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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.

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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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Taraji P. Henson has a voice, and she’s not afraid to use it.

The Golden Globe-winning actor made a discovery once she finally joined social media platforms a few years back — she had an audience who was ready to soak up the gems that she was firing off. Henson, a Howard University grad who also is originally from Southeast Washington, D.C., has absolutely no qualms about speaking out against social injustices against black boys, how she feels about the NFL coming down on protesters or the problematic gender issues that women are facing, quite visibly, in Hollywood.

It’s her voice that speaks to, and for, a marginalized group of people.

And it’s her voice that stands out in Disney’s new animated sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Henson is sitting in a suite at the Beverly Hilton — the same hotel where 10 years ago people spoke in excitable hushed tones about a forthcoming, potentially breakout role she had in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — and is thinking about when she first realized that people were paying attention to her voice.

“When I got on social media, I guess,” says Henson, tilting her head to the side in deep contemplation. “For me, I knew people were listening, but around the world is what I was most interested in, ’cause numbers don’t lie. Movies open and it’s like, ‘OK, so people feel me here, but what are they feeling across the waters?’ It wasn’t until I joined Twitter and I was like, ‘People know me! What the f—?! They’ve been lying to me.’ ”

“At this point, you giving me some power, I’m gonna use it.”

Henson ended up getting an Oscar nomination for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and her career really went on an uptick. And this year has been epic for her. She’s still holding steady as forever favorite Cookie Lyons in Fox’s Empire, and she’s also carried feature films like Proud Mary and Acrimony. She recently wrapped filming What Men Want, which will open next year and could prove to be an even bigger game-changer for the award-winning actor. In that film, she plays a female sports agent who gets the magical gift of hearing what men think and uses that to break through a glass ceiling.

“I felt that it was special one day when I was sitting, chilling, and they were setting up the camera angles, and they was like, ‘Paramount’s here to see you!’ I didn’t realize the entire Paramount — everybody … it’s like seven executives out there. I was like, ‘What?! We must be doing something really special,’ ” she says of her forthcoming sports film, which is a female take on 2000’s Mel Gibson starrer What Women Want. “You can tell when it’s something really special. On Benjamin Button, executives kept flying in and I had my driver — she was ear hustling! — she was like, ‘They talking Oscar for you!’ So when you start seeing a lot of executives coming from the studios, that means one of two things — you’re either doing really bad, you’re f—ing up a lot of money, or the movie is really, really good and they’re just figuring out how they’re gonna double down or triple down on it. That’s when I started paying attention to the producers and the people of power.”

There’s a word. Power. Henson’s flexing her newfound voice and, yes, power in Hollywood to get passion projects off the ground, like the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman, which she will both star in and produce with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures.

Her voice is mighty. And people are listening.

“I can’t help it. It’s like, my face don’t lie. I can’t pretend. It’s not that I’ve made it my mission, it’s just that that’s who I am. I can’t see injustices happen, and I’m on Instagram like, ‘Hey, look at my new shirt, look at my new skirt,’ and somebody’s kid just got murdered,” Henson says. “I can’t. I don’t know how to do that. I may come up missing that day, I might not post nothing, because it’s just like, my heart. That’s how I move, that’s how I operate. You either like it or you don’t.”

Henson recently launched a charity named for her father, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, to help abolish the stigma on mental health problems in the black community.

“I had some traumatic things happen in my life, and so did my son, and we needed help,” Henson shares. “When it came time to get help, especially for him, becoming a young black man, he had trust issues with whoever sat on the other side of the couch. So he’s not gonna tell the truth and be open and honest if there’s a trust thing. It was not the color of the skin, it was culturally competent. We have a lot to be angry about, a f—ing lot. Do your history homework! We have a lot to be angry about, so if you’re not culturally competent, that anger can be misconstrued as rage, out of nowhere. But if you’re culturally competent, you understand where it’s coming from; therefore, you won’t just give me a pill to calm my rage. You’ll give me exercises, constructive criticism or things that can help me when I get to these places.”

“I have moments in life where I have to be strong, as any other human, but just because I’m a black woman doesn’t make me supernatural.”

Henson’s father was a Vietnam vet who battled mental health challenges after his tour of duty.

“My dad was very vocal and open about his mental health issues,” she says. “He taught me to live and walk in my truth, so that’s a part of it. I started feeling really good about what I was doing. I remember Tyrese [Gibson] hit me up one day, he said, ‘Babe, I love you so much. What you are doing is you’re making it cool for people to say it’s OK to get help.’ I said, ‘That’s what we need in our community.’ All my white friends, they have their standing appointments every week, you know what I mean? ‘I gotta go see my therapist!’ Well, why don’t we do that when we need it the most? We’re walking around here wounded from generations and generations, and we still ain’t got it together.”

And then there’s the whole strong black woman thing. That’s crippling, Henson says.

“Had to break that down,” she says. “That feeds into the whole notion of us being superhuman. That’s bulls—. I have moments in life where I have to be strong, as any other human, but just because I’m a black woman doesn’t make me supernatural.”

