Taraji P. Henson is known for her hardened exterior, at least in the dramatic roles she’s used to playing. But as she tells NPR’s Michel Martin, it’s not just an act.
“I’m such a fighter,” she says. “Some women can take up for themselves. That’s why I feel like that’s why I feel like I need to speak up to be an example for women.”
She’s started a foundation that, along with her star power, brings awareness to mental health issues in the African-American community. Since her breakout performance in the 2001 John Singleton Baby Boy, she’s won a Golden Globe for her star turn as “Cookie” in the hit TV show Empire and was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
But she’s quick to remind people that she got her first acting credits in the comedy realm. She starred on sitcoms Sister, Sister and Smart Guy. Her funny bone, after all, drew her to the laughable script of her latest film, What Men Want. It revisits the premise of the 2000 film, What Women Want, in which Mel Gibson’s chauvinistic character gains the ability to hear women’s thoughts.
In the gender-swapped reboot, Henson says it’s an entirely different movie when you flip the script. “Once you make it a black woman it becomes very different, she says. “Especially in an all-boys club situation, it makes it very different, very challenging,” she says. “But I love that we teach through laughter.”
As an oft-typecast actor, Henson can relate to her character. Undervalued sports agent Ali Davis is constantly being told to stay in her lane by her male peers. “She’s trying to win this fight but she’s fighting like a guy and that’s foreign to men,” she says. “What she learns is she needs to just fight like a girl, ‘cause God gave her a certain gift that he didn’t give guys.”
The male-dominated sports agency setting in the film dredges up behaviors conducive to the #MeToo movement. Henson, though, says she’s “never had a #MeToo situation.”
She doesn’t believe women who have experienced sexual assault are playing victim, she says, but that her dukes-up M.O. has helped her to avoid predators. The Howard University graduate grew up in Washington, D.C., — “you know from the hood,” she says. “My dad taught me to keep my eyes open for the snakes in the grass.”
Her What Men Want role aside, what does Henson want? According to her, black women deserve the same international box office appeal reserved for the Denzel Washingtons and the Will Smiths.
“Where are the females that are doing that? That look like us? Our stories are that important to reach overseas.”
For all her film work, Empire, a TV show, took her abroad. And “that’s unheard of,” she says. “You can’t tell me that a movie that I’m doing about a story that involves black culture is not going to reach other corners of the world.”