“Oh, I miss Roger,” Taraji P. Henson says to me one cold, wet afternoon in early January, before I can even get a word out. “He was so good, so good. He was just so generous to me. And he didn't lie, you know. So I was like, ‘I made it. Roger Ebert. Alright. I'm doing things.’”
That’s the kind of opening salvo you only get when you write for this particular publication, but it’s also a remark also very much in keeping with what a conversation with Henson is like. There’s exuberance, but not of the bubbly variety—hers is a more like a dense cloud, an existing haze into which you walk and cannot help inhaling, constant, enveloping, and not in the least chaotic. There’s sincerity and emotion, but there’s no door which swings open and reveals it, nor is it underlined in any way. It simply is. And there’s confidence. This is a person who radiates confidence. Confidence in her work. Confidence in her decisions. Confidence in her abilities. If asked to pinpoint the heart of Henson’s warm, assured energy, the best this writer could offer would be to say that she radiates the satisfaction of someone who knows her own great value.
It’s a characteristic she shares with Ali, the woman who, sometimes unwillingly, learns what men want in “What Men Want.” A loose remake of Nancy Meyers’ Mel Gibson-starring “What Women Want,” the Adam Shankman-directed film follows a driven sports agent—conspicuously the only woman in her agency—who, after a weird cup of tea and a bonk on the head, finds herself privy to the inner thoughts of the many, many men she encounters personally and professionally on a daily basis. Confidence in her own abilities isn’t Ali’s problem. It’s that she sometimes fails to understand the way she’s perceived, rightly or wrongly, and that she’s often liable to ignore the needs or feelings of others. Gibson’s character was a misogynist. Henson’s is just kind of a jerk sometimes—to her coworkers, friends, lovers, clients, father (Richard Roundtree), and put-upon assistant (Josh Brener). She’s kind to herself, but not always to others.
That last quality isn’t one Henson shares. On that stormy afternoon, at the Chicago Sports Museum, she spoke with RogerEbert.com about empathy and intuition, the responsibility she feels toward the people she works with, “finding the ha-ha” even in darkness, and her pick for basketball’s GOAT.
We’re surrounded by sports memorabilia, so given that and the film, I have to ask—are you a sports fan yourself?
I am. I don't know too much about all the rules and things, but I have to say that basketball is my favorite. I understand it a little more than football. Football, I just know [arms shooting into the air], touchdown, field goal. [Liking football is] more nostalgic, because I lost my father, who was a big, big, football fan. And of course, my fiancé's ex-NFL, so, I have no choice. But even before we got together, it was nostalgic for me. I'd just have a game on in the background, even if I didn’t watch it, because that's what I did with my dad.
There’s a vital father-daughter relationship in “What Men Want.” Having lost your dad, is that something that was particularly attractive to you about the script?
Yeah. And how we lifted up the single father, and how we nurtured that relationship. We do it for single mothers all the time, but we never showcase single fathers. I thought that was beautiful. It's beautiful to put on film. People need to see that. We need great examples, and to know that they exist. I loved the relationship that they had. I was a daddy's girl. That first scene [in which Ali finds her dad at his gym after a professional heartbreak] was difficult for me, because Richard Roundtree reminds me so much of my father. I had to walk off set, and get it together. That was important for me, that we uplift these men in that way.
This is a broad comedy, and yet a much of the film is grounded in something honest, and really painful, like some of their scenes together.
Well, for the over-the-top and the funny to work, you have to get to a real place, right? So, in those real moments you have to really go there. Then when you flip it to the comedy, it's a relief. That’s comic relief. You can't stay heavy for long, but you certainly have to go there. You can't gloss it over. You have to approach it just like it's a drama. And then, that next scene is where the relief comes from.
That's the beauty and joy of comedy. You don't have to stay in the heavy for so long. In the drama, you’re in the heavy the whole time. But, because I'm a comedic actress, even when I'm doing deep-rooted, dramatic projects, I still try to find the ha-ha in it, you know?
There are some seriously funny people in this movie. Who was a bigger challenge to play agaist without breaking: Tracy Morgan [playing a LaVar Ball-esque father of a prospective client] or Erykah Badu [playing the fortune teller who gives Ali her tea]?
She's very funny. Erykah did her own thing. All of that stuff she did, she brought. None of that was in the script. All of that, it wasn't written. She's just brilliant. But Tracy Morgan, because he's a comedian and he wakes up everyday to make sure you laugh, that he makes somebody laugh, it was hard to keep a straight face with him. The stuff that comes out of his mouth! And he's not going to stop until he makes you laugh. He's not going to stop. His mission is to try to break you on camera. So it was really difficult with Tracy.
Did he succeed?
It was his mission to break me, because I'm very professional. I'm trying to [finish work and] go home. He did a couple times, but not that often. “We're not going to do 10 takes. We're not doing it, Tracy!”
So, I think that it's so interesting that this film, specifically, is one that's being rebooted from a female perspective, given that the character in the original is obviously a man, but on top of that, is a misogynist.
And he was trying to take a job from a woman.
