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"No matter the role, Taraji P. Henson is full of life."
"I'd never failed anything in my life. Never! But I took it as a sign."
"The trick is finding an agent or manager, somebody who gets you and knows how to market you."
"It's so rare that you get a script like that. I didn't care if they were going to pay me anything. I just had to do it."
"She never had anyone say to her, you can do anything in life, you can have a dream."
"Every day was like going to a big party."
Taraji P. Henson  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
July 2005

If there's one actress who knows how to go with the flow, it's Taraji P. Henson. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Henson dreamed of stardom as a child. But after dozens of early auditioning setbacks, she nearly threw in the towel. In college, she studied electrical engineering, got a job at the Pentagon, and became a mother. And after struggling with Pre-Calculus, decided to give acting one last try. That attempt got her into the school of acting at Howard University. And shortly after graduating, she took her baby and the $700 raised by her friends and family and headed to Los Angeles.

It was a tough decision, but after several grueling years, she got her start on the WB comedy series, "Smart Guy." Then came a series of television credits, ranging from "ER" to "Felicity" to "Sister, Sister" and a recurring role in the Lifetime crime series, "The Division." But it wasn't until 2001, when she landed her big break - a starring role in the John Singleton feature, "Baby Boy." Playing opposite Tyrese Gibson, Henson dominated the screen as Yvette, the strong willed girlfriend. In fact, her appeal was so strong, she was nominated for a Black Reel Award and was selected as one of "The 10 Sexiest Women of 2001."

Today, Henson resides in Los Angeles. And in spite of very little rest, she manages a big smile, as personable and vibrant as can be. Her latest work, "Hustle & Flow," recently won the Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Craig Brewer, the film features Henson as a pregnant hooker trying to help her pimp out of the ghetto. It's a gritty performance, but one with an underlying sweetness. A subtle reminder that no matter the role, Taraji P. Henson is full of life.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

You're a Washington, D.C. native, eventually studying acting at Howard University. But I also read that you considered electrical engineering for a career. At what point did you realize you wanted to be an actress? Or at what point did you decide to devote yourself to the profession?

Well, the thing is, I always wanted to be an actress. I auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. And I was going into the 10th grade, but I wasn't accepted. And so, I thought it meant that I couldn't act. And that's how electrical engineering came about. My Dad always did things with his hands. And one summer, I did a science program at UDC (University of District of Columbia). We had to work with solder and build circuits and robots and alarm clocks and I really liked it. I mean, it was fun. I really had fun that summer. So I thought I'll just go and do that.

Then I went down to North Carolina A&T and failed miserably (Laughs). Pre-Calculus. That's not even Calculus! That's the class to prepare you for Calculus and electrical engineering, as you know, is all math and equations. And I had a tutor and I failed with flying colors. So clearly, that wasn't for me. But while I was down there taking my English class, which was connected to the theater department. And I swear to you every time I would walk to my English class, I would pass the theater, I would have heart palpitations. I would start sweating because I knew I belonged in there.

So I went in there one time. And I got the nerve to go up for an audition, talked myself into getting a monologue together, which I hadn't done it in so long because I thought that was it for me. So I went in there and auditioned, but I never went back to see if I got in. I was so afraid of that rejection. And then, at the end of the year, I remember going over to my Pre-Calculus professor and asked him if I passed and he said, "Wow! No, you got an 'F!' And I gasped. I'd never failed anything in my life. Never! I was always on the Dean's list, always on the honor roll. I never got an F so that was foreign to me. But I took it as a sign.

Afterwards, I called my Dad back at home and told him I didn't want to do this anymore. And he said, "Come on back, get on with your life, and do what you're supposed to be doing. I told you all along you should have been acting! You owe me $6,000!" That's what he said! (Laughs). Because he was always that quiet voice egging me on, telling me that I was good. That it was my gift.

Is it true that you put yourself through college by working at the Pentagon?

