Once a Single Mom with a Dream, Taraji P. Henson is Now a Hollywood Headliner
Want to know what it feels like for a woman to be a commanding presence in a man's world? Just ask Taraji P. Henson, who might be the greatest motivational speaker we ladies have at the moment.
"I feel like a boss bitch," she says, flashing her megawatt grin. "I'm grabbing my nuts, like, 'Yeah!' "
Could we consider this an apt metaphor for the current push-pull of power dynamics? Perhaps. As Henson knows, there's no time to mince words anymore. From the #MeToo movement to the midterm elections, we've seen what happens when women stake their claim. Henson, a single mother from Washington, D.C., who has worked in the industry for over 20 years, is among those finally getting their due — and she's not afraid to say it.
Her latest film, What Men Want, explicitly explores these themes. Out in February, it flips the script from the Nancy Meyers-directed What Women Want (2000), which starred Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Henson plays Ali Davis, a cocky (for lack of a better term) sports agent. After getting passed over for a big promotion, she visits a psychic (the singer Erykah Badu) who provides her with a special tea that allows her to hear men's thoughts.
Henson stars and also serves as an executive producer. It's the first time the 48-year-old actress — who has nailed every dramatic role that has come her way — is getting a chance to flex her musical-theater-trained muscles as the lead in a full-fledged comedy. And Henson is clearly in her element, engaging in the kind of "I'll do anything for laughs" physical antics emblematic of her heroes Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball.
VIDEO: Taraji P. Henson on What Women Really Want
"I've always been the funny girl," Henson says emphatically. "Not that I was pigeonholed. They were all great dramatic roles, but I've been dying. I just felt so honored and grateful to get a comedy where I could let it all hang out. My best friend was like, 'Lord, they don't know what they have unleashed.' "
"Taraji is old-school funny," says someone who would know, her What Men Want co-star Tracy Morgan. "She is willing to take a pie to the face or stuff a bunch of candy in her mouth to get a laugh. She cuts the monster but doesn't cut too deep because she knows we need the monster comedy."
This past November Henson also voiced the animated character Yesss (which Henson pronounces as "Yesssssss" in her sweet drawl) in Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney's big-budget sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, which grossed over $400 million worldwide. It was another chance for her to show off her comedic chops, but this time for the kids. And after years of struggling to make it in Hollywood, she's acutely aware of how doing a family film can help her bank account.
"You know, that's [audiences buying] four tickets instead of two," Henson says. "That's generally going to be the largest-grossing film in anyone's repertoire."
To attend InStyle's shoot, she took a 24-hour break from the Chicago set of Empire and her most significant character to date, the cutting and campy Cookie Lyon. Henson admits that the silver-tongued ex-con and matriarch of the Lyon family was the one who really put her on the Hollywood map. Despite all her successes — in the Oscar-nominated films Hidden Figures and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — Henson has never had a movie studio bring her overseas to do press. But Cookie has.
"Hollywood executives would tell me that I don't have fans all the way over there," Henson says, shaking her head. "I said, 'You're lying because they can reach me any time. I'm a finger tap away, and they let me know every day.' " And while the international box office plays a big role in getting lead parts in feature films, it was Cookie who let Henson know she was appreciated. "Then we go to Paris [to promote Empire], and it's standing room only in a room with 1,500 seats. I cried. If you believe what people tell you … you can't let people tell you shit."
Henson's strong sense of self comes from her parents. She was an only child until she was 17 (her half sister, April, now works as her "a-sister-ant"). Her father, Boris, was a Vietnam War vet who battled PTSD and alcoholism throughout her childhood. Despite his mood swings, Henson says, he instilled in her a no-fear attitude that has stuck with her to this day. From her mother, Bernice, she inherited her endless drive and passion.
"I was like the Punky Brewster of the hood," Henson says with a laugh. "I was a well-rounded kid, but I could also scrap if necessary. But I wasn't that hard. I still had Strawberry Shortcake wallpaper in my room, and my friend Tracie and I were doing Shakespeare in the Park … and we were in the f—ing hood."
Though it was clear from an early age that Henson was a natural-born performer, she spent her nascent college years attempting to follow in her father's footsteps by studying engineering at North Carolina A&T State University. With her colorful outfits and spirited attitude, she earned the on-campus nickname Hollywood, yet it still took failing math classes for her to realize the sciences were not where she belonged. When she called Boris to tell him, he was not surprised.
