BRIEN: (As Dr. Rose) Queenie, some creatures aren't meant to survive.

Ms. HENSON: (As Queenie) No, this baby, he is a miracle, that's for certain. Just not the kind of miracle one hopes to see.

MARTIN: The curious thing about Benjamin Button, of course, is that he's born old. He looks like an old man, and he actually gets younger as the movie progresses. But in talking about Queenie, you just seem like you just know her inside and out. How did you come to your understanding of her?

Ms. HENSON: A lot of that goes to the writing. I mean, Eric Roth is an - he's one of the best writers of our time, you know. He brought us "Forrest Gump," "Munich," "Ali." I just remember when I first read the script, I could see the film as I was reading it, and I was moved emotionally - tears, you know, laughing out loud. So pretty much everything was there on the page, but in order for me to make Queenie come alive, I had to do back story, research, you know, that's where all that acting training comes in.

MARTIN: Were you thinking of someone as you were developing her character?

Ms. HENSON: Something funny happened. I'm always the cousin that can't make it to the family functions because I'm busy. But right before we went into principal photography, I had down time, and my grandmother had a get-together at her house down in the country, Scotland, North Carolina. She has eight children, five of them women, one being my mother. There was a woman there to represent every age I had to portray, so I went, and I just sat back and watched them. They didn't even know they were character studies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If they should(ph), you got to earn brownie points for the family and do your work at the same time...

Ms. HENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: That worked out well. How did you get the part, by the way? And the reason I'm asking you this is there's this wonderful story that I read about you, about how you go all in once you've determined that there's a part that you want. There is this wonderful story about how you got the part in "Baby Boy" and then in "Hustle and Flow." Terrence Howard, it was reported, initially had someone else in mind for the part, and you really fought for it.

Ms. HENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Did you have to go through that for this part?

Ms. HENSON: No. I honestly didn't think I had a shot at this film. I thought maybe they had a big name attached and they were just holding auditions in case that name fell through. I didn't know until after I got the film that Lorraine Mayfield, the casting director, had already had me pegged from the beginning. She saw my performance in "Hustle and Flow," and called Fincher while she was in the theater and said, I found Queenie. I was like, God, I wish you would have told me that before.

MARTIN: Do you think it helped your audition to be more relaxed or what? What do you think?

Ms. HENSON: You know, I was more relaxed anyway because I had already booked "Talk to Me." So I was on my way out of town to go and work. So I was just like, well, you know what, I already have a job, so if I don't get this, this is fine, and I didn't really expect to get it anyway.

MARTIN: "Talk to Me" is, of course, a particular favorite of everybody here because it's about another Washington...

Ms. HENSON: Radio.

MARTIN: Well, it's about radio. It's about radio legend Petey Greene. It's set in D.C.

Ms. HENSON: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: And, you know, it's just where we are now.

Ms. HENSON: I had to fight for that one.

MARTIN: Did you? How come?

Ms. HENSON: I had to fight for that one.

MARTIN: Well, you play his over-the-top...

Ms. HENSON: Sassy, smart-mouth, fierce girlfriend.

MARTIN: Fierce, fierce girlfriend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, can we play that clip? We do have a clip from "Talk to Me," and in this clip, Vernell is trying to help Petey build up his confidence to get a job. And speaking of fierce, those outfits were something else. Those '70s outfits were something else. I don't know how you pulled off those platform shoes without falling down. But if we could play a short clip, I'd like to. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie "Talk to Me")

Ms. HENSON: (As Vernell Watson) Look it here, Petey. Man, you know I've been with you 10 years, right? Hell, and I know you was in jail, so you know how I feel about you. But I didn't get all foxy nails done, new dress to hear you talk about you can't move. Now, I know you're scared, OK? Every man is scared. But baby, I'm standing here in a girdle and some tight-assed shoes, and I want to meet me some Night Hawk(ph), so you gots to get your legs to moving and get in there and get your job.

Mr. DON CHEADLE: (As Petey Greene) What if I ain't good enough?

Ms. HENSON: (As Vernell Watson) Hell, every man I know ain't good enough, Petey. But even with all your (bleep), you're the only who is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's a wonderful speech.

Ms. HENSON: Yeah, well...

MARTIN: That was a wonderful - very, you know...

Ms. HENSON: It got his legs to moving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you have anybody to give you that speech?

Ms. HENSON: My son. I just look at him. He's my inspiration, you know, because everything I do affects him. So you know, how will he learn to dream if I don't?