Yes. I had two jobs actually. I worked full time, starting my day at the Pentagon. I worked there (mostly secretarial work) for four hours in the morning, then I would go to school and take classes during the day. And then at night I was a singing and dancing waitress on a dinner cruise.

You graduated in 1995. And like the true Hollywood story, you packed your bags with a few hundred dollars and your baby boy (Marcel) and came to Los Angeles. How difficult a decision was that? How difficult a time?

Here again, my Dad kind of made my decision for me. I had just gotten out of a rocky relationship and had let my apartment go and I moved back in with my Dad. But I had a very good job. I was a supervisor on a five star dinner cruise. I had moved up from being a singing dancing waitress and the money was good, but I was bored. And my father saw that in me and it was killing him because he knew by this point. I had graduated, he had come to every play, and he knew I was talented.

So I had a cousin that was living in L.A. at the time. And her son was on a television show. And he called her, unbeknownst to me, and said he was sending Taraji out to California because he couldn't sit and watch me waste my talent anymore. She's here in D.C. and there's nothing for her. And my cousin said, "Of course, send her out here!"

So, my family kind of threw me a going away party. And they all chipped in, gave me $700, and dropped me off at the airport.

Do you remember the early auditions before landing the role on "Smart Guy?"

Actually, I didn't really go out on many auditions because the trick to this whole industry is finding an agent or manager, somebody who gets you and knows how to market you and knows what to send you out on.

Plus, I look so much younger than what I am. In fact, I've never played my age to this day. I'll be 35 this year. And when I moved out here, I was 26 or 27 and was playing 10 years younger than my age. So, when I was on "Smart Guy," I was 26 playing 16. But my manager was the only one who got that, questioning why others were sending me out for all these adult roles. I guess it's because I have a sense of youth, possibly because I raise my son and I'm very much a big part of his life. We play a lot and I'm very much a big kid at heart.

So after I met my manager, who also represents Halle Berry, the first place he sent me was the head of casting at the WB. This was after two years of being out here. I had a couple of agents that didn't work out and I was working a regular job. But they understood I was going to be an actress, even though they weren't amused because how many people come out here and say that very thing? But I proved it. I finally found a manager who got me. He knew about the opening on "Smart Guy," sent me over to the WB, they fell in love with me, and I booked it right on the spot.

In "Hustle & Flow," you play Shug, one of the live in girlfriends of Djay, who offers musical and emotional support. What attracted you to this character?

Well, when I first read it, I thought, "She's a whore? Oh, God!" And then I started sweating. Why would anyone want to play a ghetto/ hood girl sucking her thumb? So I was up against that and I knew I had to do a division so people wouldn't typecast me. But I read the script and how can you get past that first monologue? It was amazing.

John Singleton had sent me the script. And he said, I got a hold of this incredible script and I want you to read it and look at two characters: Lexus and Shug. All the while, in the back of his mind, he knew he wanted me for Shug because he kept saying, "We need your eyes. We need your eyes for Shug!" And Craig was a huge fan of mine. Craig Brewer, the writer/director, who I knew from "Baby Boy" thought the same thing. So they all knew who they wanted me for. And it made me feel good.

But low and behold, I didn't realize Terrence Howard had someone else in mind for the role. He had Megan Good in mind. And I didn't know that. So I was thinking it was my job and all I had to do was this chemistry read with Terrence. So, we did the chemistry read and he was blown away. And I was blown away by his performance. Afterwards, we just kind of looked at each other outside. And he said, "Oh, wow! You're good, huh?" And I was like, "You're good too!" (Laughs). And the rest was in the can.

Regarding Shug herself, when I read her part, she jumped right off the page. She's just so sweet and innocent. And I was drawn to her. I mean, the script was so amazing. In fact, it's so rare in this town that you get a script like that. I've been out here almost 10 years and this was the first script since "Baby Boy" that I received that I knew, come hell or high water, I was going to do. I didn't care if they were going to pay me anything. I just had to do it.

The film is universal in its theme - hope and dreams can exist even in the most desperate and unexpected places. We all know about Djay's dream, but what can you tell me about Shug's dreams? Or the impact of Djay on Shug?

