“The first time, he held a gun to her head and pulled her hair back,” she recalls. “I was only six years old but I remember it like it was yesterday, and I’m 48, so there was a lot of trauma associated with that. The second time, it was a teenage boy who punched her in the eye and she had to get a surgery because her retina was about to detach.”
Those incidents brought about Taraji’s first big life lesson. “I was always amazed how fearless my mother was after all that. Later, she would see me going out at all hours and she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t scared. But I’d say, ‘You didn’t roll over and hide in the closet because that happened to you; you got up the next day, you put on your shades and as much make-up as you could on that black eye and you went to work. So what message do you think I was going to get from that? You get knocked down, you get back up!’ “
In What Men Want her character, Ali Davis, knows all about getting knocked down. A fiercely competitive sports agent passed over for promotion, Ali has been boxed out by male colleagues for years. But when she develops the power to hear what men think, she uses her new talent to her advantage, trying to sign the National Basketball Association’s next superstar.
The movie is inspired by one of Taraji’s favourite comedies, the Mel Gibson film What Women Want, so she jumped at the chance to take on the gender-reversed role.
“Ali is like every woman in the world right now – fighting to be treated fairly in the workplace and fighting for the money that she deserves,” she says. “Women know this story; it falls into the whole Time’s Up, #MeToo movements and continues the conversation about equality and equal pay, but the film teaches you through laughter, which is what I love about it.”
Taraji describes her look today as “high-low”. Her long dark hair is woven into cornrows piled on top of her head and she proudly name-checks her puffy black Chanel vest and striped Off-White sneakers, a hot commodity from Milan designer Virgil Abloh, as the “high” before cheerfully explaining the “low” as the black Adidas tracksuit underneath.
Asked about her relationship with fashion, Taraji gets excited. “My therapy is shopping and it’s so bad that I buy real estate for the closet space,” she giggles. “I’m getting to a place where I hear Elizabeth Taylor sold all of her jewellery and I’m like, ‘Girl, have you looked in your closet lately? You’re becoming Elizabeth Taylor!’ “
If it’s not already obvious, Taraji doesn’t suffer fools – especially those fools who undervalue her in the workplace. “I’ve worked my ass off so people come to me,” emphasises the actor, who earned a 2009 Oscar nomination as best supporting actress for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and won a Golden Globe in 2016 for Empire.
“That puts me in a position to say, ‘If you want me, then you’ve got to pay this amount. Now I have nominations and wins and a following to prove that I deliver, you’ve got to pay for that!’
When Taraji felt underutilised in the procedural TV drama Person of Interest, in which she appeared from 2011 to 2013 opposite Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, she demanded to be released from her contract. “I had wanted to carry a show and that’s how it was presented to me, with the three of us. Then it became about the two gentlemen – which is fine,” she’s quick to clarify, “but I’m the type of actor that can’t sit idle and it drove me crazy to be marginalised and stuck in New York away from my son in California.”
The show’s producers responded by dramatically killing off her character midway through the third season, but she has no regrets. “I’ll walk away from the industry if I’m not being fulfilled creatively,” Taraji insists, “because I don’t just do this for the money.”
That being said, Taraji won’t do it for less than proper money either. She says she was miffed to discover in 2015 that she was paid less than co-star Terrence Howard in Empire.
“I’m not angry at Terrence; the studio kept explaining that it was because he had more credits, and I get that, but it still wasn’t fair,” she says. “Eventually they had to give me my money because it became obvious the appeal of the show was both Cookie and Lucious [Terrence’s role] and they really needed to keep Cookie happy!”
Taraji Penda Henson – named by her mother with the Swahili words for “hope” (taraji) and “love” (penda) – always wanted to be an actor, although it took a year studying electrical engineering at the University of the District of Columbia to convince her she had to pursue her passion. She shifted to drama at Howard University and paid for her tuition by working as a secretary at the Pentagon during the day and as a singing-and-dancing waitress at night.
In 1994, her junior year of college, she became pregnant to her high school sweetheart, William “Mark” Johnson. It might not surprise you at this point to hear that Taraji refused to become what she describes as a “cliché” – a pregnant black dropout.
“I knew there were a lot of naysayers; so many people thought that was going to be the end of me,” she nods. “Before that, I was starring in all the plays and musicals and when I got pregnant, people were saying, ‘That bitch got knocked up, so I can get a role now!’ I went to the director and said, ‘Don’t you bench me because I’m pregnant. It’s not a disease, I can still keep working.’ And so they made my character pregnant.”
After her son Marcell was born, Taraji remained in university while Mark played Mr Mom. When the relationship turned violent, Henson ended it. Mark remained in his son’s life via frequent visits, but was violently murdered when Marcell was only nine.
On her graduation day, Taraji carried her son in her arms as she crossed the stage to get her degree. “I love haters,” she says. “They’re the fuel to my ambition. I want you to doubt me because that gives me a reason to get up the next day and go, ‘I got to prove these people wrong.’ “
Soon after graduating, the single mum moved to LA with $700, donated by friends and family, in her pocket. As well as building a modest list of TV credits including ER, Felicity, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Boston Legal, Henson also caught the attention of movie audiences with three John Singleton films: Baby Boy (2001), Four Brothers (2005) and Hustle & Flow (2005), for which she also sang on the Oscar-winning soundtrack single, It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp.
Taraji recently launched a charity, named The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in honour of her father, a Vietnam vet, to ease the stigma of mental-health issues, especially in the African-American community.
“Black people get weirded out and fear it and don’t want to talk about it,” she explains. “We’ve been taught to pray it away or that it’s a weakness.”
She’s become a fan of therapy herself. “I used to hear my girlfriends talk about their therapy appointments every week and think, ‘I want to do that!’ Now I have a standing appointment with my therapist every Saturday at 11.30am and it really helps me.”
As Taraji fidgets with her hands on the table, it’s impossible to ignore the very large diamond engagement ring she’s been wearing since Kelvin Hayden, a former football player, proposed last May. She nervously confides that, much like her role in What Men Want, she’s struggling with some role reversals.
“I leaned on my masculine side for so long and now I have a man in my life, I have to give that over to him,” she says.
“My therapist said, ‘Have you ever considered submitting, in the Biblical sense?’ And I was like, ‘What?’ ” she shouts, with a look of disbelief, quickly followed by a belly laugh. “It’s hard, although I have to say, he’ll take out the trash now without me saying a word. I’m really starting to like this thing of letting him be the man!”
What Men Want opens in cinemas on February 14.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 10.