She may play uber-diva Cookie Lyon in Fox’s musical drama “Empire,” but in real life Taraji P. Henson is as down-to-earth as they come. She hasn’t forgotten her D.C. roots or the people who aided the 46-year-old actress’s climb to fame. So, of course, on Saturday she had to give a shout-out and blow kisses to her college acting professor, Vera Katz, who was in the audience at the Smithsonian Associates’ talk for Henson’s new memoir “Around the Way Girl.”
“She still gives me acting notes to this day!” Henson said of Katz with a laugh.
But just before taking the stage at the Museum of Natural History, Henson, joined by her longtime best friend Tracy Jenkins, sat down with us to chat about her inspiration, career and hometown, with a big bowl of her go-to snack of gummy bears in hand.
You’re from D.C.
Born and raised.
And you went to Howard. As I’m sure you know, this weekend is Howard Homecoming —
I know! And I have no time to partake in any festivities.
Do you have a favorite memory or tradition from past homecomings?
Actually you know what, I was in the School of Fine Arts and I was immersed in the craft, so I never really did homecoming until after graduation. And then they made me the Grand Marshal of the parade [in 2009] — that was my first homecoming experience. I guess it was big for students who were from out of town. Partying in D.C. was just like normal for me. [Laughs]
Did you know that Nick Cannon enrolled at Howard this year? How do you feel about him choosing your alma mater?
Yes, I saw that! I saw his post; I follow him on social media. He’s a great guy. And he’ll fit right in. I think that’s a good thing. Hopefully I inspired that, you never know.
Were you politically active in college?
I was very militant. It’s a historically black university, so I started learning some things that I didn’t know, that I wasn’t learning in history classes in high school, or grade school for that matter, so it did make me a bit militant. I think I did a sit-in or two.
Would you still consider yourself political now?
Not political like that, but I vote. I definitely use my voice, but I’m not going to get into the red tape and politics, because I know right from wrong.
But you’re a Hillary [Clinton] supporter.
Oh, absolutely; girl, I have to be.
The cast of “Empire” did a video to generate support for her.
Yes, because I think people are losing faith, and this is not the time.
Speaking of “Empire,” the third season is airing right now. How were you able to balance writing and filming the show?
It’s just like anything else; you just have to divide your time appropriately. You know when I had time to I would [write], and if I couldn’t think of anything I would step away. If you want it, you make time for it.
When did you decide to write a memoir?
I really never saw myself as an author. When social media became a big thing and I found myself on Twitter, that was the first time I was able to be that connected directly to my fans, and they were reading, or seeing me in interviews, and they were able to see I had $700 in my pocket, moved to California as a single mom, so they were like “you inspire me, how did you do it, you need to write a book.” So after several years of that, I decided well God put me on the stage and gave me the mic, so what am I going to do? If my story can inspire someone, then that’s my calling. I mean, I can’t tell you how many stories have inspired me and got me to where I am.
[Henson then grabs a tissue to wipe her eye.]
I’m sorry I poked myself in the eye, I know you’re looking at me like why am I crying, but I have very sensitive eyes and I’m such a klutz. [Laughs]
Just don’t ruin your perfect makeup! Was this book, which is deeply personal, difficult for you to write?
Humans are very judgmental, but when you have a purpose, you have to block that out, because humans are going to be humans. I’m no fool, I know everybody doesn’t love me. I know certain people are going to pull out whatever they feel they need to from the book and publicize that and make that grander than the overall picture of the book — I get all of that. That’s what writing a book is for, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. Art is uncomfortable; if it’s not uncomfortable it’s not doing the job. The readers will grow from it, as will I. I’m healing in those places that I never really wanted to deal with.
Did writing in the present give you a different view on any experiences from the past?
I guess it would have to be when I met [Mary J. Blige] (who she recalls was rude to her during their first encounter and dismissed her). You know, when I met her no one knew who I was. The movie “Baby Boy” wasn’t even out, we had just finished filming it. My celebrity has certainly risen since then, so I know that feeling when a fan comes up to you and you’re just not in the mood and you’re just trying to be you. At the time, I was so hurt, but now I know some little girl is out there saying, “she was mean to me!” [about me]. I can laugh at it now, but at the time I was like “oh my goddd,” but I totally get it now because the shoe is on the other foot.
Speaking of little girls, or boys . . . what’s your advice to someone growing up in D.C. who wants to follow in your footsteps?
I just think that anything is achievable. I’m one story of many millions of stories. Tyler Perry is a good friend of mine. He was homeless, and now he owns a studio. It takes us telling our stories to give people hope. God didn’t give me anything more than he gave any other human, I just believe him. I choose to believe God’s word. That’s really all it is. There’s no secret or magic, no fairy dust, you just have to find your passion in life, not be afraid to live your truth, and have faith. And wherever you are, get out of your Zip code.
It’s been a crazy last few months for you — what’s next?
I have “Hidden Figures” (a film about three African American women working for NASA whose calculations helped make John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth a success), which I’m really excited about. I remember getting the script and just being enraged and angry that we didn’t know this story about these incredible women. You know all the footage I’ve seen, all the stories I’ve been told, all involved men, and who knew that women were so paramount in the great race to space. That’s important information because that’s a dream I didn’t know belonged to me. Who knows what I would have done with my life if I had known that story existed? You see how stories affect people and change and inspire. I had to do that movie, I didn’t care if they were paying two dollars. It’s turned into this beautiful project. The buzz I’m hearing is it’s being received with open arms, because it’s a fresh story that we haven’t heard.
Culled from Washington Post.