Taraji P. Henson is being celebrated as one of Variety‘s Power of Women nominees for her work on the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which she founded in 2018 in her late father’s memory, to eradicate the stigma around mental health in the African-American community.
The Oscar-nominated star of “Empire” reveals that dealing with mental health issues is not just work — it’s a personal issue. “I suffer from depression,” Henson says, candidly hoping to help get rid of the taboo associated with mental health issues. “My anxiety is kicking up even more every day, and I’ve never really dealt with anxiety like that. It’s something new.”
On a recent afternoon, Henson sat with Variety for more than an hour at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s lobby bar in midtown Manhattan for a wide-ranging interview about her foundation, female progress in the entertainment industry, and pay inequality for women of color.
To read more about Henson’s foundation, click here.
You started a foundation that works to eradicate the stigma with mental health issues, and you are revealing that you actually suffer from anxiety and depression. How do you deal with that?
I talk to someone. I have a therapist that I speak to. That’s the only way I can get through it. You can talk to your friends, but you need a professional who can give you exercises. So that when you’re on the ledge, you have things to say to yourself that will get you off that ledge and past your weakest moments. It’s a professional — someone who studies the human mind, and someone who has no stakes involved. Their job is to make sure you’re mentally sound, whatever that is and telling you the truth, which might hurt. Sometimes your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. If I’m going to change for the better, I need honesty, and sometimes your friends and family don’t have it in them to be brutally honest.
Do you see a therapist regularly?
I talk to someone regularly. It has to be regularly, and that’s what I learned. It gets frustrating because you’re waiting for them to fix you, but it’s not that easy. I had to go through several therapists that I felt comfortable talking to, or that I felt was moving me forward and that I was making some progress with, and that takes time. I remember the first time I went, I was angry, because I was like, “She didn’t tell me nothing! She didn’t tell me anything!” You’re not going to figure it all out in one sitting.
So aside from ridding others of the shame associated with therapy, you’re saying people need to really focus on their meetings and put the time into finding the right mental health professional?
Going and talking to all these different therapists, that’s a craft. You’ve got to keep going until you find the right one. It’s like a relationship. I’ve got to feel comfortable because that’s the only way I’m going to keep coming back to you. To keep dealing with this ugly stuff, I have to feel totally safe. I need to feel like even though I know we don’t have all day, you’ve got to make me feel like we have all day.
We live in a 24/7 world today. How has social media impacted your mental health?
I turn off everything. This [picking up her phone] had become a problem. You get on here to check messages and next thing you know, you’re on social media. Social media is good and it’s bad. It plays a doozy. Even if life is good for you, you can still get on there and become depressed because people are filtering pictures and living these false lives, and it makes you second guess yourself – not intentionally, it just does. That’s what this does. It makes you compare yourself. If you just stay in your lane and mind your business…that’s why I put that away. It was affecting my mood. I’d wake up in a good mood and I’d see something on there. I can control that — just don’t look at it! Because that thing can depress you. It can knock you off your game.
You still interact with your fans on social media for work purposes though, correct?
I have it on my iPad because I need it for business. But that whole thing of, “This is my life! This is what I did today!” That got old for me, maybe because I’m getting old [laughing]. There’s no mystique anymore. Everybody’s business is out there. The older I get, the weirder I feel about that. I don’t want you knowing everything. It was fun at first. But because people are so weird and this is a crazy world we live in, I’m afraid for the people that I know that have nothing to do with this industry. My lifestyle can possibly bring danger to them. Somebody might get a fetish with one of my cousins just because of me and then they’ll stalk them. It’s not as free and fun as you think it is, when you really think about it.
You bring up a good point. Social media brings people into your lives, and that can be dangerous. Have you ever been in a scary situation?
