On 14 December, our correspondents flew to Johannesburg to meet Taraji P. Henson on her press tour in South Africa. Leandra Engelbrecht sat down with the award-winning actress to talk about her second trip to our country, playing Cookie, and her roles in upcoming movies. Later in the evening at an exclusive event, Taraji shared some life lessons.
Johannesburg – When I make my way to meet Taraji on day 5 of her press tour in South Africa, I am a bit nervous, it’s not every day I get to chat with a Hollywood A-lister, particularly one that I admire.
But when I sit down and start to talk to her, my nerves slowly dissipate and we get to the nitty-gritty with ease.
She hints that she’s had a busy week, from doing interviews to visiting Keep A Child Alive in Soweto, the Apartheid Museum, and Constitution Hill.
Visibly moved she says: “This is a land full of history and you can’t come here and not get that lesson. I am so grateful and thankful for Fox for bringing me out here.”
A quick scroll through Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #TarajinJozi, you’ll see that South Africans have a lot of love for the actress. When she met super fans earlier in the week, one was even in tears.
— FOX Africa (@FOXAfrica) December 13, 2018
She tells me that this is still a surreal experience for her.
“I have been doing this a long time and I still can’t get used to it because I don’t consider myself this mega-star. When I go to work it’s like when you go to work – it just so happens that millions of people get to see me when I go to work.”
She continues: “I can never get used to it, I know it’s love but it’s always kind of strange.”
The 48-year-old actress has been playing Cookie Lyon in the Fox drama, Empire for five seasons now and she has, thus far, had some of the outspoken matriarch rubs off on her.
She points out that the greatest thing about playing Cookie is learning to stand up for herself.
“I feel like if there is any injustice, I need to speak out about it especially when it comes to me and being a woman. You see, Cookie is always fighting to get back what is hers – that is a story of a woman’s life, I think.”
Taraji has loved playing the evolution of Cookie and witnessing her growth from season one to who she has become in season five has been fulfilling.
“When she came out of jail, she was kind of wild, untamed and then she had to acclimate herself into the corporate world. She couldn’t continue slapping people. She had to learn how to be diplomatic and I think it is great to see someone grow. The message is that everybody can change, everybody can grow up and do better.”
This is why she believes people, particularly the South African audience, like Cookie so much – because she is a relatable character, which makes it easy to connect to her.
“She is the moral compass, she says and does things that people are fearful of doing. I think that is why people love her.”
The current season ended on a cliffhanger and with the show only returning in March, I tried to get some teasers but Taraji didn’t budge.
“All I want to know is who is in that casket,” says Taraji, adding: “All I can say is that you just have to watch it.”
COMING SOON TO THE BIG SCREEN
During her breaks from the show she has about four months to do some work in film.
Just recently she voiced the character of Yess in Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Taraji can be seen next in the comedy, What Men Want, which is a remake of the Mel Gibson film, What Women Want. She is also set to make an appearance in The Best of Enemies – a true story of a civil rights activist and a local Ku Klux Klan leader.
“I am a character actress; I love doing different characters. I loved What Men Want because it’s a comedy. I finally get to laugh and stretch my funny bone.
“For The Best Of Enemies, got to really change my appearance and I just love the story about a hateful heart turning into a loving heart. And that’s what art does, hopefully, it can change some hearts.”
KNOWING HER WORTH IN THE INDUSTRY
Taking the role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button came at a big personal cost, she says, although playing Queenie earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
“At that point of my career, I had to swallow my pride. Brad was being paid his $20m, Cate $11m – all I wanted was $500k.”
“I got $150k. I know it sounds like a lot but 30% goes to my team and 50% to Uncle Sam. You calculate how much is left. I had the rest of the year to provide for my son and pay my bills,” she continues.
“Had I not checked my ego I would have lost the moment. We are not irreplaceable. Now I have Empire, I have the audience, I have fans. So, now I’m in the position where if that ever happens again, I just walk away.”
She emphasized the importance of embracing change in order to get your name out in the world.
“The only way to get your name out in the world is to go out and do it. If I was scared to leave DC, I would not be in South Africa. I had to get out of my comfort zone.
“Change is scary. Change is going to change you-you are not going to be the same. But if you embrace the grey areas – I think we are afraid of the grey areas. We want everything to be black and white and sometimes it’s just not that.”
“And as much faith as you have when you are happy and when everything is going right – you’ve got to have that same kind of faith when everything isn’t going right because one day everything is going to go right,” she adds.
ON WHAT SHE HOPES YOUNGER ACTORS LEARN FROM HER
“I hope they are paying attention to how serious I take this. I think people go ‘I want to be a star’, ‘I want to be a superstar,’ ‘I want to lead a film.’ But I don’t think they understand the responsibility that comes with it.”
“People look up to you. When you lead a film or a television show, anything that you do will affect those 300 people that are working. Because you’re the reason why this production is happening. I don’t think people know what that means to be a superstar – the responsibility is not just on set but offset too,” she concludes.