Taraji P. Henson talks ‘What Men Want’ and playing empowered characters
We’re used to seeing Taraji P. Henson play tough — as the indomitable Cookie, the role that made her a cult sensation on Fox’s hit “Empire,” or Detective Joss Carter on “Person of Interest.” But she gets to flex comedic chops in “What Men Want,” a Hollywood remake hitting theaters Friday.
Directed by Adam Shankman, the film takes a fresh look at the 2000 rom-com “What Women Want,” which starred Mel Gibson a few years before his racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic rants took all the fun out of watching his movies. So it’s high-time for a do-over, this time with a woman getting konked on the head and suddenly being able to hear the thoughts of the opposite sex. Henson plays Ali Davis, a tough-as-nails sports agent, with Tracy Morgan as a basketball phenom’s helicopter dad, and singer Erykah Badu stealing her scenes as a wigged-out fortune teller.
Henson, 48, has worked in the industry since coming to Hollywood more than 20 years ago, earning an Oscar nomination as Brad Pitt’s mother in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” She’s currently engaged to former NFL cornerback Kelvin Hayden, and recently spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Q: You play a sports agent. Are you interested in sports? Do you follow any teams?
A: Not really. Basketball just isn’t the same anymore. Football is nostalgic for me, because my dad loved it. But I don’t follow a team. I’m engaged to a Super Bowl champ, but I don’t know what’s going on.
Q: Has he taught you the finer points of the game? Or does he not mind?
A: He doesn’t mind. If I asked, he would … but I don’t really care. (She laughs.)
Q: Well, for someone who’s not sporty, you fake it well. There’s that basketball-court scene where you have to shoot free throws.
A: If I stand there long enough, I’ll hit a couple of baskets. But that’s it. I can do anything if it’s in the script.
Q: Like wearing high heels? There’s got to be athletic ability in that — yours in the film were crazy high.
A: And running in them, in the pencil skirt — not fun.
Q: Your character also spars a bit in a boxing ring.
A: That’s a workout regimen for me, so I wasn’t new to that. My fiancé and I go to the gym and box sometimes.
Q: You spar together?
A: Sometimes, or with a trainer. It depends on how they work us out. We work out a lot. I love it. Boxing is the best. It works every muscle in your body. I feel great afterwards. It’s empowering. You feel like … can’t nobody mess with you, you know?
Q: You play empowered characters a lot. I’ve always assumed that’s how you are in real life.
A: I am. I’m not as extreme as some of the characters but I stand up for myself. I’ve had to do it my entire life. Coming from the ‘hood, you’ve got so many obstacles stacked against you, so you’re either going to fight your way out or you’re going to lay there and stay there.
Q: Sounds very #MeToo.
A: More women are coming to bat, but for the majority of my career it was men calling the shots. (Now) you’re seeing more representation … So it’s looking good. Really good. We got more work to do. But — we’re moving forward.
Q: Would you ever go to a fortune teller?
A: I’m not into tarot card reading, stuff like that. I don’t want to know the things that are coming. I’ll work it out when they get here. It’s one day at a time.
Q: But what if the fortune teller is Erykah Badu? She was … hilarious.
A: She brought a lot to that character. I knew she would. When I read the script, I called (director Adam Shankman) and said, “Eryka’s the only one who can do this — you have to get her.” Adam was like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “Go to her Instagram page, and I guarantee you she’s burning incense, rubbing crystals, drinking tea … trust me.” He went to her page and he’s like, “Oh my god, you’re right.” People know her as this singer — and she’s amazing. But she’s also an actress. She went to a performing arts high school (in Dallas) with my very best friends in life. She knows what she’s doing.