Leslie Bennetts | January 3, 2019 | People
Taraji P. Henson has had to fight her way to the top of Hollywood’s elite A-list. From her humble beginnings to her new rom-com, she goes on the record about the gender pay gap, getting engaged and why not needing a man is when you attract them most.
From a murdered homicide detective to a ruthless ex-con who doesn’t blink at ordering a hit, Taraji P. Henson has played a wide range of gritty parts in her busy career. Now in its fifth season, television drama Empire has won particular acclaim for Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon, a hip-hop family matriarch who served 17 years in prison for dealing drugs.
That role earned Henson a Golden Globe Award, along with her usual bumper crop of accolades, but the character wasn’t exactly a day at the beach. “It’s this combination of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Mama Rose on crack meets Lee Daniels’ sister,” says Danny Strong, who co-created the show with Daniels.
After all that cut-throat drama, Henson was yearning for a change of pace. “I’ve been dying to do a comedy,” says the 48-year-old actress.
She could hardly have imagined a more promising opportunity than What Men Want, the sequel to the romantic comedy What Women Want. It’s been nearly two decades since Mel Gibson schemed, lied and wooed his way into Helen Hunt’s heart as a chauvinist advertising executive who’s passed over for a promotion—only to get revenge on his female rival when an accident with a hair dryer gives him the magical ability to hear women’s secret thoughts.
What Men Want, which is directed by Adam Shankman, stars Henson as a sports agent who’s denied the promotion she deserves. After gaining the power to hear men’s thoughts, she scrambles to outfox her male colleagues in signing the next basketball superstar. But the sequel arrives at a very different cultural moment from What Women Want, a 2000 box-office smash directed by Nancy Meyers. From the #MeToo movement to the blue wave of women in politics, gender relations are volatile these days—and the movie tries hard to keep up with a fast-moving zeitgeist.
“There’s a heated debate between my character and her boss where he says, ‘If it weren’t for this #MeToo movement, I’d fire your ass!’” Henson reports. “So I say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fire me because I’m a woman?’ and he goes, ‘I didn’t say that!’ And I say, ‘So you’re not going to fire me because I’m a black woman!’ We go there, baby—we go all the way there! Audiences are not dumb, and I don’t want to be in a movie that’s not dealing with truth.”
Despite the fireworks, Henson ultimately sees the gender divide in gentler, more inclusive terms than many of the other fissures currently rending American society. “You get a lot of wisecracks about what men want, but I think men want the same things women want in a relationship,” she says. “You want trust; you want loyalty; you want to feel safe; you want unconditional love. Everyone wants a mate.”
Although the plot of What Women Want revolved around workplace competition, no one was surprised when the professional rivals ended up in each other’s arms. Since then, both times and tastes have changed, and Henson was determined to transcend the usual fairy-tale formula for the heroine’s transformation in the sequel. “Her strength and her metamorphosis don’t come from a man,” she explains. “She hopes to find a man, but it’s not like Prince Charming comes along and all of a sudden her life is better. Her change in becoming a better woman comes from her own process of learning from her mistakes and growing as an individual.”
Henson feels strongly about resisting the standard rom-com prescription for women’s happiness. “I fight against it all the time,” she says. “Even on Empire, it was all about Lucious coming into Cookie’s life. I felt like, this woman has been through so much for y’all to write around a story that’s not real! Just because he’s had an epiphany, that’s it? She needs to make him work for her love! He’s probably her soul mate, but I felt like, you’re not going to take advantage of me or use me. No, you have to work for it—because I’m worth it! You have to teach your soul mate how to be a better partner.”
Henson’s off-screen journey toward a partnered life has contained as many unexpected twists as her on-screen plot lines. She was born in Washington, D.C., to a corporate manager at a local department store and a father who worked as a janitor and a metal fabricator. Henson traces her matrilineal lineage back to the Masa people of Cameroon, and her first two names are derived from Swahili, in which “Taraji” means hope and “Penda” means love.
Henson gave birth to her son during her junior year at Howard University, where she studied acting. His father, her high-school sweetheart, was murdered in 2003. Henson has been a single mother ever since, and she has never married—but, last year, she announced her engagement to former NFL player Kelvin Hayden, who is 35.
They were instantly overwhelmed with questions about a wedding they hadn’t yet planned. “I felt the walls closing in on me,” Henson admits. “He just proposed! This is my first time being engaged! I felt like, don’t pressure me into a date. I don’t know yet! We’ve been together going on five years, but we just moved in together. Wait and let us figure it out.”
Henson is as reluctant to settle for hollow romantic cliches in her personal life as she is in her scripts. “I get paid really nice; I do really well,” she says. “When it comes to my life, I can’t pretend [with] things that don’t fit right in my spirit, that will keep me up at night. I can’t lie. Marriage represents, to me, my lifetime partner. I like the idea of not being alone; who wants to be alone in this horrible cold world? But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice what I wanted in a partner because I’m desperate. I waited until it felt right. I’m a special package; I’m not just a regular girl with a nine-to-five. It takes a special person to understand it and not feel intimidated by it—and I found him. He’s okay with that part, and he has my back. I enjoy the idea of getting old with him.”
What Men Want represents another longawaited milestone. When Mel Gibson starred in the original movie, he was at the peak of his success as a Hollywood heartthrob whose lavish paychecks reflected his box-office appeal. When the sequel cast an African-American woman in the starring role previously occupied by a white male, the change attested to the growing emphasis on diversity in the entertainment industry.
Racial barriers notwithstanding, Henson has never lacked for career opportunities. “I’ve gotten work,” she says. She also knows that casting choices are ultimately governed by traditional concerns about the bottom line. “The studio is not going to trust a film like this to a talent they don’t think can be a box-office draw,” she says. “They’re not even going to give a movie like this to a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl if they don’t think she’s a draw.”
But women of every description contend with egregious levels of pay discrimination, an issue that continues to represent the leading battleground for women’s equality. “It’s money,” Henson says. “My issue was not getting paid. White women are getting paid way more than me on any job in my career—and a white woman will get half of what a male lead gets.”
In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Henson won an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Queenie, the adoptive mother of Brad Pitt’s title character. “I was No. 3 on the call sheet, and I got $150,000 for the whole movie,” Henson says. “If I’d walked away from it, I would have missed the moment. They know there are so many black actresses who would love to have that role, and they hold over your head that you’re so replaceable. I feel like I have to prove to people that I’m worth the money I’m asking for. So look at my résumé in film, television and theater, and give me my money. Bet on me. It’s time for a raise.”
Over the last few years, Henson has demonstrated her value in an expanding array of arenas. In 2016, she published a best-selling autobiography, Around the Way Girl: A Memoir; Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world; and she won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures.
“All the stars are aligned, and I’m grateful. I thank God every day,” Henson says. “For me, this is the time in my life when all the pieces finally add up.”
Photographed by Micaiah Carter