Unlike much of the country, Hollywood exalted in female empowerment this year, and audiences rejoiced. Central to that story is Taraji P. Henson, who was fierce as a little-known heroine, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, in Hidden Figures. Here, the actress, who is best known for her role as Cookie Lyons on the hit TV show Empire, talks about why the film is such an important story for people to know, how she got into character, and more.
Lynn Hirschberg: Let's talk about Hidden Figures. How did the film come about? Taraji P. Henson: Theodore Melfi [a producer] and I were supposed to do another project that fell apart. I couldn't do it. I felt like I didn't need to play another prostitute, but as God and the stars and the universe would have it, they blocked it and he came to me with an even more incredible project, Hidden Figures. And I read the script and I just remember thinking, "how come I've never heard this story before? How come no one knows?" I started asking, "Have you ever heard of these women? Ever heard of Katherine Johnson? Did you know women had anything to do with the great race to space?" And the answer kept coming up, "no," and I was angry, because this is very important piece of history that we should know. I did not know that that was a dream that I could have.
So then I became very passionate about doing the project and I was like the world needs to know these women. The world needs to know that women were instrumental in getting our men to space, and particularly Katherine [Johnson], because when you talk about orbiting the earth, the math didn't exist. There wasn't like they had five other mathematicians and whoever comes up with the best equation gets the job. She was the only mind to do it. And the fact that no one knows this story just totally blew my mind.
So, was it harder to do the character or the math?
Well, I'm a pretty good actress. You could say that, right? I think that's why you have me here. But, I can act like I know math but I'm not mathematically wired, and I failed math in college.
I did. It was horrible. I got rejected at the High School of Performing Arts, so I thought that meant acting wasn't for me. So when it came time to go to college, I don't know why, I chose electrical engineering. It just sounded like I would make a lot of money. I didn't even consider the math part. So we get there. I'm doing my thing and I got to go to pre-calc and it looks Chinese, so I had two tutors, I think. I still failed. That just was not my calling, so God has an incredible sense of humor because now I have to play this mathematician. And I swear every time, they actually had a mathematician on set and he's trying to teach it to me, I said, "No, no, no, no. Don't try and teach it. We'll be here for ten years. I'm not gonna get it. Show me what I have to write. I'll memorize it and watch what I do with it." Yeah, I still use my fingers and I'm not ashamed of it.
I love those scenes, though, when you're doing the math. I love when you're winning the day.
I felt smart for once in my life. There you go, math! Take that! I became an actress.
And it's so for girls of any color to see that movie and feel like it's possible.
Yeah because I don't think any girl my age growing up any color knew that that was a dream that was theirs to have. Who knew? Who knew?
Absolutely. Was Katherine fun to play?
She was exhausting.
Yeah, Cookie – I don't know if you guys know this character. She's this character on this show called Empire. I don't know. You may have seen her. You may not have. Cookie is a lot. She requires a lot of me physically, mentally, just the scenarios she find herself in week after week. It's a lot. But Cookie lives, she's an extrovert. Everything is on her sleeve. She says it like it is, no holds barred. Katherine, [is a] very different woman from a very different time where women had no rights, basically, so it was exhausting in another way, because I am a lot in life. Taraji is very, you know, I'm rambunctious. I have a lot of energy. I'm very animated when I speak, Katherine is not. The women were very different in the '60s, particularly the black women and the clothes were different, the girdles. You couldn't move like that in a girdle.
No? Did you wear the bra and everything?
I did it every day because it affected the way I walked and kept my posture like this because she's a very proud woman and she's calculating in her thinking, so she's a heady woman. Her head is here all the time. Me, I have horrible posture, so it was hard. And sitting on all of the energy that Taraji has was exhausting. And in the scenes I mean, I could feel me or Cookie trying to come out and I'd be in a scene and I'd be talking. And then I would lean in and that's, that's the energy of Taraji or Cookie getting ready to tell you off, you know? And so Ted, our director, kept saying, "No, you can't lean in. Just the slightest movement makes her modern." And that was a workout. Literally I'd be sweating. I'd be sweating just holding. That means I have a lot of energy. What is wrong?
It's fantastic that you have so much energy. You get a lot accomplished. I want to ask a little bit about Mahershala Ali, who plays your husband in Hidden Figures, but was also your husband in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008.
Yes. That's where I met him. When they started casting Hidden Figures, I was the first to be casted. Ted would call me and [say], "What do you think about this guy? What do you think about this guy?" And then when Mahershala's name came up, I said "Oh, get him right away. Call him right away, and thank God he was available."
It's very romantic. So this begs my next question. Where was your first kiss? So long ago, I mean, I'm a virgin.
Well, what's your first kiss you remember?
I remember my first boyfriend in high school. It was my first puppy love and I was so into him. And when he kissed me, things started happening. Things woke up and I was like hey, what is this? Because I was a virgin and I mean I was like what is this feeling I have? And I went on to date him and we never did anything. Yeah, I wasn't ready and he didn't want to break my heart by cheating on me so he broke up with me.
Who's your girl crush?
My girl crush … I would have to say Teyana Taylor right now.
Because if Fade?
Did you not see it? I’m in the gym every day like hold up, hold up, like c'mon. I just love everything Teyana Taylor. I think her baby's beautiful. Her body's beautiful. She can do no wrong in my book.
And she can dance.
And did I mention the body?
Looking back at 2016, was it a fun year? It's been a very busy year. It's hard. You got to be careful what you ask for. It's not that I'm ungrateful. It's just that saying, "it's all or nothing." You're either doing everything all at once or nothing all at the same time so it's just like … you just got to ride the wave, because one day the phone won't ring as much, so you got to remind yourself of that, refocus and, you know, right now the world needs bright energy. The world needs this story. And as tired as I may be, I have to put on my big girl panties because I asked for this. I do. And, you know, God gave me the mic so what am I gonna do? I'm front and center. You asked for this. Showtime so here we are.