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Five Minutes With: Taraji P. Henson

Five Minutes With: Taraji P. Henson

Taraji P. Henson sits down on the set in Atlanta to discuss the incredible story of three pioneering women, her own role models and her impressive career.

Five Minutes With: Taraji P. Henson

Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning actress Taraji P. Henson stars in HIDDEN FIGURES, an uplifting and powerful story about three extraordinary women who made enormous achievements in the face of discrimination, ultimately paving the way for future generations. Henson leads a stellar cast as Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician working at NASA in the early 1960s. Together with her equally gifted friends, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson (Grammy nominated Janelle Monáe), Johnson was instrumental in helping America to eventually win the space race. The intellectual prowess and tenacity of these three African American women was second to none. They pursued academic excellence in their careers, while battling racism and sexism in the workplace and the community.

Set against a backdrop of the Cold War and inspired by true events, HIDDEN FIGURES is about friendship, family, courage and empowerment.

Directed by Ted Melfi, also starring Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, with several original songs from multiple Grammy winning musician/composer Pharrell Williams, HIDDEN FIGURES is exciting, engrossing and highly entertaining.

Q: What surprised and interested you about this wonderful story?

A: It was just amazing to find out that so many women were involved in getting people to space, because when you look at all the footage, or documentaries about the space race, you never see black women or any women involved or mentioned. So now I think, what happened? Did we just erase all of this from history? What’s going on? I felt that this story was very important historically.

Q: What have you discovered about this extraordinary woman you are portraying, and her personality?

A: There is a very quiet strength to her. I guess that Katherine’s mind is so brilliant; that she seems to gravitate above others in a higher way, almost in a higher spiritual way. Because people like her are so clever, I think they somehow know things that regular humans don’t know (laughs). It’s not that Katherine is ever thinking ‘I’m better than you’ herself, it’s just that brilliant people like her are, born with a special gift that others do not have.

Q: What was it like meeting Katherine and how did you relate to her?

A: Meeting her was an amazing opportunity and the one thing that really stood out to me is that she is a huge team player and in the same way, I’m a team player too, I am not a selfish actor. I know that I’m nothing in a scene without my partner; you need your partners. What is the fun in doing it all by yourself? I related to her in the way that she never takes herself too seriously. When I was with her, she told me an interesting story. She said she had a professor who would always say to her: ‘I’m tired of you asking me questions that I know you know the answers to,’ and she said, ‘well, I know that these six people around me don’t know the answers and I want them to know.’ So she’s very humble. When I
was doing research and watching interviews with her, I noticed that whenever you see her speaking, and when the interviewer talks about Katherine being exceptional in what she has achieved in her life, she always responds by saying:’No it wasn’t just me, we all were a part of this, we were a team.’ I think that’s how I feel about my talent. I don’t think it’s a selfish thing; it’s something that is shared.

Q: How did you prepare for the role?

A: I did lots of research. You have to deal with the time period and what was segregation because I grew up in integration. So I had to research it all. Then I had to learn about this woman and her brilliant mind. I had to gather all the footage that I could find of her and of course it was great that I could go and meet her and sit down and talk to her. And there was also just a lot of reading and a lot of learning math!

Q: How challenging was that?

A: “Personally, I was not mathematical and I was not scientifically wired. So this movie scared the hell out of me because it deals with everything that I could not pass in school (laughs). My heart palpitated with the math. But at the same time, that is why I’m an actress, I love the struggle, I am a trained actress and that is what you do in this job.”

Q: You’ve played a great many varied roles in your career so far.

A: Yes, of course I play Cookie (in EMPIRE). But what has been happening in my career recently, because of the success of EMPIRE, which is great, now there’s a tendency for people to just see me as Cookie and they often forget about all the other characters I have portrayed, like Queenie (in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and so I have to remind them, ‘No, I’m not just Cookie.

Q: Can you discuss the dynamics between this highly accomplished trio of women in HIDDEN FIGURES?

