Taraji P. Henson is known for her hardened exterior, at least in the dramatic roles she's used to playing. But as she tells NPR's Michel Martin, it's not just an act.
"I'm such a fighter," she says. "Some women can take up for themselves. That's why I feel like I need to speak up to be an example for women."
She's started a foundation that, along with her star power, brings awareness to mental health issues in the African-American community. Since her breakout performance in the 2001 John Singleton Baby Boy, she's won a Golden Globe for her star turn as "Cookie" in the hit TV show Empire and was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
But she's quick to remind people that she got her first acting credits in the comedy realm. She starred on sitcoms Sister, Sister and Smart Guy. Her funny bone, after all, drew her to the laughable script of her latest film, What Men Want. It revisits the premise of the 2000 film, What Women Want, in which Mel Gibson's chauvinistic character gains the ability to hear women's thoughts.
In the gender-swapped reboot, Henson says it's an entirely different movie when you flip the script. "Once you make it a black woman it becomes very different," she says. "Especially in an all-boys club situation, it makes it very different, very challenging," she says. "But I love that we teach through laughter."
As an oft-typecast actor, Henson can relate to her character. Undervalued sports agent Ali Davis is constantly being told to stay in her lane by her male peers. "She's trying to win this fight but she's fighting like a guy and that's foreign to men," she says. "What she learns is she needs to just fight like a girl, 'cause God gave her a certain gift that he didn't give guys."
The male-dominated sports agency setting in the film dredges up behaviors conducive to the #MeToo movement. Henson, though, says she's "never had a #MeToo situation."
She doesn't believe women who have experienced sexual assault are playing victim, she says, but that her dukes-up M.O. has helped her to avoid predators. The Howard University graduate grew up in Washington, D.C., — "you know from the hood," she says. "My dad taught me to keep my eyes open for the snakes in the grass."
Her What Men Want role aside, what does Henson want? According to her, black women deserve the same international box office appeal reserved for the Denzel Washingtons and the Will Smiths.
"Where are the females that are doing that? That look like us? Our stories are that important to reach overseas."
For all her film work, Empire, a TV show, took her abroad. And "that's unheard of," she says. "You can't tell me that a movie that I'm doing about a story that involves black culture is not going to reach other corners of the world."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, you know all the cliches about how men and women don't understand each other - men are from Mars, women are from Venus and all that. Well, in relationships, that can lead to missed cues and mismatched expectations. But at work, at the many workplaces where men still dominate, the very assumption that women don't get it can lead to the idea that they can't measure up - that somehow, men still need to be in charge.
So what if women did get it? What if they really understood what's going on in men's minds? That's the premise behind Taraji P. Henson's latest. It's called "What Men Want." Henson plays Atlanta sports agent Ali Davis, who can't seem to get a promotion at her fratty, male-dominated company until somehow, she begins to hear what men are thinking.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT MEN WANT")
TARAJI P HENSON: (As Ali Davis) OK, stop doing that.
JOSH BRENER: (As Brandon Wallace) Stop doing what?
HENSON: (As Ali Davis) Talking without moving your mouth and saying things you shouldn't be saying to your boss.
BRENER: (As Brandon Wallace) I swear on my life I would never say anything disrespectful or inappropriate to you ever - which is more than I can say for you.
HENSON: (As Ali Davis) Right there - you just did it. You said, more than I could say for you. I heard you say it.
BRENER: (As Brandon Wallace) But - can you hear my inner thoughts?
HENSON: (As Ali Davis) I can hear your inner thoughts. (Screaming).
MARTIN: And that is creepy - until it works to Ali's advantage - until it doesn't.
HENSON: Right (laughter).
MARTIN: Taraji P. Henson is with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back - and welcome home, I should say...
HENSON: Yes, thank you.
MARTIN: ...Since you are from Washington, D.C. You went to Howard University just up the street...
HENSON: Yes, thank you.
MARTIN: ...Proud alumna.
MARTIN: So you've been recognized for your dramatic roles. You won a Golden Globe for your star return as Cookie in "Empire." You were nominated for an Oscar for "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button." But many people loved you as the math whiz in "Hidden Figures." But you seem like you're having such a good time cutting up in this role it makes me wonder if comedy is really what you wanted to do all along.
HENSON: Yeah. That's actually what I set out for when I moved to California. You know, I had a few friends that were on sitcoms. And "Martin" was the big thing back then. And all my life, that's all I studied was comedy - you know, from Dick Van Dyke to Jack Tripper on "Three's Company," Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn. I was just drawn to comedy. And so that's what I went to Hollywood to do. And then I booked, "Baby Boy," and that was it. All of a sudden, I was just this - categorized as a dramatic actress. And I was, like, but did you forget that I was funny (laughter)?
MARTIN: Well, what did you like about this script?
HENSON: First of all, it was a comedy. I really did like the original. I thought it was really brilliant to reimagine it with a black woman.
MARTIN: Let me just clarify. For people who don't know...
MARTIN: It's a reboot of Nancy Meyers' "What Women Want," which starred Mel Gibson back in 2000. And this is a...
