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Ellen Pompeo and Taraji P. Henson sat down for a chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here

Taraji P. Henson and Ellen Pompeo are two of the most powerful women on television, sitting at the center of major broadcast hits. On Fox’s “Empire,” Henson’s Cookie Lyon has proved to be a fan favorite, while Pompeo’s Meredith Grey has kept viewers obsessed with ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” for a decade and a half — making the series history’s longest-running medical drama. Both stars, too, have found their voices, speaking out about inclusion and inequity in Hollywood.

TARAJI P. HENSON: Ellen, we’ve been living with your character for 15 years now. How was the character written on the page?

ELLEN POMPEO: When I read the script, the thing that stood out was that it was the lead character. I had been in a bunch of movies, but just the girlfriend or the wife. And then — listen, the nature of how she’s evolved is that I’m 15 years older. What about you when you read the pilot for “Empire”?

TpH: I thought, “The NAACP, they’re going to get me for this one.” She calls one son, who’s gay, the F-bomb, and she beats one son with a broom. This is something that has never been shown on national television — certainly not by a black woman. When you’re a person of color, you have to be careful about the roles you pick. You want to uplift the people. Once I got past the fear, I was able to really see her. I didn’t want just black people to identify with her. I wanted every mother in the world to understand the sacrifices that only mothers can make.

EP: I think that Caucasian actresses don’t understand the nuanced struggles that you have as a black woman, and the roles you choose — what you’re sidestepping, what you want to make sure gets out there. It’s a whole different layer of difficulty that I certainly didn’t understand when I started my show. I knew that we were doing special things by showing people of color as doctors, which hadn’t been done on television in a long time. But when we’re young actresses you’re trying to get any role you can. You don’t have time to have empathy. I’ve had a tremendous education, not always in the most pleasant of ways. I’ve had to observe and have a lot of uncomfortable moments, which is fine, because I’m happy to have uncomfortable moments as long as I’ve learned.

TpH: That means you’re growing. Growth is uncomfortable. When I booked “Empire,” I had a momentum going that I’d been waiting my entire career for. I seized every opportunity. If I was getting 5 or 10 million a movie, I wouldn’t work so much. I’m working because I have bills to pay. I have dreams. I have to get it in.

EP: For me the performance that stands out is “Hustle & Flow.” Your quote should have shot up after that.

TpH: It did not. I think the industry knew I was talented. But it’s about money. Are you bankable? I had to continuously prove that. I’ve been trying to prove and improve. I was asking for half a million. I didn’t get paid that until I did my first Tyler Perry film. He was the first person who paid me $500,000. I was never in a position where I could not take a job; by the grace of God, they have all been really good characters. But it was never a situation where I was like, “I’m not going to do that.” Now, I’m finally there.

EP: It’s impossible to have this conversation without talking about race. It’s such a significant piece of pay parity.

TpH: It’s not going to change until privilege reaches across the table and helps. Otherwise, we’re playing a rerun. The only narrative that I wish I could change is my money. It’s almost like they want this incredible performance for a discount price. The black movies — we don’t get big budgets. I have to wait until Scorsese or someone with a franchise film calls.

EP: You hear that? She wants a franchise movie. Who’s calling?

TpH: We’re going into our sixth season. How did you do 15? Was there any moment where you were like, “Child, I want off this bus”?

EP: There were many moments. It’s funny: I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off. The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior, really toxic work environment. But once I started having kids, it became no longer about me. I need to provide for my family.

TpH: I know that.

EP: At 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money? I need to take care of my kids. But after Season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years. My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes. Shonda Rhimes and I decided to rewrite the ending of this story. That’s what’s kept me. Patrick Dempsey left the show in Season 11, and the studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to prove that it could. I was on a double mission.

TpH: Were you and Patrick getting paid the same in the beginning?

EP: He was being paid almost double what I was in the beginning. He had a television quote. I had never done TV.