Oh yeah. I’ve been stalked before. These weird gifts kept showing up to “Empire” so we started tracking them. Then, we were on a book tour, and the person was like, “I’m the one who sent the gifts.” In another city! On a book tour! So after that, I hired security. I go nowhere by myself. I’ve got to protect myself because things can happen and someone says it happened and it really didn’t, but you’re by yourself and it’s your word against his. I don’t go anywhere by myself.
How has fame and constantly being recognized affected you?
I don’t like it. I’m a people person and that’s naturally how I am. I like to people watch, I like to take myself to lunch, I like to shop by myself. I’m an only child and I enjoy spending time with myself. I’m okay with that. I miss waking early Saturday morning and going to Target. I can’t do that anymore. I tried it in Chicago before Cookie became Cookie. I was in Bed, Bath and Beyond and this guy followed me around the store the entire time, so that ended that. I get up to go walk my dog, and I realize I can’t do that. So even just walking my dog, I can’t do that. So it’s depressing.
Has your lack of privacy led to your depression and anxiety?
It wears on me. It does. I have to be conscious about everything. Everything. Every move I make, everything that comes out of my mouth. I have to go over it. That’s not living. That’s not just being. Living is being in the moment and saying whatever the f— you want to say and that’s what it is. But I can’t do that. And once upon a time, I could. It’s depressing. I feel myself changing, and I don’t want to. It’s making me a little hard in a way. It’s making me a little agoraphobic, and I’ve never been, but I have anxiety sometimes when I just want to go outside, and I can’t. Somebody’s got to go with me.
If you could go back in time, would you give this all up — the fame and celebrity, that comes with your craft of being an actor?
I don’t know what else I would do. I probably would have been in the makeup or hair union. I can’t go back and I can’t change it. These are the cards that God dealt me, and for whatever reasons, he felt like he knew I could handle it – God is never going to give you more than you can handle. Now, it’s just trying to keep my sanity.
Social media has obviously been a huge part of your increased lack in privacy, but did it really all change with “Empire?”
Yeah. “Empire” changed everything. People recognized me before, but it made me international. I go out of the country and people yell, “Cookie Lyon!” in other languages. It’s almost like I became an overnight sensation, which is so far from the truth, but it felt like that. I had done other things, like “Hustle & Flow,” but there was just something about Cookie that propelled me to superstardom. It just took me from one level to the next. But look, you have to take the good with the bad. This is what I wanted. This is what I worked my ass off for my entire career. I’m not complaining, but things are just different now. I wouldn’t change a thing.
How has the Jussie Smollett case impacted you?
We’ll never be the same. No one will ever be the same. Forever changed. And it’s sad.
You’re the matriarch on “Empire.” How did you deal with being a leader on set during a time of crisis?
You’ve just got to be strong because the devil wants you weak, and the devil wants to catch you in a vulnerable moment and make you believe things that aren’t true. I just stay strong. I know what side I’m on: I’m on faith’s side. I’ve got God, I know I’m a good person, so I just stay in that lane because powers that be and other sources from the outside can make you think things, but when you know what you know, you stay there right where you know what you know. I just hold onto my truth.
After “Empire,” have you found that roles come easier?
Oh yeah. I got Cookie, and that was the last audition I went on. I had to read for Lee [Daniels] and that was the last audition I’ve ever gone on. After that, I just started getting called. [Laughing]
Would you audition?
Oh God, yeah. If I wanted a role badly, I’m not too good to audition.
Even being Taraji P. Henson, with all of your success and fame, do you still find it challenging to navigate the world as a woman of color?
Let me put it this way. Where I live in Chicago, there are not a lot of black people. It’s a rich area, and there are not a lot of black people in my building. Now, everyone in the building knows who I am, so this doesn’t happen anymore, but before I got Cookie, I remember I walked into the elevator. I own in this building – I was not renting. I own. And I was wearing Chanel head-to-toe. Very classy. This older white couple gets on, and it was very uncomfortable. I felt that nasty stare from the husband, so much so that the wife went into damage control. He looked at me, as if I should be dead, like, “What the f— are you doing in this building?” The wife felt it. That’s how tough it was. Now, they will never treat me like that because they know who I am, but people who are not Taraji P. Henson deal with that every day. And I don’t like it because I don’t know who I’m dealing with – are you being nice to me because I’m Cookie or because you really like me?
