From her Emmy award-winning turn as music mogul Loretha ‘Cookie’ Lyon in Empire, to her Oscar-nominated role as Queenie in the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Taraji P Henson is well known to audiences for playing feisty, hard-bitten and formidable female characters. Her latest role in the upcoming Best Of Enemies is no exception; due out next year, the film sees Henson playing American civil rights legend Ann Atwater, who took on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, and whose determination and charisma succeeded in winning one of its leaders over to her side.
Away from the screen, Henson is equally awe-inspiring. Arguably one of the hardest working women in Hollywood today, alongside acting, Henson is a producer, singer and author. Most recently, she stepped into voice-acting for the film Ralph Breaks the Internet.
“It was always a dream of mine to do animated film because I’m a character actor and I can do a lot of things with my voice – I’m a great mimicker – and I thought I’d really do well in a film like this,” Henson says.
“I couldn’t kick that door open to save my life. Every time I’d talk to people, these zany characters in my head would just pop right out and they’d say ‘you should do animation’. And I’d say, ‘I know! Can you call someone!”
“I’m not going to stop until I’m the star of my own animated film.”
Henson’s drive extends beyond the silver screen; she’s started work on her memoirs and she recently launched the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in honour of her late father, which is a non-profit organisation aimed at eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness in the African American community.
“[Mental illness] is taboo in our community. We’re taught to pray it away, we’re taught that we’re weak or we’re demonised, and we’re misdiagnosed a lot of the time,” she says.
“I want to get more kids involved and interested in the field [of therapy], we’re doing recidivism in prisons and we want to get therapists in urban schools where kids have traumatic experiences in their neighbourhoods and then they have to come to school and learn.”
Her first passion remains acting and Henson has always been determined to succeed from the start. In college, when she fell pregnant, she says a lot of her peers told her that her career was over before it began. Henson was having none of it.
“Usually when people go into that mindset is when they’re comparing themselves to other people. In that case it’s time to put the blinders on and stay in your lane. A lot of time people project their fear onto you,” she says. “Don’t listen to the hate.”
“When it was time to graduate, I grabbed my baby and put him on my hip, walked across that stage and collected my diploma.”
While Henson’s star is still in the ascendance she says it’s important to keep her feet firmly on the ground. It’s crucial, she says, to keep a balance between her personal and professional life, not just because her family is important to her, but also to maintain an edge for her craft.
“I’ll always find time for me,” she said. “You have to make time because if I don’t, I’ll disappear and you won’t be able to see me as any other thing than ‘Taraji’. You won’t be able to see me as a character in a movie.”
“After (her debut film) Baby Boy I was told ‘you’re gonna be a big star!’ and I don’t know if it was a wisdom I had at the time, but I just knew it was gonna happen that quick! So then I knew I had to be clear about what I was doing and why I was here. I was like, ‘you know what? I want longevity. I want to do work that people will talk about long after I’m gone. I want to do work that matters – work that changes lives.’”
Henson says that acting is her purpose. Her means of contribution. Starring in the racially charged drama Best Of Enemies, particularly at a time when race and politics under Trump in the USA are as heated as they are, she says, is a way for her to help.
“I feel that art can change lives, art can change hearts,” she says.
- Taraji P Henson can be seen in Empire, which is currently available to stream on black.
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