Exactly. And this film isn’t only from a woman's perspective, but is a woman in a predominantly male space, as opposed to a man in a male space, this is a woman in an even more male space. What was it like to tell that story and is there any particular reason you were attracted to that quality?
Well, it needs to be told now. Now is the time. I don't think this movie would have worked five or ten years ago. It's working now, because this is a conversation we're having right now. And I like that it's not a drama. I love that it's a comedy, and that people get to learn through laughter. The messages are there. But you're going to laugh while you learn.
That’s particularly true of a scene in which Ali confronts an executive at her agency about her career, and he pretty overtly implies that he’s only keeping her there as a shield, a “two-fer,” because she’s a black woman. What was that like to film?
I thought, "We dealing with this head on, huh? I like it." You know, I come from the world of Cookie [the matriarch of the Lyon family on “Empire”], where she don't bite her tongue for nothing. So I was ready. [I told myself], "This is what we need to say and we need to say it just like this." I was happy that they put that in. I mean, we got to deal with the elephant in the room, right?
There are some similarities to both “Empire” and “Hidden Figures,” in the woman-in-male-world story. Is that a story you’re often attracted to?
I think that was kind of a coincidence. I was just drawn to the story, and this woman, and her plight, and her fight. And it's funny! That's what drew me to the project more than anything, the fact that it was a comedy that I get to star in, and it's a gender-flip of a comedy that I love, that I still will watch today. I thought it was brilliant to flip the gender like that. And now, it's perfect, perfect timing. Just like I felt like “Hidden Figures” came right when it was supposed to. Cookie came right when she was supposed to.
Do you feel like that's true of your projects in general, things arrive at the right time for you?
It seems to be the through-line. I couldn't have written this better myself. I couldn't have planned it better myself. I couldn't have. I just look up and say, "And it fell in my lap? Again? Okay.”
Do you consider yourself an especially empathetic or perceptive person?
Absolutely. I've always been the one who takes up for the person being bullied. That's just me. It's in my DNA. My father always said, if you're a blessing, you have to be a blessing. And that's just how I was raised. I don't know another way. I can't walk past somebody hurting on the street and just ... That's not me. I don't know how to do that. That will haunt me. What if they die, and you could've saved them? That's just who I am.
Is making art part of your way of helping people?
Well, certainly, that's my understanding of my position in being an artist. Art changes lives. Art creates life. Art can save a life, and it saved mine. I grew up in the hood. I could have been a statistic, but I wasn't, because I had art. I had [a way to] release, something to put my energies and my focus [toward], and keep my little self off the streets and out of trouble. And once I became an artist, it was like, "Well, that's what art did to you, so that is your job: to go out into the world and affect people like that, in a positive way."
So I take what I do very seriously. And I think a lot of times, these young actors [who say], "I want to be a star"—Well, do you know what that entails? When you become number one on that call sheet, that is a responsibility. As we see, with the Roseannes of the world, when you [screw up], you're jeopardizing 300 people's jobs. So there's a responsibility that comes with that, and I don't think people take that into consideration. If I come to work and I got a bad attitude, that permeates through the whole set. You're number one. People are looking to you to be the captain. I don't think people really understand what being number one on the call-sheet entails. They just see the stars and the red carpets. [laughs]
It's a responsibility. Whenever I know that I've gotten something green-lit ... I would feel so good, like when I produced my Christmas show. That's usually the time when no one's getting a job anymore. Hollywood is pretty much on hiatus, and here I come with this show, and people get one more check before Christmas day. I remember walking on that set, and everybody's all happy, and I'm like, "I did this. I'm the reason why everybody got this job.” And that feels good.
So working, and especially producing, is something you see as an opportunity to keep a bunch of people employed?
Is that something that you consider when you're picking projects?
Absolutely. If I'm working, that's 300 more people working, so I'm very big on that, in giving people opportunities and chances. "No, let's get this sound guy," or, "We need a female DP." Being a producer helps me to get some more people [involved.] Come on. Let’s let this set look like what the world looks like.
So that's something that you're making a priority in your work?
Absolutely. I've always been that. I will take up for my crew. I am big on my crew.
Here's a basketball question for you. Who's the greatest basketball player of all time?
Would that be Wilt Chamberlain? No. He just had a lot of sex. [big laugh] No, in my opinion, in my era, it would have to be Michael Jordan. Everybody's trying to be like Mike.
So, Jordan is better than Lebron?
That's tough. It's tough. Well, LeBron still has a lot to prove. He doesn't have six rings. So, I still got to give it to Mike.
What’s your basketball team?
I don't really have a team. I'm more into players. For a long time, it was the Boston Celtics, but then when they broke them all up, I [didn’t know where to go]. And then, oh, God, where did Durant used to play before he went to Golden State?
OKC? The Thunder?
Oklahoma! Oklahoma, yes, the Thunder. I loved that squad. I loved him, and Russell Westbrook, and what's his name? The one with the beard, before he left.
That was my team. And then they got all broken up. So now, I don’t know. It's supposed to be the Wizards. That's where I'm from. But I don't stick to that. I like teams, squads.
Of the basketball players in the movie, and there are several of them, who is the best, acting-wise?
Shaq. He's done it more than the other ones. He's got commercials. He's all over the place.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.