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A Glimpse into Taraji P. Henson’s Heart & Soul

Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson photo- Erik Umphrey
Aids Health Foundation

An Intimate View Behind the Empire

By Aja Chestine

At the height of her career, Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner, Taraji P. Henson, has a full plate. She travels coast-to-coast promoting her first memoir, Around the Way Girl, and her new film, Hidden Figures, while launching her limited edition MAC Cosmetic line, and shooting the third season of her critically-acclaimed drama series, Empire. After 20 years in the business, what has kept her grounded and hungry? Henson maintains the same humble spirit, witty humor, and faith-driven ambition that propelled her to stardom.

In our recent interview, Taraji rendered a glimpse of the woman behind her collection of characters that she’s been associated with across her career: Yvette (Baby Boy) the boisterous, but wounded baby mama, April (I Can Do Bad All By Myself) the low self-esteem alcoholic that finds redemption, and the fan favorite, Cookie Lyon (Empire), the controversial, unapologetic felony and matriarch of her family. The mere reference of past, present and future characters sparked exhilaration in Henson’s voice.  As we discussed how she viewed herself as an actress, Henson stated, “I take on roles that might scare other actors. When I get a script I don’t judge my characters. I view them as human beings. I have to tell their truth. I am a true artist. For some reason God put me in the forefront, and I’m supposed to use my gift for good.”

At the beginning of 2017, Henson has firmly positioned herself at the top of Hollywood’s elite. Starring in Fox’s number one TV drama, Empire, as Cookie Lyon. Henson admits that after building a successful movie and TV career, this role in fact was the game changer. Henson states, “Cookie is beloved because she says and does the things we all wish we could. She simply lives in her truth.”

The character of Cookie Lyon has earned Henson two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Series, single-handedly making her an international phenomena and a bankable actress. Henson says, “I saw Empire doing well domestically, but not overseas. I’ve always been told that blacks couldn’t sale overseas, so I was conditioned to believe it. I knew it was a myth, because black culture is too popular not to go overseas. That concept never made sense, that’s why I’m so thankful for Empire. It dismissed the lie because it’s just not true.” 

Henson’s faith in God is evident in her attitude. She believes stepping outside the box will be uncomfortable, but worth it. Henson recites, “If I only have the faith of a mustard seed anything is possible.”

Along that same sentiment, Henson’s faith was rewarded once again. When she received her very own MAC Cosmetic line. This opportunity bought forth an array of feelings, “It blows my mind! Mac has always been in my life. First of all, they made products for us [African-American women]; they didn’t leave us out. I remember as a teenager going to the mall getting samples and seeing women I admired on the campaign posters.”

She also recalls a time after moving to LA, working as a struggling actress, taking trips through the mall visualizing herself on the campaign posters. Henson says, “The whole experience was astounding to me. I literally went to the product testing and even participated in the photo shoot, still not gasping the reality of what’s happening. It didn’t truly hit me until the actual release day. I walked in the store and saw that big life size poster that I used to walk pass at the mall with my face on it.  I broke down into the ugly-cry face. Then to top that, it sold out the night it dropped. I was out done.” 

Full of emotions, Henson expresses, “To show you how good God is, in that instant I realized that everything they told me about me were lies. Hearing in Hollywood no matter what I did, that I was too edgy, and not bankable. I understand that it took me years of building a portfolio of quality work and enormous following to sell out a product the same day. I’ll tell anyone that sleeps on me now it’s their lost and a bad mistake.”

This month Henson stars in the highly anticipated new movie Hidden Figures. The  untold true story of Katherine Johnson, an African American woman math genius at the NASA Space Program. The movie also co-stars Oscar winner, Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), and singer/songwriter Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson). Henson shares the moment she laid eyes on Ms. Johnson, “As I approached the table I could see her legs crossed, nails painted, a vision of a woman full of grace. Everything about her was effortless. She was regal, but not pretentious. As we began our conversation I could tell she loved math because her eyes lit up the same way mine do when I discuss acting.”

This is how Henson says they connected. At that moment she was able to take that comparison and transform herself into Katherine. Henson says jokingly, “I don’t know how this movie was even made, because I hate math. I never fail at anything, but math. I’m terrible with numbers.”

She recalls failing per-calculus at North Carolina A&T where she majored in Electrical Engineering. Henson later graduated from Howard University where she studied acting. This career change was meant to be, because Henson was always destined to be an entertainer. When it was mentioned that there is early Oscar buzz surrounding this film, Henson quickly set the record straight, “I didn’t take this role to get nominated, I’m not that artist. I want to affect people and if I win an award, that means I did my job. This movie is so much bigger than me. I’m just a vessel God has chosen to use along with the Director Theodore Melfi, my co-actors, and 20th Century Fox which green-lit this must needed film. If any awards come they’ll be for the accomplishments of these spectacular ladies Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan & Mary Jackson.”

Expanding her brand, Henson recently released her first memoir, Around the Way Girl, which depicts her personal and family conflicts growing up in the Washington D.C area. Henson also opens up about her domestic violence experience with the love of her life, her child’s father. Throughout the book, Henson peels off layer after layer exposing her tumultuous struggles and triumphant victories. She says, “I wrote this book to let people know that they can do it to. I’m not special, I just trust and believe in God. After moving to Hollywood with $700 to her name, Henson says, “I hustled and was committed to doing the work to take care of my son (Marcel Johnson).”

This book is a testament to Henson’s strength, courage and resilience. Every page breathes life into the dreams of the dreamer. Henson says, “I’m passionate about uplifting others on their journey.” 

With the completion of this book, Henson adds author to an already long list of accomplishments.

While maintaining numerous titles of executive producer, director, actress, author and philanthropist, Henson makes sure she devotes time to self-care.  Henson’s physical and mental health are one of her top priorities.  She exercises a couple hours a day, several days a week and maintains a healthy diet. Henson says, “I enjoy working out because I love the way it makes me feel. I also love the way I look when I put my clothes on. Yes I like to flex. Eating healthy is necessary, people think you can eat tons of Oreo’s, chips and consume alcohol, then not workout. That will never work!” 

In addition to healthy eating and exercise, Henson makes time to be alone and digest everything happening in her life. She surrounds herself with good energy and positivity. Lastly, Henson attributes love as the factor that balances and fuels her, “Love feeds my heart and soul. It gives me balance in everything I do. I just love to love.”  

Photo credit – Erik Umphrey
Hidden Figures photo- 20th Century Fox

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