A: Katherine is the quiet thinker. If you consider the relationships of the women as a three-part harmony, she would play the soprano. She’s the songbird. She’s very quiet. She only speaks when she has something to say. You’ve got to remember that she calculates a lot. When she’s talking, she is seeing figures in her mind, her brain is always working, so she doesn’t do a lot of talking. And when she does speak, usually she has something to say (laughs)! Mary (Janelle Monáe) does all the talking. She is a very outspoken character. But my character is wonderful. There is a great dynamic for me to explore and it will be great for my fans to see me go from [the outspoken and tough] Cookie in EMPIRE, who’s not afraid to say anything, to Katherine who’s more reserved. She picks and chooses when she speaks. Even though there are times when she could make her voice heard and she should have gone ‘wait a minute,’ she doesn’t say a lot!

Q: What was it like stepping into the 60s with the wonderful costumes and hair and makeup?

A: First of all, it’s a period piece. I wasn’t born in the 60s and women were very different then in their appearance. Look, they dressed differently, there’s nothing [no flesh] showing. I am wearing stockings. I don’t take credit for the look, it is a group effort. I leave the costume and the make-up and hair to those departments, because they’re really brilliant at what they do and they research everything that I wouldn’t necessarily research myself. I don’t worry about that. I do my part and I let everybody else do their own jobs. My job as the actor is to make sure I do my work and make it believable. I’m always intrigued with what the other teams come up with, even the props are amazing.

Q: Any examples of how props make a difference?

A: Props can really help your performance. They can give you a cross or a book or a purse that you can use for your character and that can make such a difference. I’m always using props in different scenes. There’s a beautiful scene in which I’m talking to my daughter, and she hands me a picture she has drawn. When she shows me the picture, which is of a space rocket, there is a little window with a little brown face and it is supposed to be my face. She says: ‘I see you in the rocket.’ So when I do the scene, as you’ll see in the movie, I say: ‘Is that me?’ None of that was scripted, but that prop, that detail, made the scene more beautiful. It made it more real. Now, of course, this is movie-land, the children really don’t draw the pictures. Someone in the Props department draws the pictures and I’m always amazed at how great they are at the job. They are so skilled and spend a lot of time doing those things. That is their job and they take pride in it, so I’m always proud to showcase it [on screen], so the people in Props can see that I don’t take their work lightly.

Q: The women in this film are great role models – as you are. Who were your own role models growing up?

A: Oh my God, growing up I would have to say it all started with my grandmother, who was amazing. She was a tangible role model for me. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother during the summers and it was inspiring just to watch the way she cared for my grandfather and her family. That was amazing to me because I grew up in a broken home, so I didn’t get to see that kind of family connection every day. So it was just a refreshing view on relationships. You’ve seen my grandmother, Patsie Ballard at the Oscars and the Emmys with me.

Q: She must be so proud of you!

A: She is so proud, because she grew up in the segregated South and she raised all of her kids there. She raised eight children in a two bedroom, tin-roof house. My grandfather was a sharecropper, so life was very hard for them. When my grandmother sees me on television or in a movie, she watches with tears in her eyes. She can’t believe that she sees me, a part of her, on television or in a movie. She said she never thought she’d live to see one of her family doing that.”

Q: HIDDEN FIGURES is hugely entertaining, but do you think it is also a film that can have a real impact, depicting strong women using their intellect in important jobs?

A: I think the story is beautiful and important. It is amazing that these women, not only black women, but white women too, have been erased out of history. We’ve seen women play politicians, lawyers and doctors in films. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black female scientist or mathematician, so I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity to give young girls something else to aspire to.’ These women were thinkers with brilliant minds. Right now with social media, the options for young people are becoming quite shallow and limited; so I think certain things happen naturally, when it’s time; when they are needed. I think right now this film is  relevant not just for girls of colour, for girls, period. For everyone.”

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