Taraji P. Henson has got to be tired.
There’s a line of reporters outside her hotel room waiting to pick her brain. It’s only 2 p.m., and although the Washington premiere for her new movie, “What Men Want,” about a woman who can read men’s minds, doesn’t start for another few hours, she’s already in full glam.
But if she’s tired, she doesn’t let on. Throughout her acting career, Henson has learned how to turn it on at the snap of a finger. We talked to Henson about her career and her new movie’s commentary on society, after having previously chatting with the District native about her hometown ties.
It must be nice to be back home for a minute.
Yeah, the entire family is coming to the screening tonight.
Is that good or bad?
*Laughs* It’s good. I get to see everybody at once.
Your “Empire” co-star Jussie Smollett was allegedly attacked in what police are investigating as a potential hate crime. Do you think the incident is being handled appropriately?
Right now, they’re investigating. So you just have to wait and see what they come up with. But all I know is that Jussie is resilient, and he’s full of love, and this is not going to break him. He just has to stay focused and not let this make him bitter because that’s what the negative forces want.
You’re here in Washington to promote “What Men Want,” which is a very high-energy movie. How do you stay “on” all the time?
I have a switch, literally. And I amaze myself. But I guess it’s just years and years of my body being conditioned to turning on and off. I’ll go into a scene saying, “I’m not even going to do it because I don’t feel like it,” and as soon as they yell, “Action!” I can’t even control it anymore.
Just like if you played an actual instrument, you can’t say, “I don’t feel good today.” You can still make that piano hit F sharp because you’re conditioned to doing it. That’s how I look at my body, and that’s why I’m able to transform and do physical comedy. Because [“What Men Want”] is physical comedy. You can get more laughs just by not saying anything. I learned from the best.
Was anything in “What Men Want” improvised? What about Tracy Morgan’s long-winded smoothie line?
They just let the camera roll on him. I think some takes, because it was his close-up, I was just sitting over there on the other side like this *folds arms behind her head and kicks her feet up on the coffee table*. We were like, “What else is he going to come up with?” Every take he added some more [to the smoothie line].
And Erykah Badu. That whole her-coming-down-the-steps was all her. That’s the important thing in casting, especially a comedy. It is imperative that every actor is comedy. You can’t have one weak link in a comedy because it has to move, and one person could drag it. I think that’s why this movie works, because everybody brought their A-game.
This is a more comedy-centered role than you’ve had in recent years. Comedy is what you were planning on pursuing originally, right?
That’s what I tried doing.
Do you think you’ll have more comedic roles from now on?
I hope so, but the next script that I have is so depressing. It’s a very important story. I don’t mean to make light of it, but I mean, really? *Laughs* I really want to laugh because [my “Empire” character] Cookie is so emotionally draining for me eight months out of the year. That’s what was so refreshing about [“What Men Want”] — I got to laugh all summer.
This movie was a spinoff of the 2000 flick “What Women Want,” starring Mel Gibson. Did you feel pressured that people would compare this film to the original?
No, because it’s coming from a whole different perspective and a different time in history. The only thing that’s in common is that we get a gift to hear the opposite sex’s thoughts. And then it’s a black woman [in “What Men Want”]. So I didn’t really need to watch it, but I knew it could work. I’ve done [a remake] before with “Karate Kid.” We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. We were trying to take that concept and make it our own, and bring it up to date.
The movie has a somewhat political tone, with references to the #MeToo movement. Was that intentional?
There’s no way we could do a film like this in this climate and not deal with it. But how do we deal with it in a way that doesn’t feel preachy? You do it through laughter. That’s what I think makes a good comedy work — when it has heart. When it’s rooted in something real. That’s why “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” worked. That’s why “Pretty Woman” worked. That’s what makes a successful comedy. It can’t just be for jokes, they don’t work.
Except if it’s “Airplane.” That movie is just hilarious.
Do you consider yourself political?
I’m too honest. I don’t like all the B.S. that goes into it. I have enough games in Hollywood I’ve got to play. I’m not the political girl. I’m too emotional.
You posted on your Instagram about Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) announcing their presidential bids. Are you actively supporting either one?
That was just for Black History Month. If it weren’t for the civil rights movement, Cory couldn’t dream. Neither could Kamala. It doesn’t mean anything about who I’m voting for. It’s too early in the game to choose. I posted her on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday because if it were not for a him, a black woman could not even put in her [presidential] bid.
You caught a bit of flak a couple of weeks ago when people thought you were defending R. Kelly on Instagram.
I never made a comment. I made an observation. And then people projected, as humans do, but that’s not me. That’s them.
Okay, if you could pick any superpower what it be? I’m assuming not mind-reading.
A peacemaker, so I could just bring peace into this world, because Lord knows we need it.