Interview: Oscar Nominee Taraji P. Henson
Wed, 04 Feb 2009 12:04:36
Taraji P. Henson is always evolving. "I get bored easily," she laughs as she flashes a stunning smile. "I love transforming and becoming someone else so I don't have to think about my own problems for a little while [laughs]."
Besides providing the perfect distraction, Henson's talent for transformation has garnered her a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Queenie, the surrogate mother of Brad Pitt's backwards-aging character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. From crooning big melodies in Hustle & Flow to popping off rounds in Smokin' Aces, Henson is an exuberant screen presence and continues to push the envelope creatively.
She spoke to ARTISTdirect.com in this interview about her maternal side, bringing humor to Button, and the secret to life.
Were you especially excited to work with Brad Pitt?
You make a list of people you want to work with and you find out God has a wicked sense of humor. I've learned to be very specific the next time I ask for something from Him [laughs]. I never thought I'd play Brad Pitt's mother. I always thought it'd be something a little sexier [laughs]. There he was on the set calling me "Momma." I didn't get to bathe him though. You see the problem here? In the beginning, there was an animatronic baby. I used to play with baby dolls when I was little because I hated Barbie. She had too much! I was always maternal at a very young age. I remember playing with this baby, and I said, "Why didn't they make baby dolls like this when I was growing up?" It took three puppeteers to operate it. They would make it move and wink at me in between takes. It was really bizarre, but it brought back fond memories of childhood.
Given all the great one-liners you have, do you feel like the script encouraged you to be funny?
[Screenwriter] Eric Roth has a sense of humor for sure. I'm always looking for humor. I don't want everything to be so dark. I try to find a film once a year where I laugh and cry at the same time. You've got to laugh to keep from crying, especially today. We're all multi-dimensional. We're not just one note. You can be crying at something one moment and turn around and be laughing at that same thing. I try to do that in all of my roles. Hopefully, someone sees I'm a comedic actress and gives me a comedy at some point.
“We don't have time to regret. Like Queenie says, 'You never know what's coming for you.'”
What spoke to you about Queenie other than the maternal aspects?
She is able to look past race when she sees this baby. We're talking early 1900s America. We know what's going on with race, even in New Orleans. As liberal as people think it was, you were only able to let your hair down in the French Quarter. I also found it interesting that Queenie was even able to look beyond Benjamin's exterior and love him no matter what. I think that's a gift we're all blessed to have as humans. Love speaks through race, looks, handicaps, and everything. When you love, everything else disappears. That spoke to me. It was such a bold undertaking. The writing was so bold. It was bold choice for David Fincher to make the surrogate mother black. It was a bold choice for Brad Pitt because it's not a very glamorous role.
What's the most powerful theme in this film?
We don't have time to regret. Like Queenie says, "You never know what's coming for you." You should live your life and try to love as many as people as you can and try to impact people as positively as you can because when it's time to let go, it's time to let go.
This role was certainly different from other parts you've had. Do you feel like it was a chance for you to stand out and do something new?
There are a lot of uncreative people making creative decisions. They don't see the nuances that I'm bringing. They just think, "Oh, down and out black woman," even though in Smokin' Aces I portrayed someone totally different from who I played in Hustle & Flow. It's always a struggle. Nothing gets me down. I can't allow it to. I'm an extreme optimist. I asked for longevity when I started on this journey, and I knew it would be an uphill battle. I wasn't looking for overnight success. I'm not interested in celebrity. I understand that sometimes comes with it, but I'm very passionate about my craft. I think what we do as actors is very spiritual. It's almost a possession in a way—to allow these characters to use your body as a vessel. Eventually the powers that be will see it because I'm not going away.
How did it feel to get the Oscar nomination?
I'm honored. What recording artist doesn't want to win a Grammy? What actress doesn't want to win the big award? I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch. I want to enjoy each and every morsel. Who knows what's to come? This movie had a big impact on me.
Would you say this movie has a different message about image?
Yeah, many movies are typically based on the next hot young thing. You couldn't pay me to be 20 again. I was so stupid and dumb at 20. I didn't have a clue at 20! In Hollywood it's a taboo, especially for women, to age. I realized I just have to embrace it. You just have to find the joy in life. It does get better with time. I've learned so much along the way. My life is so much better. I had someone ask me once, "If the future Taraji could come back and tell the present Taraji something, what would she say?" I said, "She would tell me not to change a thing." Every bump in the road, every brick wall I've hit has made me who I am. I'm proud of who I am. I have no regrets. You've got to seize the moment. You've got to live now.