Drama Queen

(By Peter Kramer -- Getty Images)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

When it comes to auditions, Taraji Henson, Howard grad, triple-threat singer-dancer-actress, is enthusiastic . Take, for example, her tryout for director John Singleton's "Baby Boy." She showed up and they told her that -- omigod! -- she'd be auditioning with Tyrese. Fiiine Tyrese, he of the eight-pack abs and the R&B recording career. With that news, well, Henson needed a moment. Went back to her car to pull herself together. Once reassembled, with adrenaline pumping, she went back into that audition and, um, expressed herself: She slapped Tyrese upside the head with a pillow, and he slapped her and they started ad-libbing and . . .

"I think I blacked out," recalls Henson, who says she is 32. "I just remember coming to and I was on his back."

Of course, she got the job. First movie. Leading role. She was on her way, a single mother taking on Hollywood with her own baby boy in tow.

So a few years later, when it came time to audition for the role of Shug, the singing prostitute with a heart of gold, in "Hustle & Flow," which opens Friday, Henson just knew she had the part. After all, Singleton was producing. He'd sent her the script! She knew that this would be a film with impact, and judging from the advance buzz surrounding "Hustle & Flow" -- which "could become a classic of its kind," the New Yorker's David Denby wrote, and which won the Audience Award at Sundance -- she was right.

Henson knew this was the role for her. This character needed a voice. Her voice.

Except that Terrence Dashon Howard, who plays DJay, the Memphis pimp hankering to be a rapper, had someone else in mind. And Henson found herself fighting for the part in a way that did not involve smacking the leading man upside his head with a pillow.

"Initially, I wanted Meagan Good; that was the picture of the little girl that I had," says Howard in a telephone interview. (He co-starred with the 23-year-old Good in "Biker Boyz.")

"But I am so thankful for Taraji's tenacity. She fought and got that job above my recommendation."

Says Henson, a small, cinnamon-brown woman with a kewpie-doll face, "I sold them on this." Her hands wave around and around for emphasis, her words tumbling out, one over the next, "I told them, ' Trust me, I get it, she's a beacon of light, she's an angel, she's the matriarch of the household, I get it, I know this girl.' . . . Terrence Howard, he was looking at me, like, 'Oh, I gotta up my game, you're for real.' I was like, ' Yeah .'

"See, I commit ."

Committing is an intrinsic part of the District native's makeup. She grew up working class -- "working very hard" -- in Southeast Washington. Her folks split when she was 2, but she says she grew up snug and secure, wrapped in the love and attention of both parents. Her father was always there for her, she says, even when he lost his job as a metal fabricator and ended up living out of his van. If he had 50 cents, she says, he would give her a quarter.

"I was never ashamed; he was never ashamed," Henson recalls. "He was always there. He would come pick me up in the same van he was living in and we'd go for a ride."

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