You’ve been vocal before about pay discrepancy in the industry, specifically with your role on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
I want to make this very clear – I’m not saying that Brad [Pitt] or Cate [Blanchett] shouldn’t have gotten what they got. They put asses in seats, so give them their money. They deserve it. I’m not saying they shouldn’t get what they’re getting. I was just asking for half a million – that’s all. That’s it. When I was doing “Benjamin Button,” I wasn’t worth a million yet. My audience was still getting to know me. We thought we were asking for what was fair for me, at the time.
And you didn’t get a half a million for that movie, like you asked?
No! They came in at $100,000.
Were you able to negotiate up at all?
$150,000. That was it. But, if I let ego get in the way…
You wouldn’t have been nominated for your first Academy Award.
That’s right. You’ve got to check your ego. I mean, I’m a black woman, so I knew it was going to be a fight.
How about now? Is it still a fight to negotiate for your pay?
Still a fight. I don’t get paid if I don’t fight.
You just said you still have to fight for equal pay. Is there a recent example?
I did a movie. I’m not going to say which studio. But they paid me more than my quote, and then they came back and offered me half of my quote. I said, “No. You know what I’m worth, and actually, I deserve a raise. I’m not doing it for that.”
Were you ultimately able to get what you wanted for that film?
I walked away. I’m not selling myself short. If you want a discount performance, go get it. They’re out there. But you’re not getting it from me. I deliver, and I have the track record to prove it.
How about on “Empire”? When you initially signed on, your star-power was not as strong as it is today, so I imagine you had to negotiate your way up over the years.
Everything is good now. But in the beginning, it wasn’t. But when Cookie became the thing, they know they had to, and they did – they did right by me.
Did you have to fight to increase your salary on “Empire,” even after Cookie blew up?
Oh, I had to fight. But it was a no brainer. It wasn’t a huge fight. They got it right away. It wasn’t long and drawn out. It really wasn’t.
How much longer do you want to keep playing Cookie?
I think I might have two more years in me. One for sure – because I’ve got to go into syndication [laughing] – but maybe one after that. If the stories are good, I can’t walk away. If the stories are good, I’ll stay. I want to be like “Sex and the City” – I want to go out on top. I don’t want to ride until the wheels fall off. I want it to be something memorable for years to come.
Now that you can back up your star-power and box office power, are you cognizant of making sure you’re getting paid equal to your male co-star on all projects?
If I work with Brad [Pitt] again, I’m still not going to ask for what he’s getting. I don’t open movies like he does, so I can’t expect to get what he’s getting. I’m not saying that. But if I’m working with someone who’s my partner and we are equal, and you want to pay him more than me, I have a problem. I have a problem, and I will speak up. But I can’t go up against Brad. How long has he been doing this? Longer than me, and let’s give it to him – that man opens films. He opens films so give him his money. I love him, too. He’s a good guy. But now that I can open films, give me my money. I’ve proven it. I’ve even proven it when the studio didn’t promote the film, and I opened it with just me and this [she holds up her phone] because the studio wasn’t backing me. So give me my money. I’m very fair. I didn’t even ask them [on “Benjamin Button”] for a million. I asked for half a million. That’s it. And they wanted to give me $100,000. Does that make sense? I’m number three on the call sheet. Does that make sense to you? All I was asking was $500,000 – that’s all we were asking for.
Has it gotten easier for women to negotiate?
I can only talk about me because I don’t talk to my friends about money. I think it’s still a struggle. It’s something you’ve got to fight for. It is still a fight.
What is the biggest issue in Hollywood right now facing women of color?