TpH: I know that story. Is there wine in this cup?

EP: “He’s done 13 pilots.” Well, none of them have gone. I didn’t even realize until we were renegotiating Season 3. No one was offering that up.

TpH: That story sounds about like mine. But when all the tweets were about Cookie, I said, “It’s time to renegotiate. Can everybody sit down at the table, please?” I’d been in the game long enough to know the numbers game, and I knew Cookie had become iconic. You need her. So I need my money.

EP: My husband says, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” But if you have to walk, don’t be a victim. If you don’t get what you want, put your big-girl panties on …

TpH: And bounce.

EP: You can know your worth, but if they don’t know it, you can’t cry.

TpH: I had to leave a show before, and it was the most money I’d ever seen in my life, and I was so miserable. It was stealing my joy. I just remember praying to God: “God, I’m not happy creatively.” And the next day, I called the producer. He got it. And I walked away, not even knowing where I was going. I ended up doing a play in Pasadena. I didn’t care about who was coming to the theater, executives or casting directors. It was about Taraji falling back in love with this craft. Fox had to woo me. I wouldn’t read the script. I was done with television.

EP: It’s a grind.

TpH: It’s really not for me. I had to say, “I want my money because I know what I bring to the table and I know the following that I have.” I know if there’s money to be had, I should be paid.

EP: I now have three kids. And we turned the culture around. I’ve hit some marks that have made me feel accomplished in a different way. Shonda Rhimes has been amazing. She lets us be mothers. I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to go anywhere.

TpH: I don’t know if I could do 15 seasons of Cookie.

EP: Are you involved in your storyline at all?

TpH: Absolutely. No one knows Cookie better than me.

EP: I haven’t been challenged creatively at all. Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline. But for the last five years, I’ve had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera.

TpH: For me, one of our proudest moments was with gay marriage. Because we didn’t know how the black community would accept Jamal, the gay son [played by Jussie Smollett, who since this conversation has not been asked back to the sixth and final season of the show], because it’s so taboo. There’s still the homophobes on Twitter, but those are small voices compared to the resounding voices of love that he gets, the character. I’m just proud to be a part of this show that’s not afraid to get people talking. That’s the only way you’re going to get change.

EP: We have the most incredible community of actresses right now. Everybody is just pushing and taking all these old stereotypes and throwing them out the window.

TpH: I don’t want anyone that looks like me, or any woman at 40, to feel they have to stop being sexy on-screen. I’m not ready to just collect a check. I want to open films. I’ll be 49 this year.

EP: Me too.

TpH: And we still have an audience.

EP: We still have an audience.

TpH: We’re still bankable, and we’re still sexy as hell.

Author: MaricaLeave a Comment
Gallery Updates, Magazine Alert, Photoshoots, Scans ♦ January 20, 2019

Whether she’s being lowballed by studios, navigating life as a single mother or dealing with tragedy, TARAJI P. HENSON is a woman who knows her own worth, never gives up and always tells it like it is. EVE BARLOW meets a woman who has a lot to teach us

Taraji P. Henson is a straight shooter. As she sits in the dining hall of Paramount Studios – her hair exquisitely braided, her jacket puffier than a hip-hop mogul’s – you can’t help but think of all the directors, producers and actors who have passed through here. It’s a world that hasn’t been occupied by many women, particularly women who are not white. However, there’s been a shift in (very) recent years, an increased visibility of women of color, and Henson, 48, is at the forefront.

