Taraji P. Henson

10 Actors to Watch

Taraji P. Henson’s high-profile role — playing Queenie, Brad Pitt’s adoptive mother in David Fincher’s hugely anticipated “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — almost didn’t happen because of a garage sale.

Fincher’s casting director, Laray Mayfield, had seen Henson in “Hustle & Flow” portraying Shug, a meek, pregnant prostitute with an unexpectedly commanding singing voice, and decided to keep her in mind for future roles.

“Laray was in tears,” recalls Henson upon meeting Mayfield. “I’m thinking, ‘Wait, did she take her medicine?’ She said it was because she had found her Queenie, and we bonded. I do a lot of auditions, and they don’t necessarily go anywhere.”

This one did, and Mayfield told Henson that Fincher wanted to see her — naturally on the Saturday she has set aside for her garage sale. “So I go in kicking and screaming,” the actress says.

The meeting turned out to be a wise investment, more so than that $5 she would’ve gotten for her old CDs.

Even after Fincher asked Henson about her experience with prosthetics — a major component in a film in which aging is central — the actress still couldn’t believe she’d been tapped.

“I wondered, ‘Did I get the job?’ They say work begets work, and it honestly does.”

Henson says she and Fincher share a passion for determination and originality on set.

“Brad Pitt said that David is hurt when a shot isn’t right or something goes askew,” she explains. “He does a lot of takes, but I’m not a lazy actress. You don’t walk away feeling, ‘Damn! I should have tried it this way,’ because you did.”

She wondered if Fincher had ever acted because of the way he read lines.

“Sometimes David said them better than me,” Henson notes, “and I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t you put on the fat suit?’ He was saying things only actors know.”

The actress has had recurring roles on the TV series “Boston Legal” and “Eli Stone” as well as films such as “Smokin’ Aces” (2006) and “Talk to Me” (2007) and believes that two things distinguish all her work: originality and heart.

“I’m naturally a very colorful person,” she says. “Even if the character was dull, I would make her colorful. I’ve played a lot of stereotypical characters, but I’ve made them real. People sometimes ask me, ‘Why would you want to plays these types?’ These people exist. People don’t just grow up and say, ‘I want to be a prostitute.’ Life throws curveballs. I want people to empathize with my characters, not judge them.”

WHAT ELSE?
An actor should always:
“Get out of the character’s way.”
Lucky break: “Getting the female lead in my first feature film ever, ‘Baby Boy.’ That job got me ‘Hustle & Flow.’ You can’t beat that.”
Favorite film character: “Sophie in ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ as portrayed by incomparable Meryl Streep. Sophie’s life was one of great and unimaginable tragedy, and watching her journey of heartbreak, strength and loss is one I will never forget.”

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