Taraji P. Henson became a household name playing Cookie Lyon on Empire. And with her lead role in the new big-screen biopic The Best of Enemies, her star is continuing to rise. Here, the outspoken actor opens up about getting noticed, getting coupled up, and getting paid.
IN 2018, with the formation of the #TimesUp movement, honest conversations about the gender pay gap in film and television began gaining traction like never before. But more than a year earlier, Taraji P. Henson was already publicly blasting the low value the industry places on Black women, writing in her 2016 memoir, Around the Way Girl, that for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she was paid less than two percent of costar Brad Pitt’s salary and was asked to pay her own location expenses.
Henson went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for her role in that film as Queenie, the adopted mother of Pitt’s title character. And she’s continued to work steadily in film and television, including CBS’ Person of Interest and Fox’s Empire on the small screen, and 2016’s Hidden Figures, 2018’s Proud Mary, and 2019’s What Men Want and The Best of Enemies (out April 5) on the big one. So, has anything improved since 2008? “I want to see my money,” Henson tells me when we sit down to chat in Los Angeles after her BUST photo shoot. “When I don’t have to fight so hard for my money, I’ll know things are changing. I see women working more, but where is my money? And I mean off the bat, not the back end. Damn right I’m a feminist, because if I don’t fight for me and my kind, who will? I believe in women.”
“As a Black woman,” Henson continues, “you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because often you can’t turn work down. For me the battle was swallowing it, fighting through, shutting up my ego and trying to see a bigger picture. It’s unfortunate, but you gotta just keep hitting them upside the head with these performances. You gotta make yourself undeniable. You have to make it so the movie ain’t gonna work without Taraji.”
Clearly, What Men Want was just such a project. A female-centric remake of Nancy Meyers’ 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want, the film features Henson in her first starring role in a big-screen comedy as a sports agent who keeps getting passed up for promotions in her sexist workplace until she suddenly gains the ability to read men’s thoughts. Boasting a dynamite supporting cast that includes Erykah Badu, Phoebe Robinson, and Wendi McLendon-Covey, it’s a welcome offering for audiences hungry for funny, feminist flicks.
The Best of Enemies—based on the real life story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater—is also poised to become a major milestone in Henson’s career. As Atwater, Henson faces off against KKK leader C.P. Ellis (played by Sam Rockwell) over the issue of school integration in North Carolina. Set in 1971, it’s a period piece that will elicit comparisons to Henson’s other foray into biographical drama—the critically acclaimed Hidden Figures—and possibly earn her even more award nominations.
For longtime fans, Henson has been one to watch since her breakout role as Yvette, a young single mother essentially raising both her son and the child’s immature father, in John Singleton’s 2001 film Baby Boy. It was the first of many grittily realistic roles for her. But even after an Oscar nom seven years later, Henson still felt like an underdog. “I don’t know what people think an Oscar nomination is really supposed to do. It’s not some magic wand,” says Henson, who notes she’s been big in the Black community since Baby Boy. “The community never forgot about me but Hollywood is just finally learning to cash in on what we always knew.”
Despite all of her earlier successes in film, however, it wasn’t until she got the lead in her own series that Henson began to feel like a star. “I didn’t feel it until Empire,” she says. “I mean, I knew the kind of work I was doing. I was putting in work. But maybe people just weren’t taking me seriously. They thought I was just fly-by-night, here today gone tomorrow. But, obviously, I’m here to stay and to do work that people will talk about long after I’m gone.”
From the very first episode of Empire, now in its fifth season, Henson’s shit-talking, animal-print-loving character Cookie Lyon emerged as a GIF factory. A prime-time diva as outrageous and quotable as Dynasty’s Dominique Deveraux and Alexis Colby, Cookie was the role that made it difficult for Henson to go to the grocery store. “I just think people get her,” Henson says of the Cookie phenomenon. “I think she’s the consciousness of the people. She says a lot of things that most people want to say but are too fearful to say. She’s our moral compass.”
“I worked, worked, worked, and one day I look up and everybody’s talking about me.”
