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.
You did? 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.
Cookie’s Best Looks
This all-leopard ensemble is one of Cookie’s most ferocious outfits. She employs it when she needs it most—when demanding her cut of her ex-husband’s Lucious Lyon’s record company. (Shop the look here.)
Photo by Getty Images.
In her tight, graphic dress at a last-minute celebration, Cookie proves why the body-con is her signature.
Photo by Getty Images.
Even after Bunkie’s untimely demise, Cookie arrives fiercely dressed to pay her respect along with her son Jamal. Clad in black and lace, the mogul plots behind her darkened shades.
Photo by Getty Images.
At her family’s annual White Party, Cookie went all out with this glamorous striped fur. Air-conditioning aside, this coat was certainly meant to send chills down her ex-husband’s spine.
Photo by Getty Images.
Cookie stole the spotlight away from her ex-husband’s new fiancé in a bedazzled dress.
Photo by Getty Images.
Naomi Campbell and Taraji P. Henson took out their on-camera claws at the White Party when Campbell’s character showed up as Cookie’s son’s date. Unlike their fight, Cookie keeps it clean with a deep v neckline and a tight braid. (Shop her hoops here)
Photo by Getty Images.
When searching for an alternative studio for her son Jamal, Cookie donned an incognito ensemble, with an over-sized collar and slick leather jacket.
Photo by Getty Images.
Taking in the surroundings of her new office, Cookie takes command in a high-necked dress that shows off her curves—and her love of diamonds. (Shop the trend here.)
Photo by Getty Images.
On her way to visit an old friend, Cookie layered on the jewelry—from a chunky Chanel necklace to big gold hoops. (Shop the trend here.)
Photo by Getty Images.
In the dramatic season finale, Henson dressed accordingly—wearing this sheer, lace number to her husband’s farewell concert.
Photo by Getty Images.
Really? 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.”
Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and More Are the Best Performances of the Year
Stone wears Chloé tunic; Wolford leggings; her own rings. Beauty: Covergirl. Affleck wears Louis Vuitton jacket and shirt.
Portman wears Dior dress; Mish New York earrings. Beauty: Dior. Negga wears Carolina Herrera dress; Lalaounis earrings. Beauty: Laura Mercier.
Adams wears Prada shirt; Djula earrings. Beauty: Giorgio Armani. McConaughey wears Burberry shirt.
Driver wears AG T-shirt. Mortensen wears Alternative Apparel henley.
Williams wears Louis Vuitton dress and bodysuit. Beauty: Nars. Edgerton wears Burberry T-shirt; Rolex watch.
Kidman wears Chanel dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Beauty: Chanel. Ali wears Simon Miller T-shirt.
La La Land
“My real name is Emily Stone, but when I started acting, that name was already taken by another actress, so I had to come up with a different one. For a 16-year-old, picking a new name is an interesting prospect, and back then I said, ‘I’m now going to be Riley Stone!’ So, for about six months I was called Riley. I landed a guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle, and one day they were calling, ‘Riley! Riley! Riley! We need you on set, Riley!’ and I had no idea who they were talking to. At that moment, I realized that I just couldn’t be Riley. So I became Emma. But I miss Emily. I would love to get her back.”
Sonia Rykiel sweater; Commando briefs.
“I was attracted to Gold because it reminded me of my dad. He loved shady deals. He’d much rather do a shady deal with fun people than a good deal with a bunch of straight-asses. He invested in diamond mines in Ecuador, and there were no fucking diamonds there. It was a scam, but he loved that. That’s the spirit of my character, Kenny Wells. There’s a little poem we have in the movie—‘Bird With No Feet Sleeps in the Wind.’ And that’s it: If Kenny, or my dad, gets the money or not, does it really matter? Would he change? No. Not that guy. These are people who are going to con, finagle, and boot-scoot their way in the side door. They never had the front-door entrance to the American Dream.”
AG jacket; Current/Elliott T-shirt; Levi’s jeans; John Hardy bracelet (right); Ann Demeulemeester boots.
