Anyone who saw 2005’s Hustle & Flow is already familiar with Taraji P. Henson’s scene-stealing—she played Shug, the affable prostitute, and even sang vocals on Three Six Mafia’s Oscar-winning, “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” But this year Henson is making a gold run of her own—at 38, she has crossed over into blockbuster territory with her turn as Queenie, the nursing-home owner who raises a reverse-aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Henson has already received nominations for a Golden Globe and a Critic’s Choice award, and on Thursday, could easily find herself in the Oscar race. The D.C.-born actress may have taken a circuitous path—she started college as an electrical engineering major, but flunked calculus and decided she “was an artist”—but she is now poised to be one of Hollywood’s new dramatic queens. She talked to The Daily Beast about her curious new life.
Angelina and I were talking—hold up, it’s crazy that I can say that; sometimes I have to step out of myself and say 'Girl, did you just hear yourself reference Angelina Jolie?'
HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FOR YOU SINCE THE GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATION?
I’m just waiting for someone to say, "Wake up!" You know, everything can change in one year, with just one project, and that’s what’s happening now. I think about last year—even though no one went to the Golden Globes—but I wasn’t even invited and wouldn’t have been. And now, to have my name bounced around with some of the best of Hollywood—Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep…this is just such a great year in film, and it’s good to be in the mix.
SPEAKING OF BEING IN THE MIX, IS IT TRUE THAT DENZEL WASHINGTON SENT YOU FLOWERS TO CONGRATULATE YOU ON YOUR ROLE?
Oh my god, I cried for a day when they came. I always get sent orchids, but I swear to you, I have never taken care of an orchid like I’m taking care of this one. I have the spray bottle out every day, I talk to it, I sing to it. I’ve been too nervous to call him and thank him, I sent him a fabulous card. I will get up the guts to talk to him in person, but I know that I might say something stupid on the phone.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH BENJAMIN BUTTON?
When I got the script, I had no idea I was really being considered at all. And then, the casting director said that she had seen Hustle & Flow, and knew right then that I should play Queenie—she said that whenever my character left the screen, you missed her, and that’s the feeling she wanted for Queenie, that maternal, yearning feeling.
DID BEING A SINGLE MOM AFFECT YOUR WORK ON THE FILM?
Once you’re a mom, always a mom. It’s like riding a bike, you never forget. Of course it helps in the work. Queenie is a woman who had to overcome a horrible obstacle in her life. She can’t have her own children, and she is despairing when the film opens. Something happens to a woman when she can’t reproduce. I’ve not had to walk that path, but I can only imagine when your organs don’t work and how that could make you feel. But with Queenie, instead of falling prey to that negativity, she found a joy in giving life and love to the elders within the house.
EVEN A WRINKLED, MONSTROUS-LOOKING BRAD PITT.
She gets past the exterior, and just saw him deserving of unconditional love. But Brad and I both laughed a lot about having to look so shriveled and broke down—him at the beginning of the movie, me at the end. Brad Pitt is actually hilarious—I knew every day coming into work that he would crack me up. And I’ve said this before, but his children were on set all the time and he is an incredible dad.
SO YOU’VE SHARED SCREEN TIME WITH PITT AND TERRENCE HOWARD. WHAT’S NEXT?
I’m really blessed to have worked with some of the top men in this town. My next film coming out is Hurricane Season with Forest Whitaker, who has a presence that is undeniable. He is so powerful without opening his mouth—and that’s good for me, I like to be challenged, I love working with the A-listers because you really have to bring your A-game. Face it, you’re with the actors that people will buy tickets to see—sure, I’ll bring in a few but it’s not about me—so you can half-ass it if you want to, but your scenes will be cut out. If you want to shine a little, you better bring it, every day.
YOUR HOUSE IS PROBABLY EXPLODING WITH NEW SCRIPTS NOW.
Actually…no. I can’t wait to write my memoir someday and talk about this moment in my life—my name is being bounced around the Oscars, Golden Globes, and all these awards, its incredible. And I don’t have a job. Nothing. The industry is really slow right now because of the pending strike, so I am at a standstill. It’s funny that I have all these things going on and no work in sight. It’s very shaky out here.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO MORE EPIC DRAMAS?
Honestly, I want to do more light and funny. Angelina and I were talking—hold up, it’s crazy that I can say that; sometimes I have to step out of myself and say 'Girl, did you just hear yourself reference Angelina Jolie?'—but we were talking about how everything has been so heavy and deep lately. Yuck. I want to laugh. I am a better comedic actress. I’ve got you all fooled into thinking I’m a drama person. But I do want to work with Tarantino, Scorsese, Pacino, Meryl Streep. I mean, hey, I had Brad Pitt on my wish list and look what happened! I believe the universe is always listening.
THAT’S A GREAT ATTITUDE.
Thanks—I try to be very down to earth and have a normal life. I like to be home with my son, kickin’ it and watching ESPN, a very normal life. I like to take him to school every day, watch his games. I don’t go to the parties even to see who’s hating on me or what the industry is saying. What I need to do is stop reading the blogs—it’s like a drug. You go on and say, of course I made them all happy now, and people are writing, “OH MY GOD she looks like a grandmother, her face looks like leather!” It’s horrible.
YOU’D BETTER START PICKING OUT YOUR OSCAR DRESS NOW.
First things first—gotta get nominated! But I’m resting up until the nominations come out and just being thankful—there are few actresses who ever get to be in a movie like this, so I already feel like a winner. I have to take it easy now—I was going to go to the inauguration, but then I thought, why go to that hot mess and risk catching a cold when I have French doors here and am wearing flip flops? I love you Barack Obama, but I’m going to love you from Los Angeles.