The irony is that Henson is known for taking on strong and, at times, emotionally complex black female characters. The women she brings to life are the women who in their own ways are saving the world. Even in Ralph Breaks The Internet, her character is an algorithm who is key to saving the entire internet — and, thusly, the tools the internet helps us with in order to function daily in the world.

“The world is telling us that we should be strong. Stop it with that. Strong black woman — it’s a myth,” she adds.

Her real-life remedy for that particular escape is her fiancé, former Super Bowl champ Kelvin Hayden, who played cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears.

“I have a fiancé who is a very realized, full-on man, a man’s man, who likes his position, so I gotta fall back. It helps balance me because he is not of the industry. He is very grounded and very real and regular, and I like that,” Henson says. “I don’t want somebody who wants to try to come up, or, ‘Babe, let’s do a reality show.’ He forces me to leave that stuff outside because nine times out of 10, half the stuff I’m talking about, he don’t understand. I think that’s a great balance for me.”

This new animated film will be a major box-office draw — the 2012 film topped more than $470 million — and Henson’s likeness as Yesss is now a doll, which is a major coup for her. But what’s next beyond Ralph Breaks The Internet is the wait-and-see game: a familiar dance, as it turns out, for Henson. For the Till film, she’ll team back up with John Singleton (who directed her in 2001’s cultural classic Baby Boy) and her producing partner Laray Mayfield, whom she’s worked with since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“If it doesn’t scare me then it’s not gonna transform me in any way and I’m not gonna transform the fans. I’ve done a lot, so I turn down a lot ’cause I don’t want to be repetitive. But right now the most important project on my to-do list is the Emmett Till story. That’s my passion project right now, and I’m just trying to get that pushed through. Stuff like that, that challenges me. I’m definitely looking forward to doing more comedies, but of course we gotta wait for What Men Want, see how well that does,” she says, pausing and mock rolling her eyes before adding: “I have lived my entire life and career waiting for this town to catch up.”

It’s just about caught up, and the right people are listening.

And it’s happening at an interesting time in her career. Henson is shifting. She’s moving behind the camera to bring important stories to life. And because of that, her voice is growing and at its most amplified.

“Things are missing in the industry,” she says. “Stories that I feel are very important, that are prevalent, that are now, that speak to some of the injustices and things that are happening in life. At this point, you giving me some power, I’m gonna use it. It’s weird because, yes, I have all this power, but I still doubt myself a little bit ’cause this hat is new to me, this producing hat. I had to call Holly Bario, over at DreamWorks, for my movie, for Till. I was in my trailer and I was pacing. I was like, ‘What do you say? Be a producer, this is your passion project!’ I had to talk myself up to it, it’s like, ‘Taraji, this is where you are in your career, why are you second-guessing yourself?’ When I called her it made her day. I talked to her and she called my agent. I was second-guessing myself, like they don’t want to hear from me. Yes, they absolutely want to hear from you!”

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Taraji attended the Los Angeles Premiere of Ralph Breaks The Internet last night. She wore a custom red gazar strapless ruffle dress from Carolina Herrera’s Spring 2019 collection which she styled with Jimmy Choo ‘Minny’ sandals. I added over 150 HQ images from the event to our photo archive as well as HD screencaptures from interviews on the red carpet. In addition, several clips from the red carpet including interviews were added to our video archive.

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ITM: On the opposite end of that spectrum, you have the character of Yesss. As opposed to going back 50 years, she’s got a contemporary look. Can you give me an overview of the design of that character?

Loftis: We really started with Taraji herself. As soon as the directors knew who they wanted to do that voice, all of the design focused towards that. Before there was Taraji, we were just trying to get a general vibe and feel to the character, trying to keep her fun but serious, and trying to explore different ideas for costumes. When you took Taraji, and then you see what we’re doing for the Netizens, we knew that Yesss was also a Netizen, so it was an idea of blending this real person with this very stylized Netizen design that we’d already agreed on and just meshing the two. We did lots of interesting things with her hair; we wanted her to keep some of the fun 2D stylizations the Netizens have so when she flips her hair from side to side, it sort of maintains a silhouette. She has a very strong stylized silhouette when she moves her shoulders up and down or when she bends her arm or her hand shapes, they’re very graphic. We tried to carry that through all the way from design into animation.

dos Anjos: One thing in the animation that is fun to play with — with the design being so stylized the way she is — we also want to play against that and make sure the character felt very believable and genuine. Her animation is very playable, very fluid, but her personality is very real. There’s a lot of power to her persona and we want to convey that in animation. It’s an interesting thing for us and my team to get someone that has a very stylized design to feel like it’s a real person that’s going through a lot of real situations in their world.

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The site has been updated with lots of screencaptures from various interviews Taraji did in the last week talking about Empire and her foundation. I also added some more HQ images from her public appearances and updated the video archive with all the clips from her interviews and guest appearances and various talk shows.

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I added everything I could find from last nights 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards including HQ images from the award ceremony and after party, HD screencaptures from several interviews and you can also find those interviews in the video archive.

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Sorry for not adding these sooner seeing as this is almost 3 months ago. I added additional HQ images from the 2018 FOX Upfront. Did a round up of all the interviews that Taraji did that day and added them to our brand new video archive and also screencapped all the clips.

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