"Good," he said. "Get your ass back up to D.C. and enroll in Howard's drama department. Do what you're supposed to be doing."
While attending Howard University, Henson became pregnant with her son, Marcell. After graduation the single mom and her baby boy moved to Los Angeles with $700 borrowed from family and friends so she could pursue her dreams. Between casting calls, there were stints as a substitute teacher for kids with special needs. Eventually she landed an agent, and guest spots on network television shows soon followed. But it was her roles in films such as Baby Boy and Hustle & Flow that really made Hollywood take notice.
Now that she's got the mic, Henson is putting it to good use, choosing impactful projects like this spring's The Best of Enemies, about civil-rights activist Ann Atwater and her unlikely friendship with C.P. Ellis (portrayed by Sam Rockwell), a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. She is also starring in and producing a movie about Emmett Till, the teenager who was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.
"I don't care if you're young or old or what color you are, art is so powerful," she says on the topic of representation. "You can show things to people you've never met and you broaden horizons. I don't take for granted what I have, and I try to use it in any way I can, positively."
The fact that Hollywood continues to preach about the importance of diversity but then casts predominately white males in lead roles is not lost on the actress. "Here's the deal: When you talk about money, don't you want to make money? I want every walk of life [in my films]. If I could put an alien in, I would. I want their money too. Come on, it's what the world looks like. That's what people want to see, representation. That's all. You can make money doing it. It's a no-brainer."
She also recently established the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (named after her beloved father), which encourages African-Americans with mental-health issues to seek the help they need. "It was born out of necessity," she says. "You know, traumatic stuff happened to me and my son. [Her ex-boyfriend, Marcell's father, was murdered in 2003.] You can't just pray it away. I don't care how strong you are. It gets to you, and if you don't deal with it, it manifests itself in ways you don't even know.
"My white friends have standing appointments with their therapists," Henson continues. "I was like, 'Why aren't we doing that?' In our culture, it's taboo." The first people to sign on? Her male friends from the industry, all of whom wrote checks on the spot. "The black men stepped up. Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, Tracy Morgan, Chance the Rapper all stepped up. I called, they answered. Snoop told me, 'Baby girl, that's important. What you're doing is important.' Tyrese said, 'You're making it cool to seek help.' "
Another supportive figure is her fiancé, former NFL cornerback (and Super Bowl XLI winner) Kelvin Hayden. The two were quietly dating for three years before Hayden proposed last Mother's Day. They are planning to wed this summer in a private, low-key affair, and though her designer friends are offering to make her a dress, Henson is opting for the most efficient route.
"I'm not going to go through 10,000 dresses," she says. "How does it fit? How do I feel? Does it complement me well? Let's just go with this one. I know what looks good on me. I'm not going to spend 10 hours on a fitting. I hate that."
The wedding itself will probably take place in July, once Henson figures out if Empire is going to be picked up for a sixth season. Fortunately, it is filmed in Chicago, where she and Hayden reside with Marcell — now 24 and an aspiring rapper and music producer — and their miniature French bulldog, K-Ball, which was Hayden's nickname when he played in the NFL.
Their life is a healthy one. Hayden runs his own gym, and she's always cooking new vegan treats for her tribe. She made the jump to veganism after suffering massive stomach pains while filming The Best of Enemies this past summer. "It took a doctor in Macon, Ga., to say, 'If you don't change what you're doing, you're going to get stomach cancer.' I said, 'Say no more.' So I switched everything up out of necessity. I want to live. Thank God, because I feel so much better."
Now that she's in love, at the top of her game, and clearly adored by the world at large, Henson is ready to expand her repertoire even further. "The older I get, I want to work smarter, not harder," she says. She'll answer that superhero hotline if it rings — "DC, Marvel, you all can call me!" — but for now she's content being the funny girl.
"I want to show you this," she says, grabbing her phone to play a video that was sent to her by What Men Want director Adam Shankman. It's footage from an early screening, and the audience is roaring with laughter.
Henson admits to having goose bumps as she cradles the device like a proud mama: "Listen to them cackling!"
Photographed by Robbie Fimmano. Styling: Julia von Boehm. Hair: Tym Wallace. Makeup: Ashunta Sheriff. Manicure: Geraldine Holford. Production: Sister Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec. 7.