SHE’S GONNA MAKE IT AF­TER ALL Voicey vixen Taraji P. Hen­son is here to com­mand our at­ten­tion—and make us laugh

Once a sin­gle mom with a dream, TARAJI P. HEN­SON is now a Hol­ly­wood head­liner at the peak of her pow­ers

InStyle (USA) - - Directory - by SARAH CRISTO­BAL pho­tographed by ROB­BIE FIM­MANO styled by JU­LIA VON BOEHM

Want to know what it feels like for a woman to be a com­mand­ing pres­ence in a man’s world? Just ask Taraji P. Hen­son, who might be the great­est mo­ti­va­tional speaker we ladies have at the mo­ment.

“I feel like a boss bitch,” she says, flash­ing her megawatt grin. “I’m grab­bing my nuts, like, ‘ Yeah!’ ”

Could we con­sider this an apt metaphor for the cur­rent push-pull of power dy­nam­ics? Per­haps. As Hen­son knows, there’s no time to mince words any­more. From the #Metoo move­ment to the midterm elec­tions, we’ve seen what hap­pens when women stake their claim. Hen­son, a sin­gle mother from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., who has worked in the in­dus­try for over 20 years, is among those fi­nally get­ting their due—and she’s not afraid to say it.

Her lat­est film, What Men Want, ex­plic­itly ex­plores these themes. Out in Fe­bru­ary, it flips the script from the Nancy Mey­ers–di­rected What Women Want (2000), which starred Mel Gib­son and He­len Hunt. Hen­son plays Ali Davis, a cocky (for lack of a bet­ter term) sports agent. Af­ter get­ting passed over for a big pro­mo­tion, she vis­its a psy­chic (the singer Erykah Badu) who pro­vides her with a spe­cial tea that al­lows her to hear men’s thoughts.

Hen­son stars and also serves as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. It’s the first time the 48-year-old ac­tress—who has nailed ev­ery dra­matic role that has come her way—is get­ting a chance to flex her mu­si­cal-the­ater-trained mus­cles as the lead in a full-fledged com­edy. And Hen­son is clearly in her el­e­ment, en­gag­ing in the kind of “I’ll do any­thing for laughs” phys­i­cal an­tics em­blem­atic of her he­roes Carol Bur­nett and Lu­cille Ball.

“I’ve al­ways been the funny girl,” Hen­son says em­phat­i­cally. “Not that I was pi­geon­holed. They were all great dra­matic roles, but I’ve been dy­ing. I just felt so hon­ored and grate­ful to get a com­edy where I could let it all hang out. My best friend was like, ‘ Lord, they don’t know what they have un­leashed.’ ”

“Taraji is old-school funny,” says some­one who would know, her What Men Want co-star Tracy Morgan. “She is will­ing to take a pie to the face or stuff a bunch of candy in her mouth to get a laugh. She cuts the mon­ster but doesn’t cut too deep be­cause she knows we need the mon­ster com­edy.”

This past Novem­ber Hen­son also voiced the an­i­mated char­ac­ter Yesss (which Hen­son pro­nounces as “Yesssssss” in her sweet drawl) in Ralph Breaks the In­ter­net, Dis­ney’s big­bud­get se­quel to Wreck-it Ralph, which grossed over $400 mil­lion world­wide. It was an­other chance for her to show off her comedic chops, but this time for the kids. And af­ter years of strug­gling to make it in Hol­ly­wood, she’s acutely aware of how do­ing a fam­ily film can help her bank ac­count.

“You know, that’s [au­di­ences buy­ing] four tick­ets in­stead of two,” Hen­son says. “That’s gen­er­ally go­ing to be the largest-gross­ing film in any­one’s reper­toire.”

To at­tend In­style’s shoot, she took a 24-hour break from the Chicago set of Em­pire and her most sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ter to date, the cut­ting and campy Cookie Lyon. Hen­son ad­mits that the sil­ver-tongued ex-con and ma­tri­arch of the Lyon fam­ily was the one who re­ally put her on the Hol­ly­wood map. De­spite all her suc­cesses—in the Os­car-nom­i­nated films Hid­den Fig­ures and The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton— Hen­son has never had a movie stu­dio bring her over­seas to do press. But Cookie has.

