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!”