ABFF 2015: Taraji P. Henson Gets Candid on Fear, Having a Baby in College, Hollywood Struggles, Career Goals, Oscar, 'Empire' + More
By Aramide A Tinubu | Shadow and Act
June 15, 2015
Taraji P. Henson has been well known and loved in the Black community since her portrayal of Yvette, in John Singleton’s "Baby Boy" (2001). However, it was the unprecedented success of Fox’s hip-drama "Empire" that made her a household name around the world. This past weekend, at the 19th Annual American Black Film Festival. ABFF’s 2015 Ambassador Taraji P. Henson sat down with Gayle King to talk about her long running career, dating, raising her son and what she wants most of all. Here are some of the highlights, and Shadow and Act attended.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
On going From Electrical Engineering to Acting
- What had happened was I auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the tenth grade, and I didn’t get accepted. My best friend did, isn’t that horrible? I took it to heart. I thought that meant I could not act, so I stopped acting. When it was time to go to college I knew I had to go to school, so I just said electrical engineering because it sounded like I could make a lot of money. But, I was terrible at math. Acting was still in me, but I was just afraid.
- When I was at A&T I had to pass the fine arts building to get to my English Class. One day, I walked passed and they had an audition for a play and I was like 'I’m gonna do it.' And I got my monologue, and I remember standing on that stage and the only thing I kept hearing in my head was ‘No’. I was nervous and my hands were shaking, it was horrible. And they said, we’ll put up on the bulletin board the next day who gets the call back. I was so riddled with fear that I never went back to see if I got the call back.
On Growing Up
- I grew up in the hood and I wasn’t the coolest. I was an artist. I was a little quirky and to the left. I dressed a little crazy. But you know, I would set trends I would do kooky things like wear clips in the front of my hair and next thing you know, Peaches and them got clips in the front of their hair.
On Having A Baby In College
- Having a baby is not a disease; that’s a blessing. I get off on people saying, ‘You can’t’. I’m like OK, now I have to prove it. So I showed all the naysayers, when I walked across that stage and collected my diploma with my son on my hip. So many girls got pregnant in college and dropped out, I didn’t want to be that statistic. I wanted to show girls that just because you got pregnant in college, does not mean you have to stop. If anything, having my son motivated me to go to California and pursue my dreams, because if I didn’t, what am I teaching him?
On Coming to Hollywood
- I came to Hollywood in 1996, and people said, 'you’re too old and you got a baby.' And to that I said, 'Watch me work.' I moved to California with my son, seven hundred dollars and Jesus.
- I wanted my son to respect women, and the only way I could get him to do that is if he respected me. He wasn’t going to do that if I was dating this one and dating that one. And people ask me all the time, ‘Why are you single?’ and I'm like, ‘Y’all know what’s going on out here. Stop looking at me like it’s my fault.’ So, there are several reasons why I couldn’t date like that; for one, I’m a celebrity. If you get caught holding hands with your friend, then that’s who you’re dating, or you're pregnant. You know, my son didn’t choose this; I did. So, I was very particular about protecting him and making life as normal as possible. I’m not going to have a man just to say that I have a man. You want someone who is going to challenge you to be your better self. You don’t want someone who is just going to sit back and let you run the show.
On Raising Her Son
- I had to be good cop, bad cop, mom, and dad. I had to do it all.
On Her Son’s Thoughts On Her Career Success
- He’s just proud. That’s my best friend, so I’ve talked to him throughout the years about what I wanted to do in my career. I would always say, I don’t just want to be a "Black actress.” God gave me this talent; I want to touch as many people in the world that I can.
On Career Struggles
- After 'Baby Boy,' I was intuitive enough to know that Tyrese’s career would take off before mine. People were like, 'you know John Singleton makes superstars.' And something deep down inside me was like, 'that’s not going to happen.' I felt it. And the first thing Tyrese booked I think was 'Fast & Furious,' and I was just like, you see? It’s a man made world. I’m the trained actress and look. It just made me stay grounded, and not get ahead of myself while recognizing it for what it was. I knew it was going to take some time, but that was ok. I just did not want to be bitter. I knew so many actors who let this industry dictate who they are and they become bitter. I wasn’t going to do that. I said, ‘I’m going keep my grace and I’m going to keep my wits about me, and one day, they will come around.’ So I prayed to God and asked for longevity. I saw that I was going to have to make a lane for myself. You have to remember, when Halle Berry hit the scene, there was no lane for her either. So I asked for longevity, but I also asked to do the kind of work that people would talk about long after I was gone. I was very clear.
