You could almost hear the music as Queen Latifah joined Taraji P. Henson in Variety’s Actors on Actors studio for a candid conversation about their groundbreaking roles — one as blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO biopic, the other as the notorious Cookie in Fox’s hip-hop hit “Empire.” The longtime friends opened up about mining their life experiences for their characters, Latifah’s 22-year-journey to bring “Bessie” to the screen — and Henson’s surprising sitcom dreams.
Queen Latifah: Taraji, you’re on a big smash hit show. What drew you to Cookie?
Taraji P. Henson: I picked up the script and it scared the hell out of me.
Henson: The subject matter scared me. I’d never seen anything like this on national network television. And I was like, “Are they even going to pick this up? Are you sure this is Fox and not HBO?” That’s how I operate. If it doesn’t scare me that means it’s not a challenge. So that’s why I had to do it — and I’ve been shaking ever since.
Latifah: It was great to see a reflection of our generation of hip-hop culture. Have people been coming up to you like that?
Henson: Cookie has totally stolen my life. They only want to talk to me about Cookie. Thank god the season is over, because I think I have some of my friends back. They like to quote Cookie lines, and it’s like, “Wait a minute! We had a friendship before Cookie!” I would like to know what drew you to Bessie Smith? I’m a huge fan, I’m a collector of jazz and blues. I was so excited to see your face.
Latifah: That project has been with us for a long time, like 22 years. I had never heard of Bessie Smith when this first came to me when I was 22, and it would have been the biggest role of my career to that date. Big studio, big producers, and I had to figure out who the hell Bessie Smith was. You know I’m a musician, I come from music, I love jazz and hip-hop and all kinds of music but when I listened to her, it scared me as well. So I totally relate to you on the fear factor — you’ve got to feel a little fear, but that just kind of creates awareness for me and focus. I listened to her music, and I was like, “This woman has an amazing voice. She has a powerful voice, she has a painful voice, an uplifting voice. She sounds super clear on this record — and completely drunk.” You could tell she partied. I could hear her story in her music. Then when I got into her life, and knew all the things she went through, I was like, this is an amazing woman and this story needs to be told. So I just never left that project. We went through many scripts, and many different directors, and many studios. Finally HBO loved it, we loved it, we worked on scripts and we finally got one we could shoot and release the record.
Henson: I don’t think people understand that. They think you’re Queen Latifah, you could just go to the studio and say I want to make this movie. People don’t really understand what it takes.
Latifah: That could happen now maybe a little easier than it could 22 years ago. It was just a matter of figuring out when. And in the midst of that here comes all this success, and so there wasn’t time for me to stick with it right then.
Henson: Everything happens for a reason. The timing now is perfect. I think 22 years gave the audience enough time to fall in love with your voice. Because you hit the scene and everybody just thought rapper. Then you became this amazing actress.
Latifah: You always seem to get these projects that tell the story of black lives in a way that hasn’t been really shown. “Empire” is our lives in a way that hasn’t been shown on television before. “Baby Boy” to me was that same kind of film, just a young guy trying to figure out his life. I saw my family in you, I saw the woman trying to keep it together. It was just like you — it was so real. Did it feel like that? Was it a part of your life that you see in these roles other than just being a great actress, part of your life you bring to it?
Henson: Absolutely. You have to live in order to breathe life into these characters. “Baby Boy,” we all dated that guy. I had to go through that to make this character real. Especially for artists, we put all of our life into our art. In my mind this is why I do it, hopefully through telling this character’s journey, hopefully I can touch somebody’s life and change the boat. That boat is going down that deadend street and (I can) turn it around and bring life or hope for somebody. That’s why I do what I do. It’s not really about the money. I love awards, don’t get me wrong, I like being nominated, but for me, it just means that that’s how many people I’ve touched. That award or that recognition is just, that’s how many people you’ve influenced through your work. Sharing a little bit of Cookie’s pain or Yvette’s pain might be a little window to my pain or my joy. But the only way you’re going to make it live is if you at least are familiar with it.
Latifah: I think that’s why Bessie was right for me now because I could have played that role at 22, but I did not have the life experience that she had at 22. I have lived. And I can relate to so many of the things she went through, from drinking yourself to sleep to losing love, to having to fight racism, or sexism to being on the road. All those things I was able to bring I don’t think I was able to bring half of what I brought now. What role stayed with you the most out of everything that you’ve done? What role, what movie or show did you do that changed your life?
Henson: I would have to say “Baby Boy,” because for so long I was screaming victim, “He did this to me, he was so horrible to me.” Through that film and having to relive so much of my past, when I was making knucklehead decisions with young men, it was like, but nobody put a gun to your head. Look at yourself. “Why are you choosing guys like this?” So it was then when I started to look at my choice of men differently, I wanted something better for myself, for my son. I just felt like that living through Yvette and living through my past again, I don’t want to repeat that. I’m into breaking cycles. That’s why I worked so hard to get out of the hood, to take my son out of the hood, so he could have a better life. So I’d have to say it was definitely “Baby Boy.”
