Anyone who has seen Taraji P. Henson on-screen knows she is one actress who doesn’t let inhibitions get in her way. She’s played everything from a prostitute with a fierce set of pipes in 2005’s “Hustle & Flow” to her current role as Vernell, the flamboyant, long-suffering (and fictional) girlfriend of real-life radio host and activist Petey Green, played by Don Cheadle, in “Talk to Me,” out now.
“They are characters a lot of people don’t want to play because they go to ugly places, but I’m not afraid to bare my soul,” says the 36-year-old.
This story first appeared in the July 19, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
She showed no fear incarnating the outspoken Vernell. “I lived vicariously through her because she said and did whatever she wanted,” Henson says.
But the Washington, D.C., native, who graduated from Howard University, wasn’t always so confident. She recalls being so afraid of failure that after one audition she never even returned to see if she got the role. “To this day, I still don’t know,” she sighs.
These days, when she visits her alma mater, she doesn’t sugarcoat her road to Hollywood. “I don’t sell [drama students] any pipe dreams. I tell them how political it can be. I say, ‘Put on your armor because it’s not as easy or as glamorous as you think.'” Before she began landing regular roles on shows like “ER” and “Sister, Sister,” Henson worked as a substitute teacher to pay the bills. Her big film break was John Singleton’s cult hit “Baby Boy” costarring Tyrese Gibson and Snoop Dogg.
These days, she seems to be on a hot streak, having just wrapped “The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in which she plays Pitt’s adoptive mother. Henson’s character ages from 26 to 71, while Pitt starts out as an old man who ages in reverse. “Even with that old man makeup on, he is still fine,” she says with a laugh. And she is filming the relationship drama “Not Easily Broken” and has just been added to the cast of “Boston Legal.”
Though she wouldn’t call herself a clotheshorse, when it comes to fashion, Henson says she’s never been afraid to wear anything — at times, suffering the consequences. “I have actually been railed and raked across the coals for being me,” she says. “When I was younger, I loved all kinds of crazy, trendy clothes. But you couldn’t pay me to be 25 again. Now I like Valentino suits and Kevan Hall dresses just fine.”