On the Oscar Nomination Affecting Her Career
- It didn’t actually. The first call I got the day after, was from Tyler Perry to offer me the number one position. It was the lead in 'I Can Do Bad All By Myself' (2009). It was the first call with a real quote. It was the first time in my career that I’d seen real money. Interestingly enough, people railed me for doing that movie after the nomination. And I was like well, Scorsese didn’t call, I have to work with people who call. I was very offended about that. That man gave me a quote, no one else in Hollywood did. And then right after that, 'Karate Kid' (2010) came, and they offered me a quote. Jada [Pinkett-Smith] was going to do it, but she was doing her show ['Hawthorne'] so she asked them to call me. And they paid me my quote, so I’m a millionaire. Those two films - 'I Can Do Bad All By Myself' and 'Karate Kid' - made me a millionaire. After Karate Kid, there was nothing again. But, what kept me sane was I never compared myself to others. Well, it creeps up, but then you stop yourself. I was like, 'I know I have a voice. I know that my time is going to come. I just have to be patient and stay focused on the work that I am doing.'
- I’m not greedy because I feel like if I keep doing the work. God’s got me. So I’m clear on that. I think people who are filthy rich aren’t the happiest people. Biggie said it best, ‘mo money, mo problems’. Money is not my driving force; awards don’t get me to do jobs. If I’m not passionate then I won’t do it.
The One Thing Taraji Wants For Her Career
- A franchise movie! I want a franchise movie that is huge overseas. They are going to really take me seriously when I can open a movie overseas. It’s really going to boil down to that. Movies can do well domestically and they’re like ‘Ok, whatever.’ People always try to say that ‘Black Movies don’t do well overseas;’ but whose tried to do it? You can’t go see a movie that isn’t there to see. You’re telling me that a Black movie won’t sell overseas but, are you over there trying to sell it? I know that I have fans overseas because of social media.
- As humans, the first thing that we do is judge, and when I picked the script up, I just wasn’t interested. I was done with TV; I felt trapped in a little box. I was doing a play in Pasadena. LA is not a theater driven town, but I didn’t care if no one came to see the show, I did it for me. That show sold out every night. I was the lead and I challenged myself. I’ve never played a lead in a play, and my name was never above the marquee; so I did that. So I was immersed in that play when my manager called with the script for 'Empire.' And it scared me; it scared the life out of me. But when the fear arises, that means there is a challenge. That means I have to do it because I’m not going to let fear win. And I thought, if Fox handles this right, if this is the proper cast then this will change the game because of the way we deal about the subject matter. Nobody talks about depression; everyone knows about the homophobia in the Black community. We don’t need to talk about that. But let’s talk about depression. Raising a black son, I know for a fact that most African American men struggle with some form of depression, and we don’t talk about it. I’m telling you its real.
On Cookie Lyon
- Cookie is a lot. She can be a stereotype. But I saw who she was, and I was like, 'this woman is a powerhouse. I’ve never seen anything like her on TV.' I said, 'this could go one or two ways; they could either really love her, or they can hate her.' I mean, she beats her son with a broom; she calls her son a faggot. Cookie tells you the truth at all times. I get a lot of Cookie from my dad actually. My dad - may he rest in peace - He was just a lot. He would make up names for people. He was just crazy and different and eccentric. But you know Cookie is my hero. She says and does the things that I wish I had the guts to say and do. She’s uncompromising.
Advice For Young People Who Want to Break Into the Industry
My advice to you is to stop thinking [about being] in front of the camera. My advice to you is to start thinking about heading studios. You need to start thinking as decision makers, the people who make opportunities.
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