Taraji P. Henson, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress, received Women in Film’s Lucy Award for Excellence in Television at Wednesday’s Crystal + Lucy Awards. There, she took a moment to chat with WWD about playing Cookie as well as other film roles — and her new book.
WWD: Everyone is obsessed with Cookie! When you began “Empire,” did you have any idea people would respond to her the way that they have?
Taraji P. Henson: For me, being an African-American woman in the industry and looking at my other peers open films and star in [major] films, it was like, “Well, why can’t I do that?” [I was told,] “Because black doesn’t do well overseas. Black women can’t do this, black women can’t do that.” When you don’t see it happening, you tend to believe it, but there was a fire in me that said, “I don’t know about that. When I did a movie in China, they had afros. They’re getting that from somewhere.” We sell. When “Empire” hit, who knew? I had done so many big movies. None of them took me overseas. Who knew that Cookie — who sold crack, went to jail, calls one son a f—ot, beats one son — who knew that the world would take to her the way they did? I have to pat myself on the back a little bit because when I read it, I was like, “She reads a bit stereotypical,” but when you explain to people the why, they empathize with her.
WWD: You recently completed shooting “Hidden Figures” which is about a team of African-American women working with NASA on their first space mission. What attracted you to the project?
T.P.H.: First of all, I did not know that women were instrumental in getting men into space because everything that I had watched, you saw men in the room smoking cigarettes. Where are these women? They erased us from history. I’m not talking about just black women — black and white women. What I like most is that people will realize that I’m not just Cookie. She’s the polar opposite. She’s a rocket scientist. I’m a character actress and I have to remind people, “I know you love Cookie, but I do more than just Cookie.”
WWD: You’re also releasing a memoir this October called “Around the Way Girl.” What inspired it?
T.P.H.: When I would do interviews and they heard that I moved to California with my son and only $700 in the bank, they would ask, “How did you do that?” So the fans really ordered this book because I never saw myself as an author, but I always say to God that I want to touch people with my story. It’s different. It’s unique. I thought, “How can I share it with the world? What’s the best way?” Write a book.