MARTIN: Do I have it right that - you had him when you were at Howard, right?

Ms. HENSON: Yes.

MARTIN: You were a college student.

Ms. HENSON: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: It must have been tough...

Ms. HENSON: I mean, life is what you make it...

MARTIN: And you're a theater major, and you know, you're try to perform. It's not like you're just doing a nine to five.

Ms. HENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're doing theater. You're trying to work - you're trying to audition, you're working at night. It must have been hard.

Ms. HENSON: Yeah, but I'm an extreme optimist. Life for me wasn't a crystal stair, but I didn't - you know, I guess I have a part of Queenie in me. I don't harp on the negative because if you do, then there's no progression. There's no forward movement. You got to always look on the bright side of things, and we are in control. Like, you have control over the choices you make.

I chose to have my baby. I didn't look at it as a hindrance. I looked at it as a blessing. What it did was it amped my will to survive and to make something of myself because now I have these eyes looking up at me, like, what are we going to do? And I'm not going to fail because it trickles down. I looked at it as a blessing. I took it all in stride. I was like, thank you, God. I'm going to do right by you, and I'm going to raise this...

MARTIN: You were never scared?

Ms. HENSON: No. I'm never scared. You can't be. I mean, fear and faith can't coexist, you know? Do I get scared sometimes? Absolutely, I'm human. But I believe in God, and at the end of the day, that's who got my back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actress Taraji Henson. She's been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

One more question I had about the film and your Oscar nomination. Congratulations on that.

Ms. HENSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Did I - did I remember to say that?

Ms. HENSON: Yes, you said that.

MARTIN: Congratulations for that.

Ms. HENSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is the first time since "The Color Purple" that two African-American actresses are competing against each other in the same category. You're going up against Viola Davis for her role in "Doubt." Of course, there are three other actresses in this competition, too, in that category. What do you think about that? What do you think that means?

Ms. HENSON: I welcome it. I wish we had more color in the Oscars. I mean, you know, we had a luncheon the other day, the pre-Oscar luncheon where they make it official. They give you your certificate that you've been nominated. And I looked around, it was 112 of us, and there were only two black women there. Thank God, two black women. That's good for us because we're at the lowest of the toting(ph) poll, you know. But certainly, she and I aren't the best in Hollywood. There are others, you know. Hopefully their voices will be heard. Hopefully this is a new thing that we'll start to see more color.

MARTIN: Is it going to be hard sitting there?

Ms. HENSON: Absolutely. I'll be nervous, but at the end of the day, I already won, you know. I have a nomination. I have a new title. I'm in a new league of actors, and a lot of people can't say that.

MARTIN: One of the things I think people have talked about that you bring to a role is that you take it out of the stereotype that maybe people were expecting.

Ms. HENSON: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: In your first sort of breakout role, if I can call it that, in "Baby Boy," you played Yvette, a young, single mom determined to kind of manage her relationship despite the fact that, you know, her man was not - well, he wasn't the easiest man to get along with...

Ms. HENSON: Yeah, he wasn't the most mature.

MARTIN: He wasn't the most mature individual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And then after that, you played Shug in the movie, "Hustle and Flow." Shug, for people who remember, she was a prostitute. She's pregnant. Tougher one, in some ways, but there was a sweetness that you brought to it. I don't know, I'll be curious - I'm going to play a short clip, and then I'll be interested to hear what - what you think you brought to it.

Ms. HENSON: OK.

MARTIN: Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie "Hustle and Flow")

Ms. TARAJI HENSON: (As Shug) (Singing) You know, it's hard out here for a pimp.

Mr. TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Djay) Shug, I'm gonna need you to sing out, OK, baby?

Ms. HENSON: (As Shug) OK.

Mr. HOWARD: (As Djay) Shug, feel that.

Ms. HENSON: (As Shug) (Singing) You know it's hard out here for a pimp when you're trying to get this money for the rich(ph). For the Cadillacs and gas money spent we'll have a whole lot of (bleep) jumping...

Mr. HOWARD: (As Djay) Push that (bleep).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In this clip, for people who don't remember, Djay, who was played by Terrence Howard, is a pimp recording a song. He's hoping to get a record deal and has a lot riding on this. And he's asked Shug, who seems to be in a - how can we put it? She's kind of taking family and medical leave from her role as a prostitute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENSON: Yeah. She's on maternity leave.

MARTIN: She's on maternity leave while she's pregnant, seems to be kind of managing the household. How did you think about Shug?

