Birth name: Taraji Penda Henson
Birth place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Birth: September 11, 1970
Height: 5′ 4″ (1.63 m)
Zodiac Sign: Virgo
Children: Marcell Johnson (with former high-school sweetheart William Lamar Johnson)
Relationships: Engaged to Kelvin Hayden (May 10, 2018)
Taraji Penda Henson (‘Taraji’ means hope, ‘Penda’ means love in Swahili language). was born on September 11, 1970 in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Bernice (née Gordon), a corporate manager at Woodward & Lothrop, and Boris Lawrence Henson, a janitor and metal fabricator. Although her parents went their separate ways when she was two years old, she remained close to both.
Taraji grew up as an only child in Oxon Hill, Maryland with her mother. She credited her mother for her own strong work ethic.
“My mother was an incredible mom. She worked very hard and worked her way up the corporate ladder from the basement. That’s where I get my work ethic from. That kind of work ethic just doesn’t seem to exist anymore.” IONA Magazine Summer 2006
She has pointed to her father, a metal fabricator who was forced to live in his van after being laid off—as a main source of moral support during her upbringing. Seeing her father become homeless when she was 11 was hard but she wasn’t ashamed and neither was he. He was still always there for her. Taraji encouraged her father as he found an apartment and started working as a janitor at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
According to a mitochondrial DNA analysis, her matrimonial lineage can be traced to the Masa people of Cameroon. Taraji’s great-great-grandfather, Joseph Henson, was a half-brother of North Pole explorer Matthew Henson. Matthew was a prominent African-American explorer.
As a teenager, she applied to the acting program at Washington’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts but sadly she was turned down. Following the setback, she joined the Oxon Hill High School and completed her graduation in 1988.
She went on to college and spent her first year studying electrical engineering at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. But she knew this wasn’t her calling and what she was supposed to do for the rest of her life so when she failed pre-calculus, she enrolled at Washington’s Howard University to study theatre arts. In order to support her education she simultaneously took up two jobs in shifts. While she served at The Pentagon as a secretary in the morning, she worked at the ‘Spirit of Washington’, as a cruise-ship entertainer in the evenings.
She soaked up everything she could from acting to dancing to singing, made the Dean’s list and won the “Triple Threat” scholarship from fellow Howard Alums Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.
In 1993, she found out that she was pregnant. The father was her high-school sweetheart William Lamar Johnson. She gave birth to a baby boy on May 10, 1994 and named him Marcell. The father of her son died in 1997.
Taraji didn’t slow down during her pregnancy and neither did she slow down after she had her son. She kept up her classroom attendance and performances—with her baby in tow. She achieved her goal of graduating from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1995.
Encouraged by her father, Taraji packed up her life and son and moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue a professional acting career. With only $700 in her bank account at the time, she had to work an office job to make ends meet while also auditioning and taking care of a toddler. Wanting to set a good example for her son she didn’t give up and finally landed her first professional acting gig in 1997.
On May 10, 2018, on Mother’s Day and her son’s birthday, Taraji and her boyfriend of two years, Kelvin Hayden, got engaged.
Taraji’s professional career began in 1997, guest starring in WB Television Network’s ‘Smart Guy’. Following her appearance, she guest starred on several television series between 1997 and 1998 such as ‘The Parent ‘Hood’, ‘Sister, Sister’, starring teen twins Tia and Tamera Mowry and ‘Saved by the Bell: The New Class’. She also secured roles on popular televison series ‘ER’, playing two different characters in its fourth and fifth season and ‘Felicity’.
In 1998, she landed her first feature film ‘Streetwise’, written and directed by Bruce Brown.
She continued with guest roles on television appearing on ‘Pacific Blue’ and ‘Strong Medicine’.
In 2000, she appeared in several films such as ‘The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle’, starring Robert DeNiro and Rene Russo and ‘Satan’s School for Girls’, alongside Shannen Doherty and Julie Benz
Taraji kept busy in 2001, appearing in the musical video ‘All or Nothing’, followed by ‘Murder, She Wrote: The Last Free Man’ alongside Angela Lansbury and Howard alumni Phylicia Rashad.
After several television shows and a couple of movies, she landed her breakthrough film, when she was picked by director John Singleton for the female lead role in ‘Baby Boy’, playing Yvette, the young mother of a child fathered by Jody, who was played by vocalist Tyrese. The role earned her a Black Reel Award nomination. The film also won an award at Locarno International Film Festival for its innovative concept and ensemble acting.