Arrival and Nocturnal Animals
“Tom Ford became my muse on Nocturnal Animals. My character, Susan, was very personal to Tom, and so I based my interpretation on him. Tom would ask on set, ‘Why is Amy using her hands like that?’ And I said, ‘I’m copying you, Tom!’ I used him. I used him up.”
Gucci shirt; Djula earrings.
“Playing Jackie Kennedy is scary. I was nervous at first, and I started by doing a lot of research. The biographies on her are all a little bit trashy, but the transcripts of her interviews with the historian Arthur Schlesinger were really helpful. He taped everything, and you can hear Jackie’s voice. Her intellect and her wit and what she’s bitter about are immediately apparent. At the same time, I was going to costume fittings and makeup tests. When I put on the Jackie wig, the physical and emotional sides came together. The hair itself is so iconic that once you have it right, you can start to see Jackie. I don’t really look like her, but I felt like I was in her skin.”
Paterson and Silence
“Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests on a journey from Macao to Japan in search of their mentor, a priest who may have renounced his faith. When Martin Scorsese asked me to come to his house to talk about the movie, I already knew that for 28 years it had been his passion project. We talked about Silence, but when Scorsese starts a sentence, ‘When we were shooting Raging Bull…’ you can’t help but say, ‘Yeah, okay, tell me everything.’ So we talked for a long time, and finally he asked me if I would be willing to lose weight for the role. It made sense: How can you play a 17th-century persecuted priest while eating great meals? So I lost around 51 pounds. The weight loss was only bad in that, you know, I’d try to figure out how to play a scene and I had no ideas, because I was so damn hungry. Then I’d have a scoop of peanut butter and suddenly everything turned on!”
Dior Homme jacket; Rag & Bone Standard Issue T-shirt and jeans; Rolex watch. On model: Wolford stockings.
Hell or High Water
What was your first audition? My parents were both actors. I had just graduated from college, and my father had gone in for an audition for Gilmore Girls. He told the casting directors, “My son is back in town. Will you have him in for a reading?” So it was nepotism at its best. I can’t remember the role—maybe a boyfriend to someone? I got my start playing boyfriends, husbands-to-be, and princes.
In Hell or High Water you play a kind of modern Western antihero. You don’t speak much. When I read the script, the image that came to mind was of a man on a porch squinting through harsh sunlight into the distance, but not talking. I have a lot of similar memories of my father, where we are sitting next to each other and not saying much. Westerns have a stoic silence I’ve always appreciated. These days, we have so many distractions. I have minor ADD, so if anything grabs me and keeps me from petting my dog or collaging or just daydreaming, I immediately pay attention.
Brunello Cucinelli sweater; Sandro trousers; Loewe shoes.
Michael Kors henley. Model wears Araks robe; Stella McCartney Lingerie bra; Fifi Chachnil briefs; Falke stockings; Gianvito Rossi shoes.
“When I auditioned for the part of Mildred Loving, I had to sort of disappear into her character. Usually, I don’t create a costume for an audition, but this time I wore a summer dress. I knew that coming in the door looking like this woman would have an impact. A year later, I learned I got the part. At the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I walked up the steps of the Palais in full makeup, and I walked down the steps with mascara dripping. It was such an emotional experience. All I could think was that I needed to blow my nose before it dripped all over my frock.”
Prada top and skirt; Fabiana Filippi top (underneath).
“I’m a pretty good actress. You could say that, right? Well, to play Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who figured out a way to get NASA astronauts into space, I had to be believable as a math expert—and I failed math in college. Precalculus looked like Chinese to me. Even with two tutors, I still failed. So God has an incredible sense of humor, because now I am playing a mathematician! Even on set, they would have a professor there to try and teach me. I said, ‘Show me what I have to write and I’ll memorize it, because I’m not gonna get it.’ Take that, math! I won: I became an actress.”
Monse shirt; La Perla bra; Forevermark by Natalie K earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Rules Don’t Apply
“I never knew Howard Hughes, so I’m able to take liberties, to allow my imagination to go to work. I like to quote Henry Ford, who said, ‘History is bunk.’ I like to quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it myself.’ And, in Rules Don’t Apply, I quote Mr. Hughes himself. He said, ‘Never check an interesting fact.’ ”
Jeffrey Rüdes sweater.
Manchester by the Sea
“I used to love movies that made me cry, and now all movies seem to make me cry. I don’t like that so much. I have my own things to cry about. I remember being young and sitting on the floor in my father’s apartment watching The Elephant Man on his black and white TV. When the Elephant Man did his speech—‘I am not an animal’—I started sobbing. That’s a tearjerker. That film made a superstrong impression on me. It set a certain standard in my mind of what was possible.”
Louis Vuitton pants; Falke socks. On model: Alexander Wang sweater.
A Monster Calls and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“Recently, I seem to be doing a lot of dying onscreen. Lizzie, my character in A Monster Calls, has cancer, and I became obsessed with the way someone’s voice changes as their body deteriorates, and how they change the way they hold their body. Cancer patients would tell me things like, ‘You become obsessed with painting your nails, because your body is out of control.’ It became harder and harder to play Lizzie. I don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”
Giorgio Armani dress; Djula earrings; Tacori ring.
Allied, It’s Only the End of the World, and Assassin’s Creed
“It might sound weird, but I always cry at the end of Step Brothers. I’ve seen the movie 10 times, and it still touches me at the end, when Will Ferrell sings. You don’t expect to cry watching that type of comedy, but I always do.”
Burberry trenchcoat; Loro Piana sweater; Chopard earrings.
Hell or High Water
“I remember doing an interview years ago and being asked if I was one of those actors who takes the part home with me. I answered, ‘No. Not really.’ My wife happened to be in the room, and she started to laugh. Apparently, I had been playing a terrible person—a killer or someone who buries people alive or something—and she definitely noticed. I wasn’t fun to live with.”
Boss coat; A.P.C. jeans; the Frye Company boots.
“When I was cast in Slumdog Millionaire I was 17. At our first major screening, I walked the red carpet in my school shoes and a terrible suit I found on the high street, in London, with my mum. My costar, Freida Pinto, was very beautiful, very glamorous, and they said, ‘We can’t have this kid walking the red carpet with her! He’s spoiling the whole picture!’ So they gave me a new suit and fixed me up. It was a bit like Pretty Woman.”
Hermès sweater; Frame Denim jeans.
The Edge of Seventeen
Where was your first kiss? My first kiss was actually onscreen. I was in a graduate-thesis film called She’s a Fox, and I had to kiss two guys in it. I think I was 12. I was very nervous. One of the guys was shorter than me, and he had to stand on an apple box… Awkward! He told me, “I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my mom!” I was pretty sure that’s not the thing you say before you kiss a girl, so I looked at him and said, “Okay, I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my dog!”
Where was your first real-life kiss, then? At my house, by my front door. Which kind of sucks, because every time I walk through my front door I think about it. The kiss was a little messy, and I looked at the guy and said, “No, no, you can do better.” That’s not what you’re supposed to say, but I said it anyway.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings.
The Witch and Split
You say you don’t like watching horror films—so what’s it like for you to act in them? I’m a real scaredy-cat. I’m not good at being frightened. But I do like acting in a horror movie, because I get to feel so intensely. You put yourself in these extreme emotional situations, and it wears you out in a great way. Afterward, I go home and get a good night’s sleep. The work chills me out: I’m a lot more stable since I’ve been in scary movies.
What frightens you? Revolving doors. I worry they’ll cut me in half. Strangers will see me tense up and hold my hand as I’m going through them. I’m constantly worried that I’m not going to make it through the door alive.
Gucci jacket, shirt, and pants.
Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, and Nocturnal Animals
“Doing a sex scene is just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure. The horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness of sex is all there to enjoy—but none of the happiness.”
Saint Laurent jacket, shirt, and tie; Tiffany & Co. watch.
Hacksaw Ridge and Silence
“The majority of my process in playing a priest in Silence was praying. I’d never really prayed before, and I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself—call it God, call it love, call it what you will. It became very natural to me, and I realized that we’re all praying all the time. There’s that human impulse to worship and to long for a connection to the divine. Unfortunately, in our culture we are driven to worship things that are false and empty. I had a year of exploring this idea of what we are truly longing for and how we actually go to the places that can feed that longing. We all get glimpses of eternity every day. It’s just a question of whether we’re looking up from our iPhones long enough to notice.”
Alexander McQueen jacket and pants; A.P.C. shirt.
Maggie’s Plan and 20th Century Women
What is your karaoke song? It’s the nerdiest one ever: “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel. It’s one of those songs that if you were a certain kind of teenage girl—me!—you thought knowing all the words would help you get a boyfriend. And then, about 30 seconds too late, you realize that it won’t. But it remains my song. I had the same thought about “Modern Major General,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought guys were looking for a girl who could memorize a lot of names, but they didn’t care about that. They just cared about getting a hand job or something.
Do you have a cinematic crush? I would have to say Melanie Griffith in Working Girl—the first time she meets Harrison Ford at the bar. She’s all done up and she tells him, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.”And young Harrison Ford…what a dreamboat! But it’s her I truly love. She’s so compelling and funny. She’s sexy without being plastic. I think a lot of people miss seeing women that way.
Proenza Schouler dress; Guidi boots.
Were you a dramatic child? Yes, I used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make myself cry. I would also try different accents. I was living in an imaginary world, usually with Michael Jackson. He was going to rescue me! I used to draw pictures of me and Michael getting married, and I would send them to his fan club. I would imagine Michael waiting for me at the gate of my school, eager to whisk me away to a happier world.
Why Michael Jackson? I imagined myself as a Peter Pan kind of character, and Michael represented that existence. He was my guy.
Miu Miu coat, sweater, shorts, and shoes.
Manchester by the Sea
“As a little kid, my first love was IMDB [the data bank for movies and television]. I would memorize the birthdays of child actors. I really wanted to be an actor, and I related to the kids in the industry. But now that I think about it, memorizing their birthdays is not cute at all—it’s a little serial killer–ish.”
Prada sweater; Brooks Brothers boxers.
What was your favorite birthday? When I turned 40, my husband, Keith [Urban], drove me up to the top of this small hill in Australia and sat me down. He had put together this huge fireworks display. It was just for the two of us! It was sexy.
What is your pet peeve? When people say they will do something and they don’t. And I know it’s terribly demanding, but I don’t like it when my husband doesn’t answer his phone. I have to keep calling and calling, and I get anxious. Does that make me high-maintenance?
What movie has made you cry? Last year I saw Room, and I was absolutely devastated by it. I’m raw as I get older. I have to be careful what I let in.
Where was your first kiss? This is crazy: We were playing hooky from school. I had my first kiss while watching The Shining. Is that not weird? And we did a few things other than kiss too! I didn’t see a lot of the movie.
Chanel sweater, dress, shorts, and shoes; Bulgari earrings.
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.
Taraji P. Henson Redefined Slaying on the Red Carpet in 2016
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson arrives at the 2016 InStyle And Warner Bros. 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards Post-Party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
PASADENA, CA – FEBRUARY 05: Actress Taraji P. Henson poses in the press room at the 47th NAACP Image Awards at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on February 5, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 13: Actress Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Hayden are seen outside the Alexander Wang Fall 2016 fashion show during New York Fashion Week at St. Bartholomew’s Church on February 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 20: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the “Empire” FYC ATAS event at Zanuck Theater on May 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JUNE 15: Taraji P. Henson attends the Women In Film 2016 Crystal + Lucy Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on June 15, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 08: Taraji P. Henson attends the FOX Summer TCA Press Tour on August 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
TORONTO, ON – SEPTEMBER 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the premiere of “Hidden Figures” during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 10, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tara Ziemba/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 18: Actress Taraji P. Henson arrives at the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 11: Actress Taraji P. Henson leaves the “Good Morning America” taping at the ABC Times Square Studios on October 11, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 20: Taraji P. Henson seen at the 2016 American Music Awards held on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. PHOTOGRAPH BY John Rasimus / Barcroft ImagesLondon-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:firstname.lastname@example.org -New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:email@example.com -New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:firstname.lastname@example.org www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read John Rasimus / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the “Hidden Figures” New York special screening on December 10, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 14: Actress Taraji P. Henson arrives at the “Hidden Figures” Washington, DC Screening at National Museum of African American History & Culture on December 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)