Henson credits Shonda Rhimes’ show Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, with opening up network executives to the idea that a drama with a Black cast could be a hit. She also credits the show with helping give her a push out of a less-than-fulfilling job. “I was on television when Scandal came out, but I wasn’t the lead,” she says, referring to Person of Interest, the drama in which she co-starred with Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, until leaving the show in its third season. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy playing Detective Carter,” she says. “I felt like at this point in my career, I needed more. It wasn’t time for me to disappear as number three. And I’m looking at Kerry like, ‘That’s what I want to be doing.’ I’m too young. I’m one of those actors who can’t sit idle for too long. I can’t be on a show where you’re not using me. I need to be busy.” Less than 14 months after her final appearance on Person of Interest as a regular cast member, Empire premiered, becoming Fox’s highest-rated debut in three years.
Before heading to Hollywood, Henson trained at historically Black Howard University in her hometown of Washington, D.C. While a student at Howard, Henson gave birth to her son, Marcell, in 1994. “There was a time when I thought I should go to Yale for additional training because of how people would respect that,” Henson says of her theatrical education. “Then I had to remember, I just left a historically Black university where I could play anything. I could play characters in Shakespeare or in Greek tragedies and not just be the handmaid or the chorus—I could be the lead. At Howard, they let me live and let me dream and let me believe I could do anything. I’d done all the Shakespeare and Chekhov, I’d read Euripides. I left Howard fearless, with my baby on my hip.”
Henson believes that her parenting responsibilities helped, not hindered, her progress as a young actor. “I wouldn’t have it any other way because I didn’t have time to play. I didn’t get caught up in clubbing and hobnobbing and networking because, that’s bullshit.” Henson told herself, “‘I have the training, I have a kid, I need to come out to L.A. and prove myself. I need to get busy because I have goals and the clock is ticking.’” Her recipe for success was preparation, focus, and a realistic approach. “I didn’t come in with any great expectations. I worked, worked, worked, and one day I look up and everybody’s talking about me.”
While it took Empire to catapult Henson onto the A-list, the seeds for her role in What Men Want were planted long before Cookie Lyon was born. Ten years earlier, Henson had left an impression on executive producer Brian Robbins when she auditioned to play opposite Eddie Murphy in Norbit. She didn’t get the part, but in 2017, when Robbins became president of Paramount Players, a studio division of Paramount Pictures, he called Henson and got the ball rolling on What Men Want. “It was a no-brainer,” says Henson of accepting the lead role in that film. “That’s why you should never burn bridges. And always take meetings and auditions, because even if you don’t get that job, you don’t know where it will lead.”
“I’ve always wanted to do comedy,” she continues. “For years, I wanted to do a half-hour sitcom, because being a single mother, that’s the shooting schedule I desperately needed raising a kid by myself. But for whatever reason, that just wasn’t my story.”
But Henson always knew she was funny. “My family allowed me to be very free as a child,” Henson says of her upbringing in Washington, D.C., “and I was very quirky and very funny.” Henson fondly recalls the years before her younger brother and sister were born and she was an only child. “I’ve always been drawn to comedy. When I was nine, my dad took me to see the film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. I begged him to take me! I watched a lot of comedy—Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball. When I was an only child I spent a lot of time in my own head being creative. I had no choice. I had no one to play with.”
Her comedic skills were further honed at Howard. “I was trained heavily in musical theater and that’s a lot of comedy,” she says. “And it’s instantaneous—you know right away whether the joke worked because the audience is there to tell you. So I had years and years of working that funny bone and working that muscle. But in Hollywood, if you haven’t done comedy yet, they can’t see you as a comedic actor. Even though Queenie, I thought, was funny as hell. I thought Shug was funny, too,” she says, referencing her Benjamin Button and Hustle & Flow characters. “I put funny in everything I do because that makes a three-dimensional human.”