In 2002, Taraji joined the cast of Lifetime Television’s ‘The Division’. She had never played a police officer before, but coaching from series creator Deborah Joy LeVine led to a secure recurring role in the series as Inspector Raina Washington.
In 2004, she had a guest role on the television series ‘All Of Us’ before landing a role in the comedy ‘Hair Show’ alongside Mo’Nique and Gina Torres.
In 2005, Taraji took aim at the role of the prostitute Shug in ‘Hustle & Flow’, a hit film about a pimp who tries to escape life on the streets. John Singleton, who produced the film, sent her the script, but she quickly realized she was going to have to fight for the part because lead actor Terrence Howard had envisioned a different actress in the role.
Taraji fought for the role and got the part and impressed writer and director Craig Brewer during filming by stopping and talking with prostitutes on the streets of Memphis in order to learn details that would fill out the role. The film gained both critical acclaim and popular success, raising Henson’s profile in the industry significantly. She also contributed vocals to the film’s trademark song, ‘It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp’ and performed the song, together with Three 6 Mafia, at the 78th Annual Academy Awards in March of 2006. The song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2006, giving Three 6 Mafia the distinction of becoming the first African-American hip-hop act to win in that category.
The role of Shug earned Taraji several awards including a BET Award, Black Movie Award and Black Reel Award. She was also nominated for an Image Award and the entire cast of the film was up for a Screen Actors Guild Award.
‘Hustle & Flow’ was just the first of many collaborations between Taraji and Terrence Howard. They did two more films in 2005: ‘Animal’ with Ving Rhames and ‘Four Brothers’ which also reunited Taraji with her ‘Baby Boy’ co-star Tyrese Gibson.
She kept busy in 2005 with guest appearances on ‘Half & Half’ and FOX medical drama ‘House’ and also appeared in Common’s music video ‘Testify’ playing the wife of a soon to be convicted murderer.
In 2006, she appeared in the films ‘Something New’ with Sanaa Lathan in the lead role and ‘Smokin’ Aces’ alongside Ryan Reynolds, Common, Ray Liotta and many more. She also appeared in an episode of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ in the same year.
In 2007, Taraji appeared in the film ‘Talk To Me’ with her ‘Four Brothers’ co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor, Don Cheadle and Martin Sheen. She was nominated for several awards including an Image Award and a Satellite Award and the cast took home the Gotham Independent Film Award.
In the same year, Taraji landed a recurring role on ABC’s ‘Boston Legal’. She played Whitney Rome, an associate lawyer, throughout the fourth season.
‘The Family That Preys’ marked the first of many films Taraji did with director Tyler Perry and reunited her with ‘Something New’ co-star Sanaa Lathan. The film also included big names like Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates and was released in 2008. In the same year, Taraji played Angela Scott on ABC’s ‘Eli Stone’ alongside Jonny Lee Miller.
2008 also marked the year of one of her most prominent roles in David Fincher’s ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, in which Henson gave an acclaimed performance as the title character’s adopted mother, Queenie. This role earned her several awards including an Austin Film Critics Award, BET Award and an Image Award. In addition, she received nominations for Best Supporting Actress for an Academy Award, Black Reel Award, Critics Choice Award and Screen Actors Guild Award. She got the role thanks to her impressive work in ‘Hustle & Flow’ that caught the attention of the casting director. Taraji called Queenie “the embodiment of unconditional love”. The film also stars Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt.
In 2009, Taraji was seen in ‘Not Easily Broken’ alongside Morris Chestnut, Tyler Perry’s ‘I Can Do Bad All by Myself’ with the director playing one of lead role alongside Adam Rodriguez and ‘Hurricane Season’ playing Forest Whitaker’s wife Dayna Collins.
More films followed in 2010, she played Detective Arroyo alongisde Steve Carell and Tina Fey in the Shawn Levy hit comedy ‘Date Night’, she was seen as Pearl alongside Ed Harris in ‘Once Fallen’, appeared in the comedy ‘Peep World’ and played the lead role alongside Jackie Chan in the remake of ‘The Karate Kid’ which was a commercial success. In the same year, Taraji did her first ever voice work when she landed her voice to Chanel on television series ‘The Cleveland Show’.