“Hol­ly­wood ex­ec­u­tives would tell me that I don’t have fans all the way over there,” Hen­son says, shak­ing her head. “I said, ‘ You’re ly­ing be­cause they can reach me any time. I’m a fin­ger tap away, and they let me know ev­ery day.’ ” And while the in­ter­na­tional box of­fice plays a big role in get­ting lead parts in fea­ture films, it was Cookie who let Hen­son know she was ap­pre­ci­ated. “Then we go to Paris [to pro­mote Em­pire], and it’s stand­ing room only in a room with 1,500 seats. I cried. If you be­lieve what peo­ple tell you … you can’t let peo­ple tell you shit.”

Hen­son’s strong sense of self comes from her par­ents. She was an only child un­til she was 17 ( her half sis­ter, April, now works as her “a-sis­ter-ant”). Her fa­ther, Boris, was a Viet­nam War vet who bat­tled PTSD and al­co­holism through­out her child­hood. De­spite his mood swings, Hen­son says, he in­stilled in her a no-fear at­ti­tude that has stuck with her to this day. From her mother, Ber­nice, she in­her­ited her end­less drive and pas­sion.

“I was like the Punky Brew­ster of the hood,” Hen­son says with a laugh. “I was a well-rounded kid, but I could also scrap if nec­es­sary. But I wasn’t that hard. I still had Straw­berry Short­cake wall­pa­per in my room, and my friend Tra­cie and I were do­ing Shake­speare in the Park … and we were in the f—ing hood.”

Though it was clear from an early age that Hen­son was a nat­u­ral-born per­former, she spent her nascent col­lege years at­tempt­ing to fol­low in her fa­ther’s foot­steps by study­ing en­gi­neer­ing at North Carolina A&T State Univer­sity. With her col­or­ful out­fits and spir­ited at­ti­tude, she earned the on-cam­pus nick­name Hol­ly­wood, yet it still took fail­ing math classes for her to re­al­ize the sciences were not where she be­longed. When she called Boris to tell him, he was not sur­prised.

“Good,” he said. “Get your ass back up to D.C. and en­roll in Howard’s drama depart­ment. Do what you’re sup­posed to be do­ing.”

While at­tend­ing Howard Univer­sity, Hen­son be­came preg­nant with her son, Mar­cell. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion the sin­gle mom and her baby boy moved to Los An­ge­les with $700 bor­rowed from fam­ily and friends so she could pur­sue her dreams. Be­tween cast­ing calls, there were stints as a sub­sti­tute teacher for kids with spe­cial needs. Even­tu­ally she landed an agent, and guest spots on net­work tele­vi­sion shows soon fol­lowed. But it was her roles in films such as Baby Boy and Hus­tle & Flow that re­ally made Hol­ly­wood take no­tice.

Now that she’s got the mic, Hen­son is putting it to good use, choos­ing im­pact­ful projects like this spring’s The Best of En­e­mies, about civil-rights ac­tivist Ann At­wa­ter and her un­likely friend­ship with C.P. El­lis ( por­trayed by Sam Rock­well), a for­mer mem­ber of the Ku Klux Klan. She is also star­ring in and pro­duc­ing a movie about Em­mett Till, the teenager who was lynched for al­legedly whistling at a white woman in Mis­sis­sippi in 1955.

“I don’t care if you’re young or old or what color you are, art is so pow­er­ful,” she says on the topic of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. “You can show things to peo­ple you’ve never met and you broaden hori­zons. I don’t take for granted what I have, and I try to use it in any way I can, pos­i­tively.”

The fact that Hol­ly­wood con­tin­ues to preach about the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity but then casts pre­dom­i­nately white males in lead roles is not lost on the ac­tress. “Here’s the deal: When you talk about money, don’t you want to make money? I want ev­ery walk of life [in my films]. If I could put an alien in, I would. I want their money too. Come on, it’s what the world looks like. That’s what peo­ple want to see, rep­re­sen­ta­tion. That’s all. You can make money do­ing it. It’s a no-brainer.”