Ms. HENSON: Well, for one, I don't judge my characters. I mean, people are people. I don't know any young woman I have ever met that said, when I grow up, I want to be a prostitute. There's always circumstances as to why people choose the paths and make the choices that they make in life. So I don't judge. Therefore, bringing humanity to the characters that I portray so that the audience in the end won't judge, they'll emphatize. So, that's it.

MARTIN: Well, but a lot of people do judge, and there are some - I'm sure you're aware of this kind of debate, there's this whole discussion around that film.

Ms. HENSON: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: On the one hand, I think people were very delighted with your performance, Terrence Howard's performance. There was something very unique about that film and watchable. On the other hand, I think there were a lot of people who were disturbed because they feel like, you know, you're kind of glorifying a negative lifestyle. And there are people who feel that that's how black actors and actresses get rewarded in Hollywood, for glorifying, validating the most destructive aspects of the culture.

Ms. HENSON: Well, I disagree...

MARTIN: What do you think about that?

Ms. HENSON: I disagree. I disagree because - well, first of all, you can't please everybody, so that's that. Then second of all, I don't think it's a black-white thing. I think it's people identifying with characters that they are afraid of. If you think about it, Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing a woman who was killing - she was a prostitute, you know. She was killing people. What was it - "The Departed," they were gangsters. You know what I mean? So, it's not that it's even glorified.

MARTIN: But you know what I'm saying, though, that people feel that, well, white actors seem to still have more choices of how they are portrayed. For every "Departed," for every Al Pacino gangster sort of character there's a Tom Hanks who gets to be heroic, and that it seems that, you know, when a Denzel Washington won his Best Actor for "Training Day," where he plays a thug, that kind of thing.

Ms. HENSON: But I think he won an Oscar for body - his body of work, and sometimes that happens, and not just to black actors.

MARTIN: You think you get more of an opportunity to strut your stuff in a role where a person is not heroic.

Ms. HENSON: I just like to get to strut myself every time I'm on a scene. I love playing characters that are very far removed from who I am because I love a good challenge.

MARTIN: There's another movie playing in the theaters at the same time as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is playing, but also, "Not Easily Broken" is also in theaters now. Tell us a little bit about that and why you were attracted to that role.

Ms. HENSON: I was attracted to that role because that was the chance for me to just play a regular woman. It wasn't very heavy character work. She was a professional woman. I get a lot of - you always play these nurturing roles - so it was good to step outside of that because she hated children. I'm a character actress, so I like to play different characters. I don't ever want to feel like I'm repeating myself.

MARTIN: You, as I mentioned, are a proud alumna of Howard University's theater program, which has also produced some wonderful major figures.

Ms. HENSON: There were three of us in "Hustle and Flow." Paula J. Parker, Anthony Anderson and myself.

MARTIN: And of course, Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen.

Ms. HENSON: Who called me the day I got the nomination, called me at home to congratulate me. You know, because I won their - they have a scholarship in honor of their father at Howard University, and I won that when I was six months pregnant. So they consider me their protege. They're very proud.

MARTIN: As they should be. Do you have a brick on the yard as an alumni? You have an alumni brick with your name on it?

Ms. HENSON: You know what, I don't know. I really don't know. Every time I come home, the school is closed. I come home Christmas and then I come home summer, and no one's there, so. One time I did get a chance to come back was - I think it was two years ago when they invited me to come to the homecoming.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to say, I'm not lobbying, but it seems to me you'd be a candidate for a homecoming parade marshal.

Ms. HENSON: Yeah, they had Terence last - this past homecoming. I was busy, though. I was at New York doing something.

MARTIN: You're just playing hard to get. I understand, you're at a different level now.

Ms. HENSON: I'm really - I'm not playing hard to get at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Excuse me, I'm an Oscar nominee. I'm very busy. Excuse me, I'll fit you in if I can.

Ms. HENSON: That's not me at all.

MARTIN: I'll fit you in if I can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, you're a little young to be offering wisdom, but do you have any wisdom to share for particularly for aspiring young actors and actresses such as yourself?

Ms. HENSON: Just in general, to people and humans in general, you just have to dream. If you're not dreaming, you're not living because dreams do come true, and I'm a living testimony.

MARTIN: Was this your dream?

Ms. HENSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Taraji Henson is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." She can also be seen in another film, "Not Easily Broken," which is also in theaters now. Taraji, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.

Ms. HENSON: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: