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'I Had To Create My Own Lane': How Taraji P. Henson Found Her Place In Hollywood

Taraji P. Henson plays family matriarch Cookie Lyon on Fox's <em>Empire</em>.
Chuck Hodes
Taraji P. Henson plays family matriarch Cookie Lyon on Fox's Empire.

Actress Taraji P. Henson has played a lot of characters in her 20-year career, but it took only one role to make her famous: Cookie Lyon, the matriarch of an ambitious, dysfunctional family on the hit TV show Empire.

Now Henson has a new memoir out called Around the Way Girl. Don't know what an "around the way girl" is? Henson explains: "Around the way is like saying from the neighborhood, like from the hood." Henson still proudly calls herself an around the way girl; she says the fame and the money haven't changed her.

In the book, the actress shares stories of pushing herself to the top. She describes leaving her hometown of Washington, D.C., for Hollywood with little but the intention to succeed on her own terms. "I never went there with the expectation of failure. I never even thought about that," she says. "If anything, I knew I was going to make a dent in Hollywood and no one would stop me."

That included people who had a pretty narrow idea of how a Hollywood star should look. But Henson didn't care: She didn't want to look like the typical size 00 starlet. (Yes, that's an actual size.) Around the way, she says, curves are valued. Light-skinned black actresses like Halle Berry may get nods from Hollywood now, but even they have to fight for parts — because there aren't a ton of them.

"God bless Halle Berry," Henson says. "Even though Hollywood loves her look, she had to create her own lane. There wasn't a lane for Halle Berry — she had to create that. And I had to create my own lane."

Creating her own lane occasionally came at a cost, though. Sometimes Henson lost jobs because she wasn't what the producer had in mind. And there was a bittersweet success in 2008, the year Henson appeared in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She played Queenie, a nursing home worker in 1918 New Orleans, and Brad Pitt starred as Benjamin, a man who aged in reverse. At the beginning of the movie, Queenie stumbles upon an ancient-looking foundling and takes him in. Her relationship with Benjamin was, for many, the emotional heart of the movie.

Henson says starring opposite Pitt was terrific, but in her book she reveals she almost didn't take the job because the salary she was offered was insultingly low — about 2 percent of what the studio paid Pitt. And unlike Pitt, she had to pay her own travel and lodging. After days of raging to herself over the inequity, Henson listened to her inner voice: There's something to this Queenie.

"So, you know, I decided to not push," she says. "I decided to swallow my pride and use it in the work, use it in the work. And that's what I did, and I think it paid off."

And how. Henson's performance got her an Oscar nomination, and that gave her the confidence to push back when she was given the script for the 2012 romantic comedy Think Like a Man. "Talk about pushing and fighting!" she says. "I was like, 'Why would you make the most successful character in this cast Caucasian?' Like, this woman is me: highly successful and single. That is me. ... That's all of my girlfriends! ... So thank God they listened to me. See, that's the one time I pushed. But see, at this time in my career I could, and they would listen."

And they did listen: The role was recast for Henson. Today, not only is she the breakout star of TV's Empire, but there are already Oscar whispers about her next meaty part — as a NASA mathematician in this winter's Hidden Figures.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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