‘Empire’s’ Taraji P. Henson: “Art Can Change Hearts!”

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Interviewed by: Ngoako Onkgopotse Mannya
Interview Questions & Article Written by: Charron Monaye

When you hear the name Taraji P. Henson, you instantly think of “Cookie Lyons”, the no-nonsense, fearless and fierce mother and wife who is willing to sacrifice everything, including her freedom, for her family and their Empire. However, if you are a fan, such as myself, you will know that Taraji’s road to stardom did not blow up on Empire. For many of us, she will forever be Shug, Pam, April, Katherine G. Johnson, or Lauren, and who can forget Yvette from the film, Baby Boy or her cameo in the Common’s music video, Testify.

With a career as an Actress and Producer, Taraji has been living her best life that was once just a dream. When she graduated from Howard University and moved to Hollywood with only $700.00 and her son, she had no idea what would await her. After two years of auditioning while also working an office job to make ends meet, Henson landed her first professional acting gig, a recurring role on the television show Smart Guy. Then, in 2001, Taraji’s life changed and her legacy was created!
On December 10, 2018, the Senior Editors of MadisonJaye.com, Charron Monaye and Ngoako Onkgopotse Mannya had the privilege to “be in the room” to get the 411 from this amazing woman, while she was on tour at The Michelangelo Hotel in South Africa. The experience and presence of Ms. Henson was not only inviting, but it was as if you were having a conversation with your bestie from around the way. No matter how many questions we asked or how many cameras were around, Taraji embraced the moment and with great humility changed our lives, one answer at a time. And she said, “Stay tuned for Empire because she doesn’t know who is in the coffin, either”.

You just recently launched a foundation that tackles mental health issues. Can you speak about the kind of work you do and the impact that it has had in society?
The Boris Lawerence Henson was born out of necessity. It’s named in honor of my father, Boris Lawrence Henson, who passed away in 2006. He struggled with mental illness. He was a Vietnam veteran, and you know how taxing that can be coming back to a country that you fought for that won’t fight for you. So he was very open about it. He lived in his truth and that is what this is all about. He taught me to walk and live in my truth because when you know who you are, no one can use you against you.
My son and I had suffered a couple of traumatic experiences in our lives and when it came time to get help there was no help that looked like us. Especially for my son who was becoming a young black man whose father was murdered and then his grandfather passing away 2 years after that and is now seeing that the world is going to be very different for him. It was hard!

So when I found help, my son wasn’t comfortable because the individual on the opposite side of the sofa didn’t look like him. And it’s not even about race, but you just have to be culturally competent. If you don’t know my struggle and I come in full of rage… can you help me? Sometime we get misdiagnosed and we get a pill for our rage. I don’t need a pill, I need you to hear me and give me active exercises to do to get me out of my head when I go into that space. But you have to be culturally competent to do that.

After speaking to my best friend and us doing research, sadly enough, we found that with all of the degrees that are given away in the mental health profession, only a small percentage have been earned by African Americans. There’s a problem! So then I started thinking, “Why is that?” But you know why, because it’s taboo in our community. We are taught to pray it away. We are told that you are weak. We’re demonized. Or a lot of times, we are misdiagnosed. So we have trust issues across the board when it comes to it.

And it’s sad! We can tell you about our thyroid or a cyst, but we can’t talk about our mental which is still a part of our health. But now, when I talk to my white friends and they talk about their “standing appointment” with their therapist every Tuesday, I was like, “Oh I want my standing appointment.” (laughs) But I have a therapist and I go every Saturday at 11:30am because if you are going to talk about it, you gotta be about it.

So like I said, my foundation was born out of necessity but now that it has launched I have people call me up, like Tyrese saying, “You are making it cool to seek help”. That’s all I ever wanted to do. At least let’s talk about it.

What inspired you to do What Women Want?
Actually, that’s another film that came to me. Brian Robins, not sure if he still heads up Paramount, but that’s who came to me, at the time, and he remembered me when I auditioned for him when he was a producer for Norbit. Even though, I did not get the role, he did not forget me.
(Actor’s Note) That is why you don’t burn any bridges. Be nice, but don’t trust! That is why you never not go to an audition. You always go and present yourself in the best way because you never know when the opportunity will come back around. You may not get the job then, you’re your opportunity will come back around and that is how this opportunity came.

Brian got on a plane and flew to Chicago to pitch the idea to me. And when he told me about What Women Want, and that movie is like one of my all-time classic favorite films, but to now flip the gender, I just think it’s smart. It’s a very now film! We have a lot of messages, but it’s not a message-driven film.

We’ve all heard how hard it is in Hollywood for minorities, especially women. What is the black women’s new experience in Hollywood, now?
It’s a great relief because people are working. All of my girlfriends who are black are working. And I think it has a lot to do with the work that Viola, myself, and many others put in, we wouldn’t stop. We wouldn’t let Hollywood tell us we couldn’t and no..no…no. Also, the explosion of cable and streaming networks such as Netflix, Amazon, and Youtube, they are presenting other avenues for work. So people are starting to take their power and moving forward with their scripts and goals without networks, it’s almost like what the music industry is doing.

