Creating Queenie: Taraji Henson's Leap Of Faith The Benjamin Button actress talks with NPR's Michele Norris about bringing a character to life on screen — and helping audiences connect with the movie's distinctly different hero.
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Creating Queenie: Taraji Henson's Leap Of Faith

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Creating Queenie: Taraji Henson's Leap Of Faith

Creating Queenie: Taraji Henson's Leap Of Faith

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

There's a saying in Hollywood that in the right hands, there is no such thing as a small role.

A: A prostitute with dreams of stardom, a gun-wielding lesbian, a foxy momma from the '70s. And in the film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Henson makes big waves again, portraying a woman named Queenie. The role earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

I talked with Henson recently, and we began by talking about a key scene in the film, the moment when a white infant who, curiously, looks like someone in old age is left at the doorstep of the New Orleans nursing home where Queenie works.

TARAJI HENSON: I knew that in order for the audience to fall in love with Benjamin Button, Queenie had to. So I had to really spend time with that little, ugly, animatronic baby, and I had to stare at it until it was cute.


HENSON: Because I knew that if she didn't fall in love immediately, that we would lose the audience.

NORRIS: So you had to - and you didn't see the baby for a long time in the film. It was just you. It was all conveyed through your emotions.

HENSON: Yeah. Exactly.



HENSON: (As Queenie) (Unintelligible) the Lord did something here.

MAHERSHALALHASHBAZ ALI: (As Tizzy) I hope I didn't hurt it, stepping on it like that. We best leave that to the police.

HENSON: (As Queenie) Oh, baby.

ALI: (As Tizzy) I'll go.

HENSON: (As Queenie) It's for sure nobody wanted to keep it. Come on, baby.

HENSON: She knew from the moment she laid eyes on that baby that that baby was put on her doorstep for a reason because she believes every human deserves unconditional love, and that baby represented life for her, something new. That's why she didn't think twice about it.

NORRIS: And she...

HENSON: She was able to overlook - look beyond race in the early 1900s. She was able to look beyond his odd exterior. She just knew he deserved life, and she wanted to give it to him.


HENSON: (As Queenie) You are as ugly as an old pot, but you're still the child of God.

NORRIS: David Fincher is the director of this film. He's very exacting director.

HENSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

NORRIS: And I imagine that he had strong ideas about who Queenie should be.


NORRIS: But what did you bring to this? Is there a particular aspect of this character or even a scene that you improvised that was not originally in the script that's really all about you and something that you brought to this film?

HENSON: There - I mean, I didn't really - like - Eric Roth is such an incredible writer. Everything pretty much was on the page, but I do remember one moment where Benjamin Button first comes back after he had left to go off and be a man. He fights in the war, and then he comes back.


BRAD PITT: (As Benjamin Button) Queenie?

HENSON: (As Queenie) Yes? Oh, sweet Jesus. Oh, you're home. Lord, you came back.


HENSON: Sweet Jesus, that's what I brought. I would always go sweet Jesus. That wasn't written in there.

NORRIS: And that hand clap, the hand clap, the physical...

HENSON: That hand clap, that just came, that just came.


HENSON: (As Queenie) Oh, you look like you've been born again. You're younger than the springtime. I think that preacher laid hands on you gave you a second life. I knew at that moment I saw you, you were special.

HENSON: When I can trust my director, I can jump in with my eyes closed, feet first, and I know he'll be there to catch me. I can be as uninhibited as I can, which allows the character to really breathe and live.


HENSON: (As Queenie) I'll tell you what, my knees are sore because I've been on them every night, asking the Lord. I say God, just bring him home safely.

HENSON: That was an ad lib. And it just came out of a place of comfort that David Fincher creates on the set, and he just sits back and lets you go.


HENSON: (As Queenie) Remember what I told you?

PITT: (As Button) You never know what's coming for you.

HENSON: (As Queenie) That's right. Sit down.


NORRIS: You never know what's coming for you.

HENSON: You never know. You never know.

NORRIS: How did you find the right voice, the right body language, the right tone for Queenie?

HENSON: I talk to my characters. I read the scripts over, and I let them talk to me. I don't force anything on any of my characters. And I think acting can be quite spiritual because you're allowing your body to be used as a vessel for these characters. It's almost like a possession, almost, you know, to come in and take over and use your body. So I don't force it. I just read the script over and over and over, and after a while, the character will tell you what they want to say or how they want to say it or how they want to walk.

A lot of this stuff comes in the research. You know, Queenie lived from the early 1900s to the 1960-something. I had to do research on everything that happened in the time she was living because, as you know, whatever happens in society affects us and molds us and shapes us.

So, you know, it was a lot of research. I had to do research on what happens to an aging body. I remember my grandmother had a get-together; she has eight children, five of them women, one being my mother. I sat back and watched them all. They didn't even know at the time they were character studies.

But I paid particular attention to my grandmother because she had just had knee-replacement surgery. My grandmother at the time was like 81. And then it started making me think about what part of Queenie's body would give her the most grief, you know, and I just started, you know, researching arthritis and things like that.

NORRIS: And she worked hard. She was always lifting people in and out of bed.

HENSON: She was always lifting people, yes, cleaning people that couldn't clean themselves, dressing them. And, you know, she ran that house. She was a mother to all of the residents.

And, you know, as far as her walk, I always just thought because she was such a nurturer, just so earthy, her earthy walk - wardrobe helps, too. They put that fat suit on me, and I just - my body just automatically responded to the fat suit. So all of that kind of helped with the posture and how I walked and carried myself.

NORRIS: Now you had another film in addition to Benjamin Button, another film that was released around the holiday season...

HENSON: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: ..."Not Easily Broken"...


NORRIS: A film that was an adaptation of a T.D. Jakes' story.

HENSON: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And that film is marketed largely at the black audience. What do you think about that, the studios having sort of a parallel track for certain films?

HENSON: I just wish one day we - I hope we can get past the black-white thing because it's a human experience. I don't go to the movies saying oh, I'm going to go see this white movie. I go because I want to know the story. I'm inspired. I'm intrigued. I want to - that story interests me in some way, but I don't sit back and say, oh, this is an Asian movie, let me go and see it, or this is a white movie, I can't identify with that. Let me stick to the black films.

And I really hope that Hollywood can sort of take a turn and stop labeling our films as black films and just, they're films. Everybody can identify...

NORRIS: Was it your hope that a broader audience might find that film?

HENSON: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. But if you don't open it in theaters where other audience members can go and see it, then I guess you are just targeting just the black audience.

Every human understands pain, love, tragedy. Every human understands emotion. It's not black or white. You can identify with love and loss, no matter what color you are.

NORRIS: So do you think that that might change...

HENSON: I'm hoping.

NORRIS: your lifetime?

HENSON: You know...

NORRIS: Are you trying to agitate?

HENSON: Yes, and that's what I'm saying in all of my interviews. Stop calling it a black film. The whole press tour, I was like it's not a black film. It's a human film.

NORRIS: I heard you.


NORRIS: Now you - congratulations, by the way...

HENSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: ...on your Oscar nomination.

HENSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Are you superstitious?


NORRIS: Okay. I was wondering if you had any kind of rituals that you were going to bring good karma your way.

HENSON: It's all in God's hands. Nah, it's all in God's hands. I've won already. Just the nomination alone is a win. I'm in a new league of actors. So it's everybody - every actor's dream, and not every actor can say they've been nominated for an Oscar.

NORRIS: Well, I know you're looking forward to the big day on the 22nd, and all the best to you then.

HENSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

HENSON: Thanks for having me.

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