Getting to voice an animated character in a major motion picture is a milestone for any actor, and should be worthy of any bucket list. So when Taraji P. Henson was offered the opportunity, her answer was a no-brainer.
The Oscar nominated actress has made her mark on the small screen playing brassy matriarch “Cookie Lyon” on the hugely popular series Empire, and on the silver screen by portraying real-life heroine Katherine G. Johnson in Hidden Figures. However, taking on a more animated role was a welcomed change of pace. As a self-confessed “character actress,” she was able to funnel all of her trademark wits and warmth into an integral, indelible character in Ralph Breaks the Internet.
In director Rich Moore and Phil Johnston’s highly anticipated sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) have jumped from their known world of Litwak’s Arcade to the unknown world of the internet in hopes of saving Vanellope’s broken Sugar Rush game from being permanently unplugged. As they search far and wide to find the money to pay for the surefire fix, their journey leads them to Henson’s “Yesss,” the brilliant, blue head of YouTube-like company, BuzzzTube. She advises them on a number of issues–not just how to become social media savvy superstars and how that translates into money, but also how to deal with the internet’s toxic elements.
I loved that Yesss is a capable, innovative leader, but also an empowering voice of reason. Where did you find her essence?
Taraji P. Henson: Ralph is basically this big kid, right? I’m a mom and I felt like it was like taking a mother or auntie role with him. He comes from a different era, so she had to tread lightly. I just had to tap into my motherly instincts.
Do you approach character collaboration any differently from your live action roles?
No, not at all. Rich and Phil actually encouraged me to ad-lib and add more me. That’s why they wanted me for the film. They’ve been watching me. They saw me being Taraji in interviews, and I guess they just liked the essence of who I was and wanted me to bring that to the character. They allowed it.
Did your character change much from the time you signed on to the final version?
She stayed pretty consistent. They were very clear on what they wanted out of this character. We shot it for over a year. I’m sure they were changing things around and by the time it got to me they had a clear picture. There were some scenes that we did go back and tweak, but that’s just the process of an animated film.
She’s the only one in this series that’s allowed wardrobe changes and different hair styles. Was that an idea you brought to Rich and Phil?
I think they decided to do that. I’m pretty sure “Cookie” had something to do with it. [Laughs] Not only that, if you’re a trendsetter, you have to be a trendsetter in every sense of the word. That’s where the fashion comes in.
As an actress, your body is one of your tools in your toolbox. When you were in the recording booth, did you feel like that tool was compromised? Or were you able to incorporate body movements?
I always do that. I have to. It’s funny. I actually posted a session of ADR for another film that I’m doing and I saw the comments. They were like, ‘What is ADR?’ And I would explain to them. You really have to put your body into it, especially if it’s dealing with something with movement. Your body should sound like it’s moving. Otherwise, it sounds like it’s ADR. Definitely in animation, since it’s not your body in the film, you want to make this cartoon character come to life. The best way to do it is to throw your whole body into it.
Speaking a little about the comments section, that scene where Ralph wanders into the comments section got a huge reaction from the press. We were screaming, “Don’t do it!”
Yes! That’s what I was screaming when I read that. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t go in there!’
Your advice to Ralph felt like it came from an authentic place as I’m sure you’ve had your own run-ins there too.
Oh absolutely. On a daily basis. Once you understand what it is–that humans are fragile creatures and hurt people. I will post something so powerful and inspirational and full of love, and then someone comes and poops on it. When you realize that’s not me, that’s this person, you take it with a grain of salt. Keep moving on. I just advise people to not go in the comments. You can start on a happy note and one comment can throw you off. Just stay out of there.
For that scene, John and I were in the same studio together. When they offered that to me, I said, ‘Yes. I’ll absolutely fly in.’ It’s very rare that you get to do that in animation.
Did that help to have that other person there when you had been recording solo?
Absolutely. It brings more heart because the other person is there. It makes it more authentic instead of trying to guess how he would say his line, so let me say mine like this.
Another thing that resonates is this idea of women helping other women. Yesss helps Vanellope. I kept waiting for a double cross, but that never happens. That feels huge in terms of progress. Was that something that attracted you or that you even noticed?
I didn’t even think about it like that. Since you mention it, wow, it’s very true. They all help each other. That’s just in me. I don’t look at it like, “Oooh! That’s special.” That’s how I move in life. That’s just how I am in life and that’s how I think we should be. The fact that we have to point it out means that we got a lot of work to do.
Since Yesss curates the content on BuzzzTube: What are your favorite YouTube videos?
I love animals. Any animal videos, baby videos, dancing videos. I like the clumsy videos–people falling. I like when people do remakes of videos. You see where I’m going–happy, happy, joy, joy.
How did this creatively fulfill you?
I checked off “do a Disney animated movie” from my bucket list. I’m a character actress, and have many characters in me and many voices that live inside me. So I need a creative place to do them instead of my shower.
Ralph Breaks the Internet opens on Nov. 21.