TALK TO ME: An Interview with Taraji P. Henson
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TALK TO ME:
An Interview with Taraji P. Henson
Since playing opposite Terrence Howard and singing the Grammy-winning song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp", life is just getting better for Taraji P. Henson. Earlier this year, Henson was featured along with Alicia Keys as assassins in the gun-toting fim, “Smokin’ Aces”, and will be featured in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” opposite Brad Pitt next year. Henson just landed a regular role on TV’s Boston Legal for next season as well. She will play a high powered corporate litigator out of the New York office whom Carl Sack (John Larroquette) brings in to help him wrestle for more political sovereignty within the firm. Her latest project, “Talk to Me”, has Henson playing the role of Vernell, the girlfriend of Don Cheadle’s Petey Greene’s character. “Talk to Me” is about Washington D.C. radio personality Ralph "Petey" Greene, an ex-con who became a popular talk show host and community activist, and Dewey Hughes, his friend & manager, starting in the in the mid-1960s. In speaking with blackfim.com, Henson talks about playing a composite character, working with Don Cheadle, and playing Brad Pitt’s mother in her next film.
Let’s talk about you playing the part of Vernell, being that she’s the only composite character in the film.
Taraji Henson: What was so much fun about her is that I totally created her because she’s fictional. That was great. I didn’t have to go meet someone and watch their mannerisms. I made her who she is. When people ask me if I ever got to meet the real Vernell, they’re thinking that she’s real because every one else is the film, I’m like, “Nah, you’re looking at her”.
Since Petey is dead and Dewey is alive, did you talk to him to get a sense of the type of women Petey would have been with to get a sense on how to play her?
TH: Well, it was clearly in the script. Because of the type of man he was, he needed woman to match his energy and his spontaneity. That’s who she was. She had to be a tough cookie. She had to be his backbone when he would self-destruct. She needed to build him back up. That was pretty much written in the script. It was right there.
Why do you think her character stuck it out with him for so long?
TH: Because as women, that’s what we do. We’re nurturers. We give life. Sometimes we find ourselves in relationships that we should have gotten out 10 or 20 years ago but because we give life and we nurture, we try to stay and fix and we can’t do that if someone doesn’t assert their will, but a lot of women fall into that trap. I’ve certainly done it. That’s what she did. She does what all women do. We try to heal and help and fix and “he could be a better man if I just…..”. No, you do nothing, but if you keep on moving maybe he’ll become the better man, but to stay with him is to enable him.
You brought in the persona as well as the looks. You had many different appearances throughout the film as she evolved. Was that your idea or the producers?
TH: I think the looks coincided with the time change so they needed that. They needed the afro to grow because as time went on, it started off small then it got bigger. It was the 70s. I think it helped move the time along in the film. It’s fun. It takes you back. Look at how they used to dress back then. It made it authentic.
Being a native of Washington D.C, did you shoot the film in town?
TH: No, we shot the film in Toronto.
Was it thrilling to know that you were shooting a film about a man from the town you grew up in?
TH: Actually, I didn’t know about Petey Greene. My family does. My older relatives know about him, but I felt more drawn and attached to it because it was a hometown film. I was like, “I have to do this. I’m from D.C”.
How was working with Don (Cheadle)?
TH: Amazing! Amazing person. We all know what he does as an actor but to get to know him as a man, as a father, as a husband, and as a friend, he’s just an amazing human and I’m so glad to have met and to have worked with him. He’s just persistent. What I love about Don is that he and I come from the same school or same planet or whatever, and I believe that there are certain people that are chosen. They stand out. He gets it. He gets that he’s been chosen and that it has nothing to do with him. The things that he’s doing as an activist in his personal life, he’s using his celebrityism to go out in the world and help other people. He knows it has nothing to do with him which is why he is so good. He doesn’t let Don get in the way. He’s incredible.
Did you ad-lib any of your lines or was everything from the script?
TH: The majority of it was scripted. I ad-libbed a bit, depending on the moment. I don’t make it a habit of ad-libbing, but if the moment calls for it, I’ll do it.
How was it working with Kasi (Lemmons)? Is there a difference when working with a female director?
