Hen­son wants ‘En­e­mies’ seen on its own terms

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Pa­trick Ryan

Taraji P. Hen­son wants to be clear: Her new civil rights drama isn’t try­ing to be the next “Green Book.”

Like this year’s con­tro­ver­sial Os­car­win­ning best pic­ture star­ring Ma­her­shala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, “The Best of En­e­mies” (in theaters na­tion­wide Fri­day) tells the true story of a racist white man who changes his tune af­ter befriendin­g a black per­son. But rather than a road trip with a con­cert pi­anist and his driver, “En­e­mies” cen­ters on the un­likely part­ner­ship be­tween ac­tivist Ann At­wa­ter (Hen­son) and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. El­lis (Sam Rock­well) to help de­seg­re­gate schools in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971.

“I did see ‘Green Book’ and I don’t see the sim­i­lar­i­ties,” says Hen­son, 48, ad­dress­ing the neg­a­tive com­par­isons made on­line when the “En­e­mies” trailer was re­leased last month. “It’s un­for­tu­nate be­cause they’re judg­ing some­thing they have not seen yet, just be­cause this is of the era of civil rights and she talks a cer­tain kind of way . ... I’ve ac­tu­ally con­fronted some of those tweets by telling them just to Google her. We didn’t make this up.”

“En­e­mies” is based on Osha Gray David­son’s 1996 non­fic­tion book of the same name, to which writer/direc­tor Robin Bis­sell op­tioned the rights af­ter reading about El­lis’ death in 2005. The events of the movie be­gin when a lo­cal el­e­men­tary school for black kids burns down, prompt­ing At­wa­ter to spring into ac­tion to find them a new place to learn. Fol­low­ing the out­cry from white par­ents over pro­posed school in­te­gra­tion, a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer ap­points At­wa­ter and El­lis as re­luc­tant cochairs of a two-week pub­lic meet­ing for Durham res­i­dents to talk through their dif­fer­ences and ul­ti­mately put the de­ci­sion to a vote.

Bis­sell fin­ished the script in 2014 and brought it to pro­ducer Danny

Strong, who had just shot the pi­lot of Fox’s hip-hop se­ries “Em­pire” with Hen­son and sug­gested her for the role. Hav­ing spent a lot of time in­ter­view­ing At­wa­ter be­fore her death in 2016, Bis­sell wanted to en­sure his movie em­bod­ied her spirit.

“Ann had this mas­sive heart and com­pas­sion, and I was able to un­der­stand why she was able to change so many peo­ple – it wasn’t just her dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion,” Bis­sell says. “Taraji em­bod­ied that, just in her eyes and her voice. She was so pow­er­ful and came with a fully formed char­ac­ter” on the first day of shoot­ing.

“En­e­mies” is Hen­son’s first se­ri­ous drama since 2016’s Os­car-nom­i­nated “Hid­den Fig­ures,” in which she played the sim­i­larly hard-nosed NASA math­e­ma­ti­cian Katherine John­son. She says she was drawn to At­wa­ter’s stead­fast­ness in her be­liefs, de­spite loom­ing threats of vi­o­lence and in­tim­i­da­tion from KKK mem­bers.

“She didn’t bite her tongue,” Hen­son says. “She knew what was right and what was wrong, and she fought for jus­tice for peo­ple who were be­ing op­pressed. It up­set her and ev­ery breath of her body was to fight against that.”

To pre­pare, the ac­tress stud­ied tapes of At­wa­ter speak­ing in or­der to master her boom­ing voice and de­lib­er­ate cadence. (“Peo­ple said you could hear her be­fore you see her,” Hen­son says. “She had a big mouth.”) The ac­tress also asked the wardrobe de­part­ment to make her a pros­thetic suit so she could bet­ter em­u­late At­wa­ter’s phys­i­cal­ity.

“They didn’t have the breasts right at first – they were too small, kind of like my size,” Hen­son says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘No, no no. Why don’t you call Tyler Perry and ask him what they did to Madea’s boobs, be­cause I need to be weighted down.’ ”

“En­e­mies” caps a break­neck past year for Hen­son, who has starred in five films since the start of 2018, in­clud­ing the com­edy re­make “What Men Want.” She is on hiatus from “Em­pire,” which ended its fifth sea­son with off-screen drama, when co-star Jussie Smol­lett was ar­rested on charges of falsely re­port­ing a hate crime, which were un­ex­pect­edly dropped.

“I knew it all along,” Hen­son says. “We’re all happy for him, and thank God the truth pre­vailed.”

Next up, she’s plan­ning to take some well-de­served time off to travel with her girl­friends, with a va­ca­tion booked to a pri­vate is­land in the Ba­hamas. She also is in the early stages of plan­ning her wed­ding to for­mer NFL player Kelvin Hay­den, 35.

“He’s a man’s man. He’s like, ‘What­ever you want, babe,’ ” Hen­son says.

But when they do tie the knot, “it’ll be in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., my home­town. The ma­jor­ity of my fam­ily is there, and it’ll make it eas­ier for his fam­ily to come in from Chicago. We didn’t want to make it dif­fi­cult, be­cause most of our fam­ily works 9 to 5.”

STX­FILMS

Taraji P. Hen­son plays Ann At­wa­ter in “Best of En­e­mies.”

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