Latifah: I remember talking to you when you were in China shooting “Karate Kid.” I know you were about to go crazy over there.
Henson: It’s hard to blend in over there. In a country with 17 billion people, I felt so alone. I was the mom on the show so everybody was at work, so if I wasn’t working that day, I’d be sitting in my condo like, “Where do I go? I can’t just take a stroll down the street because they’re gonna be, ‘Black girl! Let me feel your skin, let me touch your hair! Come buy tea!’ ” And I’m like, “I don’t want to buy anything, I just want to walk.”
Latifah: I’ve got to get to China and get touched on.
Henson: The funny thing is I flew my mother and my son out, and she was like, “Oh my god, they know who you are!” I was like, “Mom, they have no idea who I am, they just see black skin and they want to take a picture.” It was definitely an experience. What I got out of that is how hard Will Smith works. He would not go to sleep. I learned so much. I learn a lot from my peers. They always say if you’re going to steal, steal from the greats. So that’s who I watch. I watched him toil over that script until it was right. And I just felt like I was in good hands.
Latifah: He’s a perfectionist. He is an incredible human being as well as an actor, producer. Who do you share those things with now? I had someone ask me that recently, do I pass on things as an actor on a set? Are you that kind of person who, you’ve worked your way up to the top, and there are younger actors around you, some who probably never done shows before, films before, do you feel like you have to impart a little wisdom with them?
Henson: Absolutely. That’s me anyway, I’m a giver. I’m a mother. I’m a nurturer. I’ve done it on this show. Like my babies, the boys who play my sons. I’m always pulling them to the side and trying to school them. That’s what we’re here for. God didn’t give us this success to keep it. We’ve got to share it. My father always told me if you’re blessed, be a blessing. So I’ve lived by that.
Latifah: Some people don’t. I’m sure you’ve met those people, too.
Henson: So you’ve done it all. You’re a boss. I watched your journey and it’s one to study. What do you like best, being in front of the camera? Behind the camera?
Latifah: I love them all. I’ve never been just in front or behind. Since I started my career as a rapper, shortly thereafter opened up a management company, I’ve been a businesswoman all these years. Since I was 18, I’ve never had a manager. I never hired anybody to manage me. This was just us and our brains and our wits and a little guidance from some people helping us in the right direction, but we basically handled it on our own from day one.
Henson: People get into this business and think, “I’ve got to get an agent, I have to get a manager.” They don’t realize with the right mojo and the right eye, you don’t. I don’t have an agent. I haven’t had an agent for years.
Latifah: Oh snap! Because you know what, truthfully no man is an island. And I believe that. So I haven’t done all this by myself. But when you realize you can do things on your own and you’re capable of it and you have the smarts to do it, sometimes you have to convince other people. You’ve got to kick those doors down, but it’s what you need to do. I never wanted to sign my life (away). I never wanted to belong to anybody. Not a man, not a contract. Nobody can own me or put me in a box and it’s always been like that for me. So now you’ve got to figure out, well, my box looks different than what everybody else is used to, so I have to convince you that this is worth checking out.
Henson: Do you prefer TV or film?
Latifah: For me, they’re different. Because I didn’t really do a more dramatic telenovela like you get to do. I did a sitcom, I didn’t know how easy I had it.
Henson: That’s what I want to do. I want to do a sitcom. And I keeping getting put in these dramatic roles!
Latifah: Well. you’re good at it, nobody told you to be good! That’s your fault. Just be funny and suck-y at dramatic stuff, and then maybe you’d get a sitcom. (Laughs.) The schedule was great. Three weeks you’d work, and you’re off for a week, you get weekends and holidays and so I’d be rapping. I’d be on the road when I was not doing “Living Single,” but “Living Single” was fun.
Henson: It looked like fun.
Latifah: You’d come to work every day and laugh your ass off. And occasionally you do get to play something really dramatic. You’d get that cool arc that’s really emotional like breaking up with Scooter, my boyfriend. Film I think is gratifying because I can just jump in for a couple months, and jump back out, and become a completely different person. I remember we had a conversation and you were itching to get back into film. So what is your favorite?
Henson: My absolute favorite is film because it’s not rushed. You have one day where you’re filming maybe two pages, or one page. And television, everything is fast, fast, fast. But I’ve found a unique situation with “Empire,” because it’s not like other television shows. They welcome us to make the words feel like you as long as you don’t drift too far off of the subject matter or the storyline. If you can say it better, and make me feel it better, then say it that way.
Latifah: So it’s film like in that way.
Henson: I feel like art shouldn’t be trapped, it should be free. It shouldn’t be stifled. You’ve got to let it be free to move and so people can create. As soon as you put barriers or blocks then the creative mind goes, “I can’t, I don’t feel safe to make this choice.” So, in feature film you have that time to let those scenes breathe, and you know scripts aren’t flying at you every weekend. But I love my job on “Empire” because it feels like a mini-movie.
Latifah: I love watching that mini-movie! Everybody does. That’s as fun as doing a sitcom.