TH: Definitely, and I think before we getting into the business of her being a female, I think what makes her so different is that she’s a triple threat. She’s actress, a director, and a writer. That’s the full gamut right there. She has a way of communicating. She’s an actor’s dream director. She’s been on both sides of the camera, and not only that, she’s a writer, so she understands characters, and the levels and dimensions that a character needs. She would say something to you and you get it right away. She has a way of communication that actors get and understand, and not only that, she’s a woman. Again, it’s nurturing. It’s a different way of communicating than men. I get it because I’m a woman and we speak the same language. It’s great and beautiful.
Did you sense if there was any pressure on her because she’s a woman and the fact that she hadn’t done a film in some years?
TH: There’s always pressure. If you’re Black, there’s pressure. Know that and that’s she a woman, certainly. That’s an understanding. But she’s graceful and a survivor and she’s a fighter. You’re not going to see her sweat. It’s something that you know that the pressure’s on, but she’s an artist and she was in her element and in her moment, and it was beautiful to watch and I was just happy to have been part of the process.
Although a number of the cast didn’t share scenes together, did all of get together aftwards?
TH: Cedric was there at the wrap party and we hung out there. Mike wasn’t there because he was hosting Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. He in and out. Certainly while he was there, we hung out at lunch. Most times you go to your trailer and eat, but we hung at the table and laughed and hogged the whole lunch period. I’ve known Mike for some time and I’m a huge fan of his. I just love him and his humor. His appeal is that he reminds you of someone from your own family.
You have another high profile film coming up, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, with Brad Pitt. (“The Curse of Benjamin Button" is about a 50-year-old man (Brad Pitt) begins aging backwards, causing complications when he falls in love with a 30 year old woman (Cate Blanchett).) What does that role do for you?
TH: This role is certainly the biggest role of my career and most challenging to date because I age from 26 to 71, prostethics, fat suit and all. It's a period piece. Early 1900 period piece. It's incredible work. This is the film that I can't wait for to come out. It's the biggest project that I've worked on to date and that's the one that will get me to the very next level. People would ask me, "How does it feel to work with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett?" like I would go ga-ga over it, and a little bit of me was like that and is like that, and at the same time, that's where I belong. This is where I always saw myself, as an A-list actress. So, I'm right where I belong.
What role do you play in the film?
TH: The name of my character is Queenie and I play Brad Pitt's mother. He's aging backwards. Everyone's aging in the film.
Is your part supposed to be a black character?
TH: Yep. She's a Southern woman. New Orleans is where it takes place. It was supposed to be Baltimore, which is where the original story was written. It's a short story. Eric Roth, wrote "Forrest Gump", "Munich", and "Ali", is an amazing writer. He adapted this for the film and it now takes place in New Orleans.
Is a challenge for you to get leading roles in a big or small film?
TH: What’s so weird is that what I started out as. In “Baby Boy”, I was the leading female. For me, a leading role would have to be something that I can sink my teeth into. I’m not always attracted to the leading role because maybe she’s just as empty. In “Hustle and Flow”, I was like, “I wish I could play the white girl” but at the same time I understood why that character had to be white. Who stood out? “Shug”. To me, there’s no such thing as a small role. In “Something New”, the film with Sanaa Lathan, I was in four scenes and people still walk to me and say “Black ashy babies”.
What else are you looking to do?
TH: Comedy. That’s my strongest attribute but I keep getting these crappy roles.
Do you think you have funny bones?
TH: Yeah. Comedy is all about timing. Comedy is something you can’t teach a person. You can be a brilliant actress but comedy is a feel. You have to have it. Nobody can teach you that.
Now that the film’s coming out, do you think people will come to find out who Petey Greene was?
TH: I’m just happy to tell the world Petey’s story. I think it’s a story that needs to be told on some many levels, especially he was a man that faced against so many odds and he surpassed them all. Come on. An ex-con becoming an activist and a leader of a community and so on? It made sense at the time. People fought for what they believed in. Today, you have a lot of young brothers coming out and they are just brain washed that they will never be anything. For that reason, it’s important. To come out of jail and have the balls and come into a building and say, “Give me my job” and then do great at it. That’s incredible.
TALK TO ME opens on July 13, 2007
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