Taraji P. Henson had been steadily acting for over a decade, with nearly three dozen projects under her belt, before she reached a critical turning point in her career: what she thought was a fair paycheck.
“Hollywood can be cheap. They love a great performance at a discount price … IF they can get it,” she says. “I always seemed to get respect, as far as work [went]. I just needed to get my money.”
The shift she saw came when she first collaborated with writer-producer-director Tyler Perry, on “The Family That Preys.”
Henson was just coming off “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” when she initially started talking with Perry about the project and, when she told him she didn’t get paid exactly what she hoped for on “Benjamin Button,” he told her what to go for and became “the first person to pay me what I thought I deserved at the time,” Henson says. The two went on to work together two more times, for 2009’s “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” and 2018’s “Acrimony.”
“Now I’ve proven my worth, so I say no a lot. You want a discount price? Get a discount actress,” she says.
Henson is set to mark another career milestone as she receives a star Jan. 28 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although she has received critical praise and awards recognition (including an Academy Award nomination, three Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe win) throughout the years, this is special to her in a different way.
“It means I’ve been doing something important in Hollywood,” she says. “For me, it’s important because my son, my mom, my grandmother, who is still alive and is 94, will be there.”
Henson’s star is an acknowledgment primarily for her film work, such as the aforementioned Perry projects, “Hustle & Flow,” “Hidden Figures” and “Baby Boy,” but she has also thrived in other media, including television (“Person of Interest,” “The Division,” “Empire”) and theater.
“I do whatever excites me,” she says. “It’s not like I go, ‘This is how I’m going to attack this year.’ Things come to me, and I’m either passionate about them or not.”
One such project was her “White Hot Holidays” special for Fox. She launched it in 2015, producing and co-headlining with her “Empire” co-star Terrence Howard, and in 2016 and 2017 she hosted solo.
“That was my baby,” she says of the show, which she is shopping elsewhere since Fox opted not to pick it up for 2018.
“I don’t do things just for checks,” she adds. “My fans trust me too much, you know? You can have a great resume and not have the audience to back it up. I do.”
A large part of Henson’s audience comes from Fox’s musical family drama “Empire,” in which she plays the instantly memorable Cookie Lyon, the matriarch of a dysfunctional family-owned entertainment company. The show premiered in 2015 to the tune of almost 10 million total live viewers and then consistently grew its audience every subsequent week of the first season. A large part of that success was Henson herself, who contributed some of the most quotable lines in early episodes, which led to the show and the character trending on social media.
In an age when network series often struggled to break into the zeitgeist, “Empire” was everywhere and Henson “felt like a rock star,” she says.
The initial success also led to international recognition — something Henson had been previously told was not feasible due to her skin color.
“I’ve been told my entire career [that] black culture and black projects don’t sell well overseas,” she says. “Then, all of a sudden, it’s a major hit [there] because people started streaming it illegally; the people forced Fox to sell it abroad. That blew me away.”
In addition to the catchy songs, familial drama and incredible lifestyles, “Empire” has also tackled tough issues including living with HIV, data privacy, domestic violence and abuse.
“I love that we attack those issues head-on and don’t make them pretty. In life, they’re not,” Henson says. “It’s emotionally draining to have to deal with that, [but] art is definitely a healing tool. You can change lives [and] hearts through art. You can change people’s perspective and perception of different cultures. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“Empire” is now in its fifth season and Henson has also steadily worked on films such as “Acrimony,” “Proud Mary” and “What Men Want” during breaks from her small-screen starring role. This constant workload has shown her the complications that come from rising fame.
“You hear celebrities say, ‘Be careful what you ask for’ — it’s the truth,” she says. “You want success and you want your work to connect with the people, but the danger in that is you lose a bit of yourself. I lose being able to go outside and walk my dog by myself. I miss waking up Saturday morning and … digging through the sale racks with sweats on. My life is not private anymore.”
While Henson is not one to shy away from sharing parts of her life on her own social media, she shares she often has to “prepare” herself when she goes on Instagram because she never knows if the comments will be good or bad. And then there are the other cameras that get pulled out when people see her out and about that have taken some getting used to.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It took me a minute to get to this level. I miss the old days, I must say,” she admits.
But Henson is finding light in her upcoming work. In addition to a long-gestating film about Emmett Till, she says she is “milliseconds” away from being set at her next hiatus project and she has a newfound love for voice-over roles following her turn in “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”
“I was an only child and all I had was my imagination,” she says. “That’s what you need when you’re going into that studio; you don’t have another actor opposite you. It’s just you, a microphone and your imagination. … That’s where I thrive, because all of these years of playing by myself. I want to do so much more.”
And Henson also has high hopes that the Feb. 8 release of “What Men Want,” a remake of the 2000 film “What Women Want,” will mark a fresh turn in her career.
“I’m so happy and delighted I finally got to break the ceiling with comedy,” she says. “That’s what I do! It was good to spend my summer laughing instead of crying. Hopefully it opens the door for more to come; a big comedy franchise would be great. I’m just putting it out there in the universe!”