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."
On the phone, her father, Boris Henson, remembers: "I just wanted to keep my daughter and me close. . . . When I went into being homeless, she was 11. She knew everything, she followed my life like a person following a map. Every time I would get to the next step, she was so excited, 'Oh Daddy, we've got a mattress and an apartment!' We didn't want any furniture. We decided we could roller-skate through the kitchen.
"She was my best buddy."
In time, Boris Henson found a job working at RFK Stadium as a janitor. (Her mother, Bernice, worked her way up to a management position at Woodward & Lothrop.) Meanwhile, Taraji, her dad says, was always a "big pretender," ever since she was a teeny thing, always living in a dream world, pretending to be someone else.
As a young teen, she was turned down for a slot in the acting program at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She was devastated. After graduating from Oxon Hill High School in 1988, she matriculated at North Carolina A&T, ostensibly to study electrical engineering. She lasted a year.
"She told me, 'Oooh, Daddy, that's not what I want to do for the rest of my life and be happy,' " says Boris Henson. "I said, 'So get on with what you're supposed to do.' "
At Howard, she thrived, learning every aspect of theater, from singing to dancing to acting to hanging lights. She worked two jobs. She made the dean's list. And she won a coveted "Triple Threat" scholarship from Howard alums Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.
Then, her junior year, she found herself pregnant. She decided she was keeping the baby -- and her performance schedule.
"I never sat down," Henson remembers. "I went to [the theater professors] and said, 'Don't you bench me because I'm pregnant.' "
They didn't. Her first trimester, she acted in a Greek tragedy (she's convinced that's why her son, at 11, is so melodramatic today). In her second trimester she performed in "Dreamgirls," singing, dancing, the whole shebang. After Marcell was born, she kept going to class, books in one hand, infant carrier in the other.
"I never stopped," Henson says. "I spit that baby out and kept it moving. I just threw him on my back and said, 'C'mon baby, we're about to go here.' "
"There was always that danger of our young people of getting pregnant and leaving school. But she buckled it out," says Mike Malone, professor of musical theater at Howard. "She's a strong girl. She has a lot of nerve." (Two other Howard alums are featured in the movie, Paula Jai Parker and Anthony Anderson.)
Henson started out as a comedic actress, Malone says, but quickly developed a flair for drama. She had a knack, he says, for milking a moment out of nothing. She'd begged him for a role in "Dreamgirls," a production that was slated to tour Hong Kong. Yes, begged. So he tossed her a walk-on part. Her role: to move a clothes rack from stage left to stage right during a rehearsal scene in the musical.
"Honest to goodness, she made a whole play going across the stage," Malone says, laughing at the memory. "She dropped the clothes, ran into someone, etc. You couldn't pay attention to anyone else except for Taraji. And it was really funny.
"That was emblematic of Taraji. Whenever I think of her, I think of that."
She encountered plenty of drama offstage, too. As a student, she got involved in an abusive relationship -- she won't say with whom -- and found herself being knocked around the house. Perhaps it was her zeal for commitment, for diving in body and soul, that got her into trouble.
"You fall in love and you just want it to work," Henson says. "I saw past his demons, I saw his good in him. . . . I fell in love with potential."
She pauses, laughs ruefully. "And got beat up for it."
She says she realized she was setting a poor example for her young son. So after graduation, she grabbed her baby and stepped. Headed to Los Angeles in 1996 with just $700 to her name.
First, she nailed down an office job to pay the bills. Assured her employer that she wouldn't be staying long. Her boss, who'd seen many a would-be actor come and go, looked amused. But within two years, Henson was out of there, having snared guest parts in television shows like "Felicity" and "ER" and a "Murder She Wrote" movie, then starring in Lifetime's "The Division" for three seasons. "Baby Boy" was her first movie break.
She was working full time and had a manager, Vincent Cirrincione, the man behind Halle Berry's Oscar-winning career.
"She's the epitome of a strong person," co-star Howard says. "She's trying to raise this child by herself and get a career in Hollywood. . . . Most people would throw their kids at their mom to raise. . . . She's like, 'No, I'm going to conquer Hollywood and I'm going to do it on my own.' A lot of girls get by with flirting or sleeping with people. Nobody gets near Taraji. . . . She has so much integrity as a young black woman."
For the role of Shug, writer-director Craig Brewer was looking for a singer who could convey the character's sweetness and innocence without taking it over the top. Henson wasn't the immediate choice. For one thing, her work on "The Division" was in conflict with the film's tight schedule. She offered to work weekends, flying into Memphis on the red eye. (Fortunately, he says, it took a long time for them to find financing. By that time, everyone's schedules were in sync.)
Before shooting, Brewer and Henson rode through the streets of Memphis, deep in the 'hood. There, they encountered working girls.
"She started talking to girls," Brewer says. "I would hear Taraji's accent begin to change. . . . She'd start talking hair, 'Ooh, where'd you get your hair done? Where'd you get that gold tooth?' Suddenly Taraji would arrive on the set, and she'd have a completely realized character with little input from me.
"She even came to set with baby powder on her chest. When I saw it on her, I said, 'You're brilliant.' " Baby powder was a technique the girls down home used to keep the heat at bay. Little details that make a character breathe.
Now, the work is coming at her fast and furious. Later this summer, she's in Singleton's "The Four Brothers" opposite Andre 3000, Mark Wahlberg and Howard. Next year, she'll appear in the romantic comedy "Something New" and the indie film "Animal" with Ving Rhames.
But for now, she's treasuring the role of sweet-natured Shug. She doesn't mind playing a prostitute.
"People say, 'How do you think people are going to feel about you playing a whore?' I really don't care. I don't care what people think about me. All I know is this girl is out there somewhere and she needs a voice," says Henson. "And you talk about wanting to change society, you don't want to see these images anymore, get up off your lazy ass and do something about it. Don't ridicule me for doing my job, you know?"
She has auditioned for Hollywood projects like "The Honeymooners," starring Cedric the Entertainer, films that she says are made strictly for the ka-ching factor. "Hustle & Flow," she says, defies conventional Hollywood exec wisdom about box office draws: No one's a "name." Just a film about folks you normally ignore.
"I'm so proud of it, I'm getting goose bumps just talking about it," she says.
"In an industry where you're never enough -- you're not pretty enough, you're not tall enough, you're not thin enough, you're too black, you're not black enough -- finally, we were more than enough. Thank God."
She raises her fist in a little impromptu gesture of solidarity.
"Finally. Everything we believed in was more than enough. Thank you."