‘You can change a heart through art’ – Taraji P Henson
Yes, What Men Want is a fun reboot of the Mel Gibson hit comedy, yet it raises serious issues of workplace discrimination. We chatted with a one-of-a-kind talent, the star and producer, Taraji P Henson.
IT’S GREAT TO SEE YOUR FUNNY BONES IN THIS ONE…
That why I moved to Hollywood! I thought I’d do a sitcom and funny movies, and it’s not what happened. I’m a trained actor and can do it all. My favourite is comedy; I just keep getting locked into dramatic roles. It makes sense. Comedians make good dramatic actors because they add another layer that a dramatic actor might miss, and that layer is comedy.
THE FILM DOES A GREAT JOB OF CONVEYING HOW HARD A WORKPLACE CAN BE IF YOU’RE NOT A WHITE MAN
That’s every woman’s struggle: if you’re a professional woman who works with a lot of men, you know you’re going to get looked over. You have to figure out every day, “How am I going to get around this obstacle?” It’s tough being a woman; it’s really tough being a black woman.
WELL, MY EYES FELT OPENED
I’m so glad you got it! Thank god! Can you run a company?
YOU SOUND LIKE MY WIFE
Your wife is lucky to have a husband who cares.
HA HA. YOUR FILM DOES A GREAT JOB OF MAKING SERIOUS POINTS
As a producer, I was adamant of not male-bashing. I wanted to make sure this wasn’t the girls vs the boys. I wanted to deal with a difficult subject matter but in a light and humorous way, so we can all shed light on issues we’re dealing with.
I WON’T SPOIL IT FOR THE READERS, BUT THERE’S A WONDERFULLY TENDER MOMENT IN A POOL HALL
The only way you can find a good guy is if you don’t say, “All men are bad.” You can’t say that about anybody, about any race or gender. It’s all about individuals.
YOU’VE DONE THE HARD YARDS, TARAJI
Look, I love the craft of acting. I believe you can change a heart through art and change the world through art. I know there’s a responsibility that comes with what I do, and I’m grateful I have a platform. I believe I’m wired to help society and be an inspiration. I feel I’m fulfilling my dreams.
HAD YOU NOT ACTED, YOU’D HAVE DONE SOMETHING ELSE TO INSPIRE
It’s how I was raised. I was fighting the bullies off the person who was sitting by themselves in the cafeteria. It’s who I am and that means justice for all. As an African American woman, it’s why representation is so important.
AND THE SECRET TO ETERNAL YOUTH IS?
I don’t think about age. I really don’t. I just live. I make sure I’m good energy around other people and I make sure good energy is around me. Having said all that, it’s bullshit: I owe it to my mum! I have good genes! My grandmother is 94 and doesn’t look a day over 70. She’s on her way out here as I get my star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
HOW DOES THAT FEEL?
My grandmother was one generation away from slavery, pretty much. I’m doing it all for my grandma.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO LEAD A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE AT 48? THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THIS WASN’T POSSIBLE
I was told that when I moved out to Hollywood at 26, that I was too old. And I thought, “I’m going to prove you wrong!” Remember when Meryl Streep thought it was over at 40, and then she had a revamp like never before? Black women can do it too. I made it my mission.
I FEEL ENERGISED JUST FROM SPEAKING TO YOU
Sometimes it’s hard for me to do, but I can literally pat myself on the back. I’ve done what I set out to do, and that’s going to help girls coming up behind me. It’ll make it easier and that’s my mission. If you’re not changing things for the good, then what are you doing?
HIDDEN FIGURES, WHERE YOU PLAY SOMEONE BLAZING A TRAIL IN A WORLD OF WHITE, PROBABLY WASN’T A STRETCH FOR YOU?
You don’t think about it when you’re overcoming poverty. When you’re black and from the hood, there are so many obstacles to overcome: poverty, prejudice and violence. Once you come through that, you can do anything. I was fearless and wanted to prove I wasn’t going to be a statistic. Even though I was a single black mother, I could beat the odds and make something of myself. This is all hope for people coming behind me. People make the world go round. We need each other, and God made us all different for a reason and it’s our job to figure it out.
WAS EMPIRE A GAME-CHANGER FOR YOU PERSONALLY?
Absolutely. It gave me international recognition. And in America I’d missed out on jobs because I’d been told I didn’t have international appeal. And then here comes Cookie to prove them all wrong. I needed that!
My passion project is The Emmett Till Story. We have John Singleton locked in to direct. And I really want to do a fantasy role, and I want to play a villain. A dark villain. I haven’t played a villain. The challenge is making the audience love to hate me.
THAT’S GOING TO BE A CHALLENGE
That’s the beauty!
MARVEL AND DC SHOULD BE BEGGING!
I think so!
I HOPE THEY READ THIS
NOW, YOU WORKED TWO JOBS AT COLLEGE TO MAKE ENDS MEET. HOW WAS THAT?
When you’re 20-something, you don’t think about it as tough. You’re hustling. I knew that I had to do what I had to do. I never thought, “Oh, my life horrible.” I still partied and had fun. Thank god I had two jobs to pay for school – that’s how I thought of it. I thanked God every day that I had two jobs to get me through school. Then you get to the other side, look back and go, “Damn, how did I get through that?” I was living and making my dreams come true.
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN BALANCE?
Being a mother kept me focused. I couldn’t go to clubs to network [with acting]. I could only network how you’re supposed to network: in auditions and meetings. No one is making a business deal in a club. Being a mother made me focus.
DOES POSITIVITY COME NATURALLY?
I have it in me, but life can get to you sometimes. You have to choose positivity. It’s easy to hate and be mean. I don’t want to be on the dark side. I want to be on the side of love and hope and faith. That’s the side I like to play on. Does the dark side try to get me sometimes? So that’s when I make a conscious choice to be happy. Because you only get one life.
What Men Want is in cinemas now