In 2011, Taraji appeared in the films ‘The Good Doctor’ starring Orlando Bloom, ‘Larry Crowne’ with Tom Hanks where she plays his neighbor and in the Lifetime Movie Network film ‘Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story’. The film was based on true events in the life of a New York woman whose son, Kobe, was abducted by his biological father to South Korea. Determined to bring her son back home, she is helped by an organization for lost children headed by Mark Miller, portrayed by Terry O’Quinn, and they are able bring her son back home. Henson’s portrayal of Rubin received positive reviews and earned her several award nominations, including a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. She also received several awards for her performance including a Black Reel Award, Image Award and BET Award.
Still in 2011, Taraji was cast as a series regular in the CBS crime-suspense series ‘Person of Interest’ as Detective Jocelyn “Joss” Carter. In the November 20, 2013, episode ‘The Crossing’ after co-starring for two and a half years, Henson’s character, Carter, was killed as part of the series’ new storyline direction. Fans expressed grief -and even anger- after that.
She also appeared in Tyrese’s music video ‘Stay’, playing his love interest, in 2011.
In 2012, Taraji was part of the large ensemble cast film ‘Think Like A Man’, which was based on Steve Harvey’s 2009 book ‘Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man’. She reprised her role of Lauren again in 2014 for the sequel ‘Think Like A Man Too’.
In 2013, she did some more voice work, lending her voice to Okapi in a short film ‘Madly Madagascar’ from the animated ‘Madagascar’ franchise. She was cast as the lead in the film ‘From The Rough’ with the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
In 2014, Taraji did a cameo in Chris Rock’s ‘Top Five’, appeared in the romantic, soulful holiday drama ‘Seasons Of Love’ and she played Terri Granger in the film ‘No Good Deed’ opposite Idris Elba. Both her and Idris were also executive producers. That role earned her a BET Award, Critics’ Choice Television Award and an Image Award.
In February 2014, several months after her last episode of ‘Person of Interest’ aired on CBS, Taraji was hired by FOX to star in the new television series pilot ‘Empire’, a musical drama set in the hip hop recording industry. Henson plays Cookie Lyon opposite former ‘Hustle & Flow’ co-star Terrence Howard. FOX ordered the pilot to series in May 2014 and the television series debuted on January 7, 2015, with positive reviews from critics and wide commercial success. Her work as Cookie Lyon gave her widespread recognition and critical acclaim. In July 2015, Taraji was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and she submitted the show’s pilot for Emmy voting. In January 2016, Taraji won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama for ‘Empire’ becoming only the third African-American actress to take home the award after Gail Fisher (1972) and Regina Taylor (1992). At the 46th NAACP Image Awards she was named the 2015 Entertainer of the Year for her roles in ‘Empire’ and ‘No Good Deed’.
In 2015, Henson teamed up with ‘Empire’ co-star Terrence Howard to produce and host a variety holiday special for FOX titled ‘Taraji and Terrence’s White Hot Holidays’. The special returned again in 2016 and 2017 but with just Henson alone.
In 2016, Taraji did another project with Terrence Howard ‘Term Life’ and lend her voice to Ethel in the short film ‘Ice Age: The Great Egg-Scapade’. In the same year, she starred as the lead alongside Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe in ‘Hidden Figures’. The film about a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program was a major success all around the world. Taraji received rave reviews for her performance as real life heroine Katherine G. Johnson and a BET Award and an Image Award and several award nominations including a Saturn Award, Black Reel Award and Satellite Award. The cast took home Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Ensemble Cast Award at Palm Springs International Film Festival.
In 2017, Taraji lent her voice to Praline in two episodes of ‘The Simpsons’.
In January 2018, Taraji played assassin Mary in the action-packed thriller ‘Proud Mary’, showing that women over 40 can also do action movies. In March, she starred in Tyler Perry’s ‘Acrimony’. Tyler offered Taraji the role asking her if she wanted to channel her inner Glenn Close from ‘Fatal Attraction’ and Taraji just couldn’t pass up that opportunity. The film was shot in 8 days while Taraji was still filming ‘Empire’.
Taraji just finished the film ‘The Best Of Enemies’, playing Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, opposite Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell which was bought by STX in July 2018 and will be released at the end of the year.
Taraji did some more voice work when she lent her voice to Yesss in the sequel ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2’ that will be released in November 2018.
Taraji recently finished ‘What Men Want’, directed by Adam Shankman which is set to be released in February 2019. She is also an executive producer.
She is set to reprise her role as Cookie Lyon for a fifth season of ‘Empire’ and is set to star and produce ‘Till’ the real life story of Emmett Till playing his mother.