The thing that sets Henson apart from her peers is the relatability she brings to every role, whether it’s formerly incarcerated record executive Cookie Lyon or real-life NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson, whom she portrayed in 2016’s Hidden Figures. And her uncommon first name, which means “hope” in Swahili and was chosen by her parents from a book of African baby names, helped her establish one-name status, contributing to our collective feeling that we know “Taraji.” In person, she is every ounce who you’d expect. Her laugh fills the room, she holds eye contact, and she excitedly greets or says goodbye to everyone entering and leaving the photo studio where she’s just posed for photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis (only her second time ever posing for a Black woman photographer, Henson notes, lamenting the industry’s lack of inclusion). But had Henson listened to naysayers who tried to dissuade her from pursuing acting, we might never have had the pleasure of meeting. “I didn’t go to L.A. with stars in my eyes. I wasn’t chasing fairy dust. I was chasing a clear goal. I was 26 and I had people tell me, ‘You’ll never make it, you’re too old. If you don’t hit by 25, it’s a wrap.’ Man, look,” says Henson smugly. “I’m 48 and the phone cannot stop ringing.”
But this sudden surge in popularity hasn’t been the only recent change in Henson’s life. After years of keeping her dating life private, and sticking to a past proclamation that she wouldn’t claim any man publicly until there was a ring on her finger, Henson is happily planning her wedding to Super Bowl champ Kelvin Hayden. “We were clear when we moved in together—we ain’t goin’ nowhere,” she says of their commitment to one another. “You can’t quit and walk out. No, let’s sit down, and let’s work this out. He’s actually more clear on it than me,” Henson says with a laugh, crediting her fiancé with helping her develop a new approach to conflict. “He had to bring me up to speed. I was like, ‘Oh that’s what you gotta do? I gotta sit here and sweat it out? OK!’ He’s very patient with me. I come with a lot.”
Empire films in Chicago, Hayden’s home base, so typical days off for the couple are spent far away from the Hollywood scene, playing a couples game of UNO with friends, battling in their ongoing Pac-Man war, or watching Netflix in bed with their Instagram-famous French bulldog, K-Ball, nearby. “We’re always looking for a great series to binge watch,” Henson says of their Netflix-and-chill routine. “We have a projector, surround sound, and blackout curtains in the bedroom.” Many nights Henson, who recently went vegan on the advice of a medical professional, cooks at home.
Henson’s also a lover of crafting. “I used to make candles but I burned out—pun intended,” she jokes. She’s since moved on to building porcelain villages to display for the holidays, and last Christmas, she even made miniature ugly sweaters to decorate her tree.
Another project Henson is very passionate about is the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a charity she founded last year in honor of her late father, a man who struggled with mental health issues after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The group’s goals are to end stigma around mental illness, support the cultural competency of therapists treating African Americans, and change the face of the mental-health industry to make it more culturally inclusive. They’re accomplishing this by providing scholarships to African-American students pursuing careers in mental health, offering mental-health services and programs to young people in urban schools, and combating recidivism within the prison system through counseling.
“I had people tell me, ‘You’ll never make it, you’re too old. If you don’t hit by 25, it’s a wrap.’ Man, look—I’m 48 and the phone cannot stop ringing.”
“The foundation was born out of necessity,” explains Henson. “I’ve had traumas in my life and so has my son.” [Marcell’s father, William LaMarr “Mark” Johnson, was murdered in 2003.] “When it came time to seek help, it was hard—especially for my son,” she explains. “Becoming a young Black man and trying to express everything that comes with that to someone on the opposite side of the couch when they don’t look like him is hard. A lot of the issues that are going to come up are the result of people who look like [his therapist]. How is my son going to express this and not hurt [the therapist’s] feelings or feel like he can’t say something because it’s weird?”
With so many recent accomplishments already in her rearview, Henson is ready for the next big challenge. She confesses she’d love to play Diana Ross. “She’s so amazing,” Henson enthuses. “Everything she’s been able to accomplish. I can’t imagine an artist who doesn’t want to do what she’s done. I’d also love to play a witch in a fantasy film where I’m in prosthetics and I don’t look like myself at all,” she says. “Something way out there. Where’s the Black Harry Potter?”
By Sabrina Ford
Photos by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Styling by Jason Bolden / Hair by Tym Wallace
Makeup by Ashunta Sheriff
Cover fashion credits: anushka Suit; COS earrings; Vintage Boots
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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