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“Fear is not in my vocabulary,” says Taraji P. Henson, the Golden Globe winner and two-time Emmy nominee for her performance as fierce and funny Cookie Lyon on Fox’s Empire, as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. This isn’t just bluster. Henson’s journey to stardom has been anything but easy — from humble beginnings in Washington, D.C., to becoming a single mother while attending college, to moving out to Los Angeles and struggling for years to find work, to getting an Oscar nomination and still not hearing the phone ring — she’s certainly faced her share of adversity. But, she says with her trademark laugh, “I don’t scare easy.”
The year 2016 is shaping up to be The Year of Taraji. On Sept. 18, the gorgeous 45-year-old will attend the Emmys as a finalist in the best actress in a drama series category for her role on season two of Empire. Season three of the series, which heretofore has generated higher ratings than almost any other show on TV, will premiere Sept. 21. On Oct. 11, her memoir Around the Way Girl, which is said to be very dishy, will hit bookshelves. And on Christmas Day, Fox will release Hidden Figures, an “amazing” film in which Henson stars with Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, which insiders expect to go all the way to the Oscars next February.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
“I come from a family of hard workers, so I’m never allergic to hard work,” Henson says. As a kid, she felt that she would have to become famous in order to solve her family’s financial problems, so she set about becoming famous by pursuing acting. She received a blow to her confidence early on, though, when she was not accepted to a school of fine arts on which she’d set her dreams. “At that point, I didn’t think I could act because I didn’t get into my school,” she recalls. For a while thereafter, Henson pursued a career in electrical engineering, but was miserable and, with her father’s blessing, transferred to Howard University to study drama, at which point she began to excel. “They’re still talking about the plays I did at Howard,” she says with a smile. “It took me that detour in my life to be as serious as I am about acting — I do not take this craft for granted.”
During her junior year at Howard, Henson gave birth to a son, Marcel Johnson. “I didn’t look at it as something wrong,” she reflects. “I was very in love with his father. There was no mistake. My child was made out of love. I consciously made a decision — both of us [parents] did — that it wouldn’t be good for us to be together.” Rather than derailing her ambitions, this new development heightened them. “I looked at it as, ‘Wow, this will keep me focused,'” says Henson. Upon graduating, she had her child, mountains of student debt, no professional representation and no job offers — “I had nothing,” she emphasizes — but she remained committed to a career in acting. Henson recalls, “My father asked me, ‘How do you expect to catch fish on dry land?'” So she moved, with her son, to L.A., and spent years working as a receptionist, substitute teacher and candle maker, among other things, so that she could support herself and her son and continue to take acting classes and go on auditions. “I cried a lot,” Henson admits, but ultimately resolved to adopt a positive attitude. “As soon as I did that, I met my manager and then I started booking gigs.”
Her first big film role came in John Singleton‘s 2001 drama Baby Boy, for which she received strong reviews, but not much of a career bounce. Singleton had seen Henson at an acting boot camp and became an admirer. Four years later, Singleton led her to her star-making role, that of Shug, a mousy pregnant prostitute who finds her voice in Craig Brewer‘s feature directorial debut, Hustle & Flow, which Singleton produced. It was on that project, which became a Sundance sensation and won the best original song Oscar (she sang it on the telecast), that she first worked with Terrence Howard, who would subsequently lead her to the 2007 film Talk to Me and whom she, a decade later, would insist on having cast opposite her on Empire. And it was that performance that blew away David Fincher‘s casting director Laray Mayfield, who lobbied the filmmaker to cast Henson as Queenie, the caretaker of a reverse-aging Brad Pitt who herself ages from 26 to 71, in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Henson wound up receiving a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her moving work.
At that time, when many assumed Henson was being inundated with exciting job offers, she says her phone was dead for a long time — “and then I got a call from Tyler Perry.” Perry cast her as the lead of 2009’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself, an $8 million film that opened at No. 1 and ultimately grossed $51 million. Then, in 2010, she starred in the blockbuster remake of The Karate Kid. In 2011, Henson received an unexpected Emmy nomination, for best actress in a miniseries or TV movie, for Lifetime’s Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story. And then, from 2011 through 2015, she appeared on the CBS crime drama Person of Interest. It was shortly after her involvement with that show came to an end that she first heard from Lee Daniels, an old friend who had tried to recruit her to play a teacher in his 2009 film Precious (“I wanted to play Precious!”), about another TV series, Empire.
After Daniels agreed to hire Howard, she agreed to play Cookie, the matriarch of a complicated music industry family — and her life was never again the same. Empire became a phenomenon, gaining viewers with every episode during its first season, largely because audiences fell in love with the grit, the wit (“If you want Cookie’s Nookie, ditch the bitch”) and, of course, the fashion of Cookie, a woman who spent 17 years in the slammer to protect her family and emerged intent on making up for lost time. “The main thing is that Cookie is unapologetic about her truth,” Henson theorizes. “It is what it is when you’re dealing with Cookie. I just wish we lived in a world where more people weren’t afraid to be their true selves. How bold and how refreshing to see someone who’s not afraid of where they come from.” The actress particularly is gratified that audiences of all races have embraced the show, which has reinforced a long-held belief of hers: “If the product is good, people will buy it.”
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