We can talk until we’re blue in the face. Everyone knows our issues. But until the people on the other side who are privileged and have the advantage start speaking up — we can bitch and moan all we want — but until the other privileged side reaches across to help the underprivileged, that’s how that world works. Until we start seeing that in Hollywood, it’s never going to change. We need help from the other side.
Since you’ve started in the industry, have you noticed that the roles you are getting less stereotypical for women of color?
Yes. I think what was stereotypical with many roles is the stories that were being told. There is more to African-American women than just one story that we would always see. Any character could be a stereotype – a Stepford wife could be a stereotype. But it’s about how you portray the truth. That’s the job of an actor, and it’s a tricky job. Anybody can play what’s on the page, but if you can put the why in there, people will understand and it challenges you the audience to see a different perspective with a stereotypical character.
Do you think that there are more opportunities for women of color today?
I think more stories are being told – different stories, different ages. Look at all the old geezers getting a comeback! We’re supposed to be done, but all of my friends in the 40s and 50s are working. This is the age we were all afraid to get to back in the day because we thought there would be no jobs.
But is there still ageism in the industry when it comes to women versus men?
Men can have a beer gut, a receding hairline, no hair, missing teeth, crooked teeth – and they still work. Why is it that we have to be so vain? We have to be so conscious about how we look and don’t gain weight. It’s a bit obsessive. We are held to a certain standard when it comes to looks, when you [men] can look like anything. That’s not cool. Women, we get better with age, because we take care of ourselves. So naturally, why wouldn’t you want to look at us? My grandmother still pulls it together!
Has the industry improved, though, when it comes to ageism?
Absolutely. I started to see it happening with Meryl Streep, and that’s all I needed to see. She didn’t even look like me, but I didn’t care. She’s a woman. So I remember saying to myself, “I want that [career longevity].” I remember before my father passed away, he said, “God is preserving you for a reason.” And I was like, “What am I – a pickle?!” [Laughing] But I realized that’s my reason that God is preserving me, to break the age barrier for women still being hot, young, and working. It’s beautiful to see Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Regina Hall – these are my friends and we all struggled, so to see all of my friends working, it’s blowing me away. And it’s all different types of stories being told.
There have been so many recent box office successes with diverse storytelling from “Black Panther” to “Crazy Rich Asians.” Are people in decision-making positions finally understanding that audiences want to see different cultures and backgrounds on screen?
It’s not up to one person to represent one culture. At all. Ever. It should never look like that. Look, I’m not Asian, but “Crazy Rich Asians” appealed to me. That movie blew me away. I connected to that movie on a real human level. I understood it. I didn’t have to be Asian to understand it. It was a good f—ing movie, and people like good movies – it doesn’t matter the color. So, we’re learning that. It took us a minute. [Laughing]
There have also been two huge box office successes with major-budget female superhero films: “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel.” What does the financial success of these movies say?
It shows that we’ve been wanting it. Boys have superheroes, so why don’t we? What are we? Aliens? Do we not deserve stories to let girls dream to wear capes? I didn’t follow comics, but I knew that there were female superheroes, and now I’m 40, pushing 50, and we’re just seeing them? Why did it take so long? It’s a no brainer. For me, if I’m in the business of making money, I want everybody’s dollar. I don’t care what you look like. If a unicorn could reach into their pouch and pull out money, well then, I want that unicorn in theaters, too, so I’m going to put a unicorn in the movie so that they come. I want movies to look like how the world looks. Don’t we all want to make money? It’s common sense.
Given that both “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman” were financial successes, do you think the industry will keep putting out more female-driven films?
Women, we drive the box office. Yeah, I said it, because it’s the truth. We take our families, we take our significant others, we drive the box office. So, why not appeal to women? Don’t you want to make money? It’s a no brainer.
Do you want to direct?
Let me tell you a secret. I’m going to direct next year.
On “Empire?” Or another project?
I won’t say yet. But directing is in the horizon for me.
NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to all charged being dropped from “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.