She’s had many golden moments on the big screen, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Hidden Figures, but it’s her small-screen role as Cookie Lyon in Fox’s Empire that has brought widespread recognition. Despite the instant lovability of Cookie, the actress was initially reluctant to take the character on. On paper, she read like someone the audience would hate – a brash ex-convict – but then Henson saw an opportunity to change minds, including her own. “I stopped judging her,” she says. “We see somebody we don’t identify with and the first thing we do is judge, but all we’re put here to do is empathize. It’s my job as the actor to make the audience understand.” She references Charlize Theron in Monster: “We should’ve hated her. But she gave that woman humanity. An actor is supposed to conflict you. You’re supposed to be confused.” There’s a part of Cookie in Henson, too: she’s both a charmer and hustler. This interview is her final appointment of 2018, before she heads to South Africa with her family on vacation, and she’s as gregarious and spicy as if it was her first, offering compliments and hugs. She will tell you exactly what she wants and how she wants it, but make it so entertaining you can’t be mad at her.

The hustle is perhaps most evident in the way she negotiates her salary, an issue she’s been vocal about since 2008’s Benjamin Button, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Despite it being her breakthrough role, she wasn’t shy about calling out the pay discrepancy between her and her co-stars. While Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were reportedly paid tens of millions, Henson was denied the $500,000 fee her agent requested. “I didn’t even ask for one million. But I had to see the bigger picture and bite that bullet,” she says about accepting less. “I knew that if I kept my ego in check I would get the victory. That performance was undeniable. I turned in an Academy-worthy f***ing performance. And what did they say? ‘We shoulda paid her.'” Now, she lives to say ‘no’. “‘They wanna pay what?'” she gasps of the low fees some studios still offer. “‘Honey, a zero is missing. Tell them to go find it then call me back.’ If you come to Taraji P. Henson, you need to come with that money, because I earned it.”

“They wanna pay what?! Honey, a ZERO is missing. If you come to Taraji P. Henson, you NEED to come with that MONEY”

There are no plans for Empire to end soon, but Henson doesn’t want to ride it until the wheels fall off. “Like Sex and the City – I wanna go out on top,” she says. She suggests Empire‘s greatest legacy is in proving that any show can be a hit regardless of the cast’s race, citing last year’s blockbuster Black Panther as further evidence. “It was the blackest movie in the world and it did well everywhere,” she says. “People wanna be entertained. They don’t wake up and go, ‘Today I’m gonna see a white movie!'”

In 2018, the actress took Sony to task when she felt that it didn’t market her movie Proud Mary outside of America enough. “That’s what happens with black films,” she says. “They only expect it to do well domestically.” But when Henson started traveling overseas to promote her projects, she realized that theory was nonsense. Not only did people in Europe know her name (“I did the ‘ugly face’ cry,” she says, overwhelmed when fans approached her on the street in London), but she could see for herself that black culture is spread around the world. “I spent three months in China. I went to the clubs. I know what they’re dancing to. I hate pulling the racism card but I’m left with no choice,” she says of calling the studio to account.

Black Panther was the blackest movie in the WORLD and it did well everywhere. PEOPLE don’t wake up and go, ‘Today I’m gonna see a WHITE movie!'”

She’s happy to see more actresses of color working in prominent roles. She names Gabrielle Union, Vivica A. Fox, Regina King, Tasha Smith and Sanaa Lathan as examples. “Not only are they working, they’re wearing different hats [as directors and producers],” she says. Henson has never pandered to the idea that there isn’t enough room for multiple black actresses. “There was only one role for all of us black women when I came to Hollywood. But I always saw enough work for everyone. I never thought I was fighting. You create your own job. That’s how I was raised.”

Henson grew up in a rough neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Her parents were both grafters; her mother a business manager, her father a janitor. They divorced when she was two years old. In her autobiography, Henson recounts how her father once dragged her mother by her hair and threatened to kill her. Henson was unaware of the abuse as a child, but her dad came clean about it as she got older. They’d discuss his mental-health issues. Henson has been open about her issues, too, and set up a mental-health charity in her father’s name. “I go every Saturday to therapy,” she says. “Just because you see me on television doesn’t make those voices in my head go away.”