When I started doing the backstory for Shug, I started with the name, which is short for Sugar. It's very specific. It's sweet and pure. And when I read the script over and over, certain things would stick out to me, like the way she would talk. And then I realized that she was molested, so she pretty much raised herself, she's probably a run away kid. Her mom doesn't know what she's doing, never had a father figure. But in her mind, because her meaning of love was distorted at such a young age, she probably dropped out of school. I didn't see her having more than a sixth grade education. And so, she never had anyone to say to her, you can do anything in life, you can have a dream, just have a dream. Dream big. No one every told her that.

And so, for Shug, where she was living in that little shotgun house, that was her life. In her mind, that was all she was ever going to do. She never had a dream. Until Djay impregnated everybody in the household with his dream. But she couldn't find it on her own. It took Djay to do that. And that's why she thanks him in the end.

Remember, she thinks he's going to leave her behind. And in her mind, that's it for her. It's sad, because when we went into that neighborhood, that's how a lot of those people think. It's almost like a third world country. And it's right here in America. People who have never gotten out of their own zip code. People confined by the jail in their mind. And that was Shug. I see it all the time in the hood. When you live in fear, nobody tells you that there's a great big world out there, go out and explore it.

So is there any Taraji in Shug? Or vice versa?

Oh yes. Totally. I'm known by my dearest of friends to have a very sweet quality to me because it comes from my Mom. And a lot of Shug, I got from her. Because she is the sweetest woman you would ever want to meet. I mean, a sweetheart! She would do anything for you. And she just wants to make you happy that she will ignore herself in doing that.

And I have been known to do that, especially in relationships. I give so much of my power to the man, that who's thinking or doing anything for Taraji? And that's why I'm not dating right now because I need to get that part together! (Laughs).

That's where Shug and I connect. We're both people pleasers. It's in my sign. I'm a Virgo. And that's what we do. We please people, sometimes overlooking ourselves in the process.

There's a lot of great music in the film. PSC, Al Kapone, Young City. But out of all the music in the film, the song or the lyrics I remember most are yours, from "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." This was your singing debut?

Yeah, well I went to Howard University for acting. And while I was there, I kind of changed my major to music theater. But again, I had to do music theory and that's like math. And we know now that I suck at math. (Laughs). So, I switched my major back to acting because I wanted to get out of school. But I continued to do musicals. So, it's something I can do. It's something I'm trained to do. But I'm not trying to have a record career or anything like that. It's just too much. And I see stories about the music industry and I just can't do it.

But it was still cool to hear your voice on the track, right?

Oh, yeah! I was excited about that! It was fun because I enjoyed doing it. But it's not for me. I can't go to the studio and spend those kind of hours. Making records is hard work. I mean, all we know is the final product. And what I learned in filming "Hustle & Flow" and filming that particular scene is that I never knew what went into making a CD. And I'm a huge music collector! I have over 800 CDs.

All I knew was that 'I love this CD,' but I never thought about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it or the long hours spent making the album. And that's a lot of work. People would be in the studio for 24 hours. They're like vampires. And I have a kid. I couldn't do that!

What was it like working with Terrence, Taryn, Paula, and Anthony? And what things did you learn from them?

Well, Anthony in particular. Anthony, Terrence and I would hang out a lot and talk about the script and the business. Because we'd always look at Anthony in awe, "Oh my God, you've crossed over to the other side. Tell us. How is it?" (Laughs). Because he's been in all these mainstream films. So we did a lot of talking. And Anthony, in that one scene where Shug first starts to sing, guided me. I kept closing my eyes. And I remember him telling me, "Taraji, just look at him. Just look at him. Just for one take." And they ended up using both. They used the one take where I'm looking at him for the first verse and then the one where I get into it and close my eyes. And I'm glad Anthony said that because it gave the scene an extra layer. But that's the kind of environment we were working in. We were all very much like that with each other. All very helpful with one another.

Taraji P. Henson Interview (CONTINUED)

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