She also re­cently es­tab­lished the Boris Lawrence Hen­son Foun­da­tion (named af­ter her beloved fa­ther), which en­cour­ages African-amer­i­cans with men­tal-health is­sues to seek the help they need. “It was born out of ne­ces­sity,” she says. “You know, trau­matic stuff hap­pened to me and my son. [Her ex-boyfriend, Mar­cell’s fa­ther, was mur­dered in 2003.] You can’t just pray it away. I don’t care how strong you are. It gets to you, and if you don’t deal with it, it man­i­fests it­self in ways you don’t even know.

“My white friends have stand­ing ap­point­ments with their ther­a­pists,” Hen­son con­tin­ues. “I was like, ‘ Why aren’t we do­ing that?’ In our cul­ture, it’s taboo.” The first peo­ple to sign on? Her male friends from the in­dus­try, all of whom wrote checks on the spot. “The black men stepped up. Snoop Dogg, Xz­ibit, Tracy Morgan, Chance the Rap­per all stepped up. I called, they an­swered. Snoop told me, ‘ Baby girl, that’s im­por­tant. What you’re do­ing is im­por­tant.’ Tyrese said, ‘ You’re mak­ing it cool to seek help.’ ”

An­other sup­port­ive fig­ure is her fiancé, for­mer NFL cor­ner­back (and Su­per Bowl XLI win­ner) Kelvin Hay­den. The two were qui­etly dat­ing for three years be­fore Hay­den pro­posed last Mother’s Day. They are plan­ning to wed this sum­mer in a pri­vate, low-key af­fair, and though her de­signer friends are of­fer­ing to make her a dress, Hen­son is opt­ing for the most ef­fi­cient route.

“I’m not go­ing to go through 10,000 dresses,” she says. “How does it fit? How do I feel? Does it com­ple­ment me well? Let’s just go with this one. I know what looks good on me. I’m not go­ing to spend 10 hours on a fit­ting. I hate that.”

The wed­ding it­self will prob­a­bly take place in July, once Hen­son fig­ures out if Em­pire is go­ing to be picked up for a sixth sea­son. For­tu­nately, it is filmed in Chicago, where she and Hay­den re­side with Mar­cell—now 24 and an as­pir­ing rap­per and mu­sic pro­ducer—and their minia­ture French bull­dog, K-ball, which was Hay­den’s nick­name when he played in the NFL.

Their life is a healthy one. Hay­den runs his own gym, and she’s al­ways cook­ing new ve­gan treats for her tribe. She made the jump to ve­g­an­ism af­ter suf­fer­ing mas­sive stom­ach pains while film­ing The Best of En­e­mies this past sum­mer. “It took a doc­tor in Ma­con, Ga., to say, ‘ If you don’t change what you’re do­ing, you’re go­ing to get stom­ach can­cer.’ I said, ‘Say no more.’ So I switched ev­ery­thing up out of ne­ces­sity. I want to live. Thank God, be­cause I feel so much bet­ter.”

Now that she’s in love, at the top of her game, and clearly adored by the world at large, Hen­son is ready to expand her reper­toire even fur­ther. “The older I get, I want to work smarter, not harder,” she says. She’ll an­swer that su­per­hero hot­line if it rings—“dc, Mar­vel, you all can call me!”—but for now she’s con­tent be­ing the funny girl.

“I want to show you this,” she says, grab­bing her phone to play a video that was sent to her by What Men Want di­rec­tor Adam Shankman. It’s footage from an early screen­ing, and the au­di­ence is roar­ing with laugh­ter.

Hen­son ad­mits to hav­ing goose bumps as she cra­dles the de­vice like a proud mama: “Lis­ten to them cack­ling!” Q

“I want ev­ery walk of life [in my films]. If I could put an alien in, I would. I want their money too.”

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