Taraji P. Henson may be a first-time Academy Award nominee, but she’s no stranger to the world of Oscar. In 2005, after her breakout performance as a pregnant prostitute in the critically acclaimed Hustle & Flow, Henson joined Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia onstage—in front of an audience of “royalty”, as she puts it—to perform the film’s Oscar-winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” She may take the stage again this year if her name appears on the best supporting actress envelope.
As Queenie, the sweet-natured surrogate mother to Brad Pitt’s title character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Henson ages dramatically from her 20’s to her 70’s. Her nuanced performance remains both delicate and powerful throughout, and even in the quietest scenes you can always hear her heartbeat. VF Daily caught up with the sunny California native on an unbelievably chilly New York day.
VF Daily: Congratulations on your nomination! Have things changed much since it was announced?
Taraji P. Henson: Yes, TMZ follows me everywhere I go! I have a lot of people following me with pictures to sign. I can’t get used to that. I don’t know where they get these pictures. They have pictures from when I first started my career… I’m like, “Where did you find this?”
How did your career start out?
Well, I was always a ham. I didn’t really get serious about [acting] until college. I auditioned for a performing arts high school, didn’t get accepted, and I thought that meant I couldn’t act. So I never acted again until I failed Pre-Calc in college. I decided I was going to try Electrical Engineering. That sounded good…it just sounded good! So I failed, and thank God I did because it forced me to study what I really wanted to, and that was acting.
You went to Howard University, correct?
Yes. I put myself through college. I worked at the Pentagon during the early part of the day, the middle part of the day I went to school full-time, and at night I was a singing-dancing waitress on this small dinner cruise called the Spirit of Washington. After I graduated, my dad said, “How do you expect to catch fish on dry land?” You have to go where the jobs are. We raised $700, I packed my son up, and I moved to L.A.
What was it like singing “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” at the Oscars?
Oh, God. It was quite horrifying. The Oscars is like royalty. It’s the cream of the crop, and here I am onstage singing about pimps and h*s and b***hes. I had to look over everyone’s head because I didn’t want to freak out or feel embarrassed about Helen Mirren watching me sing about b***hes and h*s. There was one point where I glanced out at the audience, and they were all with it. They were pumping their fists, nodding their heads, and singing along. That put me at ease.
So this will be your second time at the Oscars then?
My third. The first time I went was the year before Hustle and Flow came out. I was a guest of Paramount. They invited me, Taryn Manning, and Terrence Howard. The next year, I was on stage singing, and this year…ah, that will be a different walk down the red carpet.
Do you have your dress picked out?
The sketches are coming in. My top priority is comfort. It’s a very long evening. I’ve done it before, and I know what to expect. I want to be sexy and chic and all that, but I have to be comfortable or else I’m not going to be a happy camper.
There seem to be strong reactions to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…
Yes, you either love it or you hate it. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they love the movie because it helps bring closure to losing a loved one in their life, which it did for me.
What about the character of Queenie appealed to you?
Her ability to love unconditionally. After I got the role, I had to research who this woman was and the differences in aging. My grandmother had a get-together. Everybody was there, all of her daughters. There was a woman there to represent every age I had to portray, so I just sat back and made them my character study. They didn’t know it.
Do they know now?
They know now! I don’t know if they recognized any traits. I just try to record human characteristics. I people-watch. I don’t remember exactly what I picked up from each person. It’s probably a combination of everything that I watch.
Is it true that you auditioned in character?
Yes. I do that for all of my auditions. I didn’t wear any makeup. I put my hair in two French braids, and I had on a long skirt and a white shirt buttoned up. I try to be exact with the character research I’ve done. I do it for all of my characters. For Talk to Me, I showed up in a sixties outfit. Sometimes you have to be careful with how far you go. I’ve done that before, and then I got the call from my manager who was like, “Ok, can you leave the props at home this time?”
What’s your next role after all of this?
Nothing’s etched in stone yet. It’s been really slow in the industry because of the pending strike, so hopefully we can resolve that matter, and I can get a job. I can’t wait until I’m writing my book: I was nominated for an Oscar and I didn’t have a job!
Any role you would absolutely never want to play?
Anything that I’ve already played before. No pregnant whores, no ghetto baby mamas, no lesbian snipers. I’m just interested in portraying something I haven’t done before.
If you could choose a role, what would it be?
My dream role would be to portray Diana Ross. I think it’s time to do her story. We’ve seen Dorothy Dandridge’s story; we’ve seen Tina Turner’s story. I’m ready to see Diana Ross. She’s such an icon.
Yes, more comedy! I think I’m a much better comedic actress. I’ve got you all fooled.
Via: Vanity Fair