HENSON: I say like a reimagining.
MARTIN: Reimagining - that makes more sense.
HENSON: Yeah. The only thing that the two characters had in common is that they had the gift or the curse, if you will, of reading the opposite sex's mind. But that's that's about it because once you make it a black woman, it becomes very different. Especially in an all-boys-club situation, it makes it very different, very challenging. But I love that we teach through laughter. I think that's the best way to get people to receive the message that's not so preachy.
MARTIN: The sex scene was fun, not to give it all away, but there's a sex scene that kind of - where you get to play a stereotypical kind of jerk guy who basically is all about himself. You're not a guy, but you're the female version of a person who's all about herself in the situation, if I can put it that way.
HENSON: Yeah. Well, you know, Ali was raised by a single father, which I think we handled and shed light on that beautiful relationship. We never lift up single fathers, but we do it very well in this film. And so she has abandonment issues with her mother, and she's not a soft nurturing woman. No one taught her. She had no examples. So she operates like that guy. And her father owns a boxing gym. Her hero is Muhammad Ali. So she knows no better. And that's what the gift teaches her - how guys see her. They see her, you know, she's trying to win this fight, but she's fighting like a guy, and that's foreign to men. And, you know, what she learns is she needs to just fight like a girl because God gave us certain gifts that he didn't give guys.
MARTIN: As you said, it teaches without preaching. I mean, the movie does have a lot of things to say, a lot of things about relationships, but also just about the way people treat each other. I don't want to glide past the environment at the agency where you work, the way it's described. I think a lot of people would find that familiar, I mean, just extreme maybe because the nature of the work. It is extreme, and the movie does make reference to the #MeToo movement. There's a scene in the film where your boss is mad at you, and he says, if it weren't for all that #MeToo thing, he would fire you, but he doesn't want all the backlash. It makes me wonder - you've been in the business for a while, has anything changed? Do you feel that the environment is different than it was?
HENSON: Oh, yeah. I think people are more conscious of what they're saying out of their mouths because it can get them in trouble even 20 years from now. You know what I mean? So for me, because I'm such a fighter, it's not even that women are playing victims. But, you know, some women can take up for themselves more. That's why I feel like I need to speak up to be an example for women - no, speak up for yourself. If someone does anything, you say something, you know because if you say something sideways to me or do something, you know, I clap back. I say something. I take up for myself. And if I see you doing it to someone else, I will say something.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you that, the experiences that have come to light because of the #MeToo movement. Are those things that you have experienced?
HENSON: No. I don't have any #MeToo situations because I, you know, I'm from D.C., you know, from the hood. So my dad taught me to keep my eyes open for the snakes in the grass.
MARTIN: And what about racially, though? Because I remember the last time we spoke was after you were nominated for your Oscar.
HENSON: Oh, that's different.
MARTIN: And I remember your noting that there were two women of color in your category - that year was you and Viola Davis, who was nominated for "Doubt." And you were noting the fact that you were at one of those lunches or events for the Oscars and it was making you sad that it was - you were happy for the two of you, but you were the only actress of color nominated in major categories that year. And you were saying even then that that's just not right. Has that changed?
HENSON: Especially when you see the performances.
MARTIN: Has that changed? Has the environment changed in that regard?
HENSON: I think when the Oscars got dragged for Oscars all white that year, I think they're becoming more conscious of it. What I would like to see more is women of color in the - not just supporting. It seems like that's an easy win for us. But we still only have one female, one African-American woman to win in the leading category. What's up with that?
MARTIN: Well, What's next for you? What do you want? I mean...
HENSON: I just want box office draw. I want the box office draw that Denzel Washington gets overseas, Will Smith. Like, where are the females that are doing that that look like us? You know, like, our stories are that important to reach overseas. And so that's my passion. Black culture is important. People celebrate it all over the world. I travel, so you can't tell me that a movie that I'm doing about a story that involves black culture is not going to reach people in other corners of the world. I'm sorry. I just can't buy that.
MARTIN: Are they still saying that, that black families don't travel? Is that still being said?
HENSON: I've never gone overseas, I've never been to cons with a film, I've never done really any overseas press with any of my big films. The only thing that has taken me abroad is "Empire."
MARTIN: Which is not too bad.
HENSON: No, it's not too bad. But who knew what show would take me over there? That's unheard of.
MARTIN: OK. So what are we going for here? You've been a math genius. You've been a baby-faced sex worker with a heart of gold who can sing. You've been... how can we even describe Cookie? I can't. Mogul, fierce mama, whatever, whatever - what else?
HENSON: I haven't done any fantasy. You know, put prosthetics on me, give me wings or make me the female joker or a villain, a really dark, dark villain that I will make it very complicated for you to hate me. You'll love to hate me.
MARTIN: That is Taraji P. Henson. She stars in the new comedy "What Men Want." It's in theaters now. She was kind of to join us in our studios in her hometown, Washington, D.C. Taraji Henson, thank you so much for talking to us.
HENSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.