Can you speak to the struggling actress, who has her headshot, resume, and reel but is not booking either how fast or with the role she desires. What advice can you offer her?
Do not compare yourself to other people! Put your blinders on and stay in your lane and really get to your passion. I know for me, once I’m passionate about something I don’t care what anybody is saying. You’re not going to stop me because now I am on a mission. And, I know people can be so cruel to each other, and a lot of times when you get into the head space of “I can’t do it”, that’s because you are listening to other people’s projecting their fears onto you. Don’t let them project their fear onto you. That belongs to them. That has nothing to do with you.

Put your blindfolds on and don’t listen to the hate. Or when you hear it, let it fuel you because when I became pregnant in college, everybody was like, “that’s it, she not gonna be starring in anymore plays” and I was like. “oh yea, watch this”. I was starring in plays every trimester, I didn’t stop working. It was like, “my purpose became even more intense” because now I am being held accountable because I have this kid now looking up to me. I walked across that stage and collected my degree with my baby on my hip!

We have now the opportunity to see you in animation. The character and role you’ve chosen is not stereotypical to what Disney has done before, which is what a lot of people can relate too. How did you get connected?
They actually called me. I mean, if Disney calls…. you don’t hang up. It has always been a dream of mine to do animation because I am a character actress and I can do a lot of things with my voice and I just thought I would do really good. But I couldn’t kick that door open to save my life. Then finally, I started getting little bits and then roles, and I am not going to stop until I am the star of my own animated film. But I will share with you that I landed the role in the next ____________________ film, so stay tuned. *If you want to know the film, stay close to our page for the big announcement!

Congratulations on your engagement!! I’m so happy for you. How has balancing love, motherhood, and work life been for you? Do you still have time for Taraji, at the end of the day?
Yes, I am gonna always find time for me!

And time for me doesn’t mean a vacation or anything like that. Sometimes it’s just me sitting on the sofa with my dog and my man watching Netflix. I’m always gonna find that time and he, my fiancé, makes sure that I have that time. And as far as balancing, it’s easy to balance because my man is from Chicago and that’s where we film the show, so! I go home to him. I have to have that kind of balance.

My whole life can’t be centered on Hollywood because then I will become something else. You know, and when I started in this industry and started becoming really successful I always knew I wanted to stay grounded. I also knew, that if I became this big superstar you would come see my movie, and say, “Taraji, the superstar” instead of seeing the character that I am playing. So if I remove myself from society, put myself in this bubble and I have all these people around me, ultimately I would lose myself. And I can’t play that regular women who works 9 to 5, you won’t feel it from me because now I am so above it all that you think I am there and you miss the message in the movie because all you see and say is, “Look at her. Taraji, the star”.

Now we all know you as the fierce actress, but are there any plans on working behind the screens, writing, directing, and producing?
I have been producing! I produced No Good Deeds, I also produced this movie for lifetime and I produced Proud Mary. I think I am a very good producer. It’s just the hardest challenge for producing is getting the studio to listen to you and your choices for the actors. You have to fight! They get stuck on names and I am like, “that’s a great name but they can’t deliver this performance”. And it’s chemistry too, you just have to know. Like, I knew Terrance would be great for Empire. If I did not act I probably would have been a casting director, who knows or a make-up artist.

A lot of people know what they do and how they do it, but very few know why they do it! Can you touch on that?
I wish more people knew! But when I got very serious about acting and did Baby Boy, I was told, “You gonna be a big star! You gonna be a hit!” I was like, “I don’t know! I honestly didn’t think it was gonna happen.” Then I was told, “You gotta be clear about what you are doing and why you’re here.” So I went outside with a bottle of wine and I had a talk with God and I was like, “you know what I want, I want longevity, that’s what I want.” You have to be that specific.

“I want to do the work that people will talk about long after I am gone. I want to do work that matters. I want to do work that changes lives. So once I got focused on that, things started shifting for me. I just needed clarity and I felt like this was my purpose. It wasn’t just a gift or talent, it’s a purpose. It’s something that I am supposed to be doing that is bigger than me. What are you doing to help humanity?

What’s next for Taraji?
More animation! That animation film that I am going to star in and more producing.

To people who are feeling stuck in their dreams or their circumstances are standing in the way of their movement, what advice would you give them to just go for it!! Is it ever too late??
It’s never too late! See, again I go back to say, stay in your lane and STOP letting people project their shit onto you! People told me when I was 26, coming out to LA, after college, “You Too Late”! “You Too Old!” At 26, I’m too old? That sounds stupid to me. I just graduated from college and you’re telling me that I am over before I get started. That’s stupid. But see that’s projecting. Just because you didn’t make it by a certain time, that ain’t got nothing to do with me, that’s yours. That belongs to you. You keep that! So that is what you have to do! Age don’t mean nothing. And late bloomer, I stopped saying that. I used to call myself a late bloomer, but why? By who’s standards? By who’s time clock? As long as you have breathe in your body, you have another day to fulfill your purpose and to live your dream. Please don’t listen to people!!!

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