Taraji P. Henson has charted a lane in Hollywood that puts her at the top of the list for who’s who in the acting world. With several top movies under her belt, an Oscar nomination and her most recently talked about role as Cookie on Fox’s hit show Empire, the D.C. native joined Gayle King on Friday at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for a candid conversation about her rise to success.
Serving as the 2015 ABFF ambassador, Henson talked about the influence of her late father and his push for her to follow her acting dreams. After deciding to take up engineering at North Carolina A&T and failing classes there, the 44-year-old actress says her father convinced her to come home and enroll in the drama program at Howard University.
“I always had the burning desire to act, but fear was in the way,” Henson said about her years at North Carolina A&T. “Fear is a powerful thing.”
After graduating from Howard, Henson pushed past her fear and stepped out on faith when she went to California as a single mom with little money and a big dream.
“I went to California with my son, $700 and Jesus,” said the actress, who admitted there was no way she could tell her son to follow his dreams if she wasn’t willing to follow hers.
While her role in the 2001 film Baby Boy, alongside Tyrese, made her a household name for many black families, Henson’s role, 14 years later, as Cookie on Empire is one that has made her one of Hollywood’s most talked about talents. She tells King that even after her 2008 Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she didn’t see any major changes in the roles and opportunities offered to her. She says award-winning filmmaker Tyler Perry was the first to call her after the nomination for a starring role in I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and made it clear that he was also the first person to offer her real money for playing a leading character.
“I know I have a voice. I know my time is going to come. I just have to be patient,” Henson said she would tell herself during the rough moments.
When the idea of Empire came to her attention, the Person of Interest star said she was very reluctant to take the role because she had made the decision to take a break from the world of television. With the desire to go back to theater, Henson was fully focused on her role in the stage play Above the Fold, whenÂ Empire came to her. After reading the script, she says she was compelled to the show because there were lines that scared her as she knew they would piss off the president and the NAACP.
“But when the fear arises, that means it’s a challenge so I have to do it,” Henson said.
Her role in Empire has made her the first black actress to win a Critics’ Choice Award for best lead in a drama series, with an all new season of the hit show set to premiere September 23. But Henson says while Cookie has certainly made her more of a household name in the states, her next desire is to do a franchise movie that is big overseas so the world can take her seriously. And with an attitude of determination and desire to prove naysayers wrong, she says she’s not buying the excuse given by Hollywood that a black movie won’t sell overseas.
“According to Twitter, they want me in China, New Zealand, Indonesia, etc.” the actress says to the laughing crowd.
For complete coverage of the 2015 American Black Film Festival, visit www.blackenterprise.com/tag/abff or follow along on social media using #ABFF2015.