'I Had To Create My Own Lane': How Taraji P. Henson Found Her Place In Hollywood

Oct 14, 2016
Originally published on October 14, 2016 2:11 pm

Actress Taraji P. Henson has played a lot of characters in her 20-year career, but it took only one role to make her famous: Cookie Lyon, the matriarch of an ambitious, dysfunctional family on the hit TV show Empire.

Now Henson has a new memoir out called Around the Way Girl. Don't know what an "around the way girl" is? Henson explains: "Around the way is like saying from the neighborhood, like from the hood." Henson still proudly calls herself an around the way girl; she says the fame and the money haven't changed her.

In the book, the actress shares stories of pushing herself to the top. She describes leaving her hometown of Washington, D.C., for Hollywood with little but the intention to succeed on her own terms. "I never went there with the expectation of failure. I never even thought about that," she says. "If anything, I knew I was going to make a dent in Hollywood and no one would stop me."

That included people who had a pretty narrow idea of how a Hollywood star should look. But Henson didn't care: She didn't want to look like the typical size 00 starlet. (Yes, that's an actual size.) Around the way, she says, curves are valued. Light-skinned black actresses like Halle Berry may get nods from Hollywood now, but even they have to fight for parts — because there aren't a ton of them.

"God bless Halle Berry," Henson says. "Even though Hollywood loves her look, she had to create her own lane. There wasn't a lane for Halle Berry — she had to create that. And I had to create my own lane."

Creating her own lane occasionally came at a cost, though. Sometimes Henson lost jobs because she wasn't what the producer had in mind. And there was a bittersweet success in 2008, the year Henson appeared in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She played Queenie, a nursing home worker in 1918 New Orleans, and Brad Pitt starred as Benjamin, a man who aged in reverse. At the beginning of the movie, Queenie stumbles upon an ancient-looking foundling and takes him in. Her relationship with Benjamin was, for many, the emotional heart of the movie.

Henson says starring opposite Pitt was terrific, but in her book she reveals she almost didn't take the job because the salary she was offered was insultingly low — about 2 percent of what the studio paid Pitt. And unlike Pitt, she had to pay her own travel and lodging. After days of raging to herself over the inequity, Henson listened to her inner voice: There's something to this Queenie.

"So, you know, I decided to not push," she says. "I decided to swallow my pride and use it in the work, use it in the work. And that's what I did, and I think it paid off."

And how. Henson's performance got her an Oscar nomination, and that gave her the confidence to push back when she was given the script for the 2012 romantic comedy Think Like a Man. "Talk about pushing and fighting!" she says. "I was like, 'Why would you make the most successful character in this cast Caucasian?' Like, this woman is me: highly successful and single. That is me. ... That's all of my girlfriends! ... So thank God they listened to me. See, that's the one time I pushed. But see, at this time in my career I could, and they would listen."

And they did listen: The role was recast for Henson. Today, not only is she the breakout star of TV's Empire, but there are already Oscar whispers about her next meaty part — as a NASA mathematician in this winter's Hidden Figures.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The actress Taraji P. Henson has played a lot of characters in her career. But it's this role that made her famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMPIRE")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) I'm here to get what's mine.

MONTAGNE: That is, of course, Henson as Cookie Lyon, the matriarch of an ambitious, dysfunctional family on Fox's show "Empire." Now Henson has released a memoir called "Around The Way Girl." She spoke with Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team about what it took to rise to the top in Hollywood.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Don't know what an around-the-way girl is? Let Taraji P. Henson break it down for you.

HENSON: Around the way is like saying from the hood. And also, LL Cool J wrote a song called "Around the Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AROUND THE WAY GIRL")

LL COOL J: (Rapping) I want a girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings - at least two pair - a Fendi bag and a bad attitude.

BATES: Henson still proudly calls herself an around-the-way girl. She swears the fame, the money haven't changed her. It sounds like a movie cliche. But Henson really did leave her Washington, D.C., hometown for Hollywood with little but the intention to succeed on her own terms.

HENSON: You know, I never went there with the expectation of failure. I never even thought about that. If anything, I knew I was going to make a dent in Hollywood. And no one could stop me.

BATES: Including people who had a pretty narrow idea of how a Hollywood star should look. Henson didn't care. She didn't want to be a size 00. Around the way, she says, curves are valued. Fair-skinned black actresses like Halle Berry may get nods now. But Henson says even they had to fight for parts.

HENSON: You know, God bless Halle Berry. Even though Hollywood loves her look, she had to create her own lane. There wasn't a lane for Halle Berry. And I had to create my own lane.

BATES: Sometimes, Henson lost jobs because producers couldn't see a black woman in the role. She had a bittersweet experience when she played Queenie in "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button." Brad Pitt starred as Benjamin, a man who aged in reverse. At the beginning of the movie, Queenie stumbles upon an ancient-looking foundling and takes him in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON")

HENSON: (As Queenie) You are as ugly as an old pot. But you still a child of God.

BATES: Starring opposite Brad Pitt was a big deal. But in her book, Henson reveals she almost didn't take that job because the salary she was offered was insultingly low, about 2 percent of what the studio paid Pitt. And she even had to pay her own travel and lodging. After raging to herself for days over the inequity, Henson listened to her inner voice. There was something to this Queenie.

HENSON: So, you know, I decided to not push. I decided to swallow my pride and use it in the work. And that's what I did. And I think it paid off.

BATES: And how? Henson was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress. And that gave her the confidence to push back later. In 2012, she was given the script to a romantic comedy called "Think Like A Man."

HENSON: Talk about pushing and fighting - I was like, why would you make the most successful character in this cast Caucasian? Like, this woman is me (laughter). Highly successful and single - that is me. You know what I mean? Like, that's all of my girlfriends. So thank God they listened to me. See, that's the one time I pushed. But see, at this time in my career, I could. And they would listen.

BATES: They listened and changed the script. And today, Henson is the breakout star of TV's "Empire." Soon she may be celebrated for another part. There were already Oscar whispers about her role as a NASA mathematician in the movie "Hidden Figures" out in January.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.