Her father died from liver cancer in 2006, and she talks about him with joy: “I was rambunctious. My dad nurtured it.” He would tell her that she’d win Oscars someday. “I was a creative thinker.” She points to her brain. “That muscle is strong. You give me a script? I will expound upon it. I will write an Academy Award-winning scene.”

“I go every Saturday to THERAPY. Just because you SEE me on television doesn’t make those VOICES in my head go away”

“I’m a CREATIVE thinker. You give me a script? I will EXPOUND upon it. I will write an Academy Award-winning SCENE”

Today, she’s promoting her lead role in What Men Want, a remake of 2000’s Mel Gibson-helmed rom-com What Women Want. The film is told from the perspective of a female lothario in the workplace, a reaction to the #MeToo movement. “I was excited to be dealing with subject matter that’s going on right now,” she says. “We dig in. You’re laughing but it makes you think.” In Hollywood, Henson says men still get uncomfortable around powerful women. “I don’t know why. We’re only gonna make you look better,” she says. “My mouth is just as crass. You can’t crumble me with a sexist joke. If anything, I’m waiting for you to say something so I can check your ass.”

Henson talks like she’s always had her eyes on the bullseye. In school, she had two jobs. She worked part-time as a secretary at the Pentagon while, at night, she was a singing and dancing waitress on a dinner-cruise ship. Acting was always the focus and she continued to pursue that dream as a single mother to her now 24-year-old son, Marcel. His father – from whom she was separated – was murdered in 2003 by a couple after he confronted them about slashing his friend’s tires. Henson raised Marcel without father figures. “It’s hard,” she sighs. “I dreamed he would go stay with his dad in his teens, or my dad. I didn’t date. I wondered: Does he have enough confidence in himself as a black man? I wouldn’t wish being a single mother on my worst enemy. You need both parents.”

She took from the matriarchs in her family, her grandmother Patsy particularly. “She’s the reason my son never ate cereal,” she says. “He had a home-cooked breakfast every day. I could have a 5am call time but I would cook him eggs, pancakes, French toast… You can’t expect a child to learn on an empty stomach.” She’s most proud of his compassion for others. “He’s very sensitive. I love that I raised a man who’s not afraid to cry.”

Right now, she is balancing her workaholism with nuptials. On Mothers’ Day last year, at the age of 47, she got engaged to her former NFL-playing boyfriend Kelvin Hayden. She always wanted to get married. “I didn’t wanna settle. I just waited,” she says. Hayden proposed at the restaurant where they had their first date. She didn’t catch on until violinists appeared at the table playing their song. “His hand was all clammy,” she laughs. “Dude, you have been quizzing me for a year about getting married. Do you think I’m gonna say no?!” Clearly it was an offer that passed the Henson test.

What Men Want is out Feb 8 (US); March 22 (US)

Author: MaricaLeave a Comment
Gallery Updates, Magazine Alert, Photoshoots, Scans ♦ January 02, 2019

Taraji is featured in the January issue of Playboy magazine and she looks so damn good in this. I love her hair like that. I updated the photo archive with magazine scans and outtakes from the magazine. I hope you all enjoy!

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Gallery Updates, Magazine Alert, Photoshoots ♦ December 30, 2018

Taraji is on the cover of the January issue of Boston Common magazine and I’m so totally in love with this spread. She looks amazing and how adorable is her little furry friend K-Ball? I updated the photo archive with magazine scans and HQ outtakes from the magazine. I hope you all enjoy!

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Gallery Updates, Photoshoots, Video Updates ♦ December 04, 2018

InStyle released the BTS video of Taraji’s cover shoot for the January 2019 issue and I love how much she had. You can check out the video below and find the HD screencaptures in our photo archive.

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Taraji is featured on the January 2019 cover of InStyle magazine. It’s available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec. 7. You can check out the interview on the website.

I updated the photo archive with HQ outtakes from the editorial that is simply stunning. Taraji looks gorgeous. You can find a few behind-the-scene photos and HD screencaptures from the clip below. Enjoy!

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