In the frigid elements of Toronto, Canada, around the filming of the movie Four Brothers, Taraji P. Henson and Andre 3000 were hanging out and decided to go to the movies. They were in foreign territory and directionally clueless. Andre 3000, perhaps at the height of his career at the time, decided he would be the one to gather some directions.
“Excuse me young sir, do you know how to get to the movies from here?” he asked natives, totally thrown off by his politeness and subtle comportment. Having received the directions he needed, he set off with Henson, long before anybody knew who he was. That, and other similar moments with the Class of 3000 creator, stuck with her like Velcro.
“He is the master of that act,” said Henson. “And he was totally cool with that. He just knows how to slip in and out the room… undetected.”
Henson, 38, is referring to the excess attention that will surely fly her way in 2009. If you talk to her now, she doesn’t really believe it. She doesn’t expect extra attention to change anything for her and her son. This is quite surprising for a woman who just finished filming a movie with Brad Pitt, but maybe that memo just hasn’t sunk in yet.
“I’ll probably start noticing it after that [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button] and the movie with Morris Chestnut [Not Easily Broken], said Henson. “People keep telling me to ‘get ready, get ready’ but I’m like, ‘what’s happening?’”
One could make the case that Henson has successfully streamlined her lifestyle with her career. And this is how she likes it. Never one to shy away from stating her goals, she intends on being ready for the eyes and cameras that will inundate her life.
“I’ve always said that my goal is to be an A-list actress,” she said. “So I have to adjust accordingly. Act as if it is mine.”
An actor’s success – and pay scale – is premised on the believability of their performance. Better yet, it is based on how well they “disappear into their role.” On the silver screen, this is paramount. But in life? Well, let’s just say it’s usually no fun to relegate yourself – or be relegated – to the background.
But don’t tell Ms. Henson that. After being around the consummate model for modesty in ‘Dre 3000, she would just rather let her talent do the talking for her. Besides, after just finishing a movie with Brad Pitt, she has seen up close the apex of how delirious celebrity can be.
“I love walking around unnoticed. I’ve seen the frenzy surrounding Brad Pitt and I don’t want that,” Henson said. “I just want to walk into a room and disappear.”
Shooting like a Comet
She has been a face known around the African-American audience for a while, starting with her performance as the emphatic, feisty and love-strong girlfriend Yvette in John Singleton’s Baby Boy. Followed by stints on television in The Division and All of Us, she garnered a role in the film Hair Show.
Then she kicked it into extra gear. Take away meaty roles in Hustle and Flow and her starring bit in the Oscar-award winning Best Song It’s Hard Out Here A Pimp, Four Brothers, Smokin’ Aces, Talk to Me, A Family That Preys and Boston Legal and Henson lives a relatively normal life. If she was a nameless actress to the mainstream audience before Christmas, that changed with the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that is nominated for five Golden Globes. Henson received two Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations for her role as well.
For cherry toppings, her name is also being thrown around in the Oscar conversations.
“It was an incredible experience,” Henson exclaimed. “Brad and Cate are two of the hottest actors on the planet. I was definitely nervous coming into filming, but you know what? So was Brad. He told me so and that what is amazing about him because to him, it’s about the craft not about the BS. When you are in a room with people like that, how can it not be incredible?”
Written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Ali, and The Good Shepherd) and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a story about love, death and reminiscence. Henson plays Queenie, the mother of the eponymous Pitt character, Benjamin, who starts off mature in age but grows physically younger and stronger as the picture progresses.
“This movie puts life and death in perspective,” Queenie said. “Love is unconditional and this movie is a story in coping. My character was surrounded by death and she just deals with it. But she sees a chance in it to give life.”
This role touched especially close to Henson’s heart, for her father passed away before she went into production for this film. She was by his side constantly, even during his last breath. It was her father who made her embrace acting and take on Hollywood. It was her father who shook her out of her fear of rejection to pursue drama. It was her father who she thought about during the creation of this film.
“Do I still cry about it?” she asks rhetorically. “Not really anymore, but he is still greatly missed. I mean, this is my father. That’s a hole that will always be there. So for me this movie was definitely cathartic. His death is something that I will never fully get over.”
Amidst the Constellations
Henson has two movies coming on the horizon. Hurricane Season, a film also featuring Forest Whitaker and Isaiah Washington, is a true-to-life story about a Louisiana high school basketball coach who leads his team to the championships in the aftermath of Katrina (2009 release date not determined yet).
On January 9, however, Henson is set to star in another oeuvre, Not Easily Broken, a T.D. Jakes novel-turned-movie starring Morris Chestnut. This film is about the trials and tribulations about marriage and making it work. The creation of this movie was especially enjoyable for Henson because Bill Duke, who in Los Angeles taught her the basics of Acting 101, directed it.
Duke’s lesson: Acting is a spiritual process.
“He was the first person to let me know how spiritual acting is,” she intimated. “You have to allow yourself to disappear into your character. He’s a brilliant mind and really knows the craft of acting.”
But getting to that acting class with Duke in LA was a journey in itself. Rejected by the Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts High School, Henson shied away from acting and decided to go another route. Stung by the vestiges of rejection, she enrolled in North Carolina A&T.
“Eeny-meeny-miny-moe…electrical engineering! That seemed like it would pay well so I picked that,” she reflects.
But then she ran into Calculus. And Calculus won by knockout.
“I failed calculus!” she said, laughing. “I called my dad and told him that I failed and he basically told me ‘I’m glad you failed, so you can fall back on your faith. You need to be acting!’”
She soon transferred to Howard University to study Theater. It was there where she honed her art, fighting in a very competitive thespian environment, sharpening her edge with each audition.
“Howard prepared me for Hollywood, big time. There were no handouts and nothing was given lightly. You had to earn your roles in that drama department,” said Henson.
Upon graduating from Howard, she stayed in D.C. for a brief period. Then she made the move. With a one-year old baby boy in tow, at the behest of her father, she packed up and moved to Los Angeles. Since that move, her route has been replete with challenges and a steady rise that has rewarded her courage. Her dad instilled in her a backbone of hope and faith. She rolls around knowing that the galaxy is her limit, unbounded by gender or background or circumstance. A-list is her goal, and faith demands that A-list is what is she is going to get.
Daddy spoke that into her and now she lives it. One powerful role at a time.
“That’s how I know that faith works, because I’ve lived it,” Henson says emphatically. “No Plan B’s or C’s show great faith. I just knew that I had to be in Los Angeles. For me, there was no Plan B.”