Before things started to click for Taraji P. Henson, she sought career counseling from the man upstairs.
“I had a talk with God a long time ago when things didn’t pop,” she said. Invoking the women she had watched as a child, like Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and Diahann Carroll, she told him, “I want longevity and work that matters.”
This, Henson has had: At 53, she is an Oscar-nominated actress with a long career that includes films like “Hidden Figures,” “Hustle & Flow” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” She also spent six seasons playing the music-industry matriarch Cookie on the Fox series “Empire,” a juicy role that netted her a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award.
But she is candid about the frustrations she still faces in an industry that undervalues Black actresses. “The fact that I made it through is a blessing because a lot has happened,” she said, noting that she had to step away from work last year when things got to be too much. A monthlong trip to Bali helped to recenter her, as did attending to her successful beauty brand, TPH.
“I have a brand now, so I have other things to pay the bills,” she said. “Because the way I’m getting paid in Hollywood, I sure won’t be retiring off these sorry checks.”
In mid-December, I met Henson at a hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills to discuss “The Color Purple,” a new big-screen take on the Alice Walker novel, inspired by the stage musical and directed by Blitz Bazawule. In the film, Henson plays the fabulous and well-feathered blues singer Shug Avery, whose confidence inspires abused Celie (Fantasia Barrino-Taylor) to find her own voice and even, for a potent moment between the two women, to know love.
Henson had been offered the same role when “The Color Purple” was on Broadway but turned it down for fear of how demanding the production would be: “Eight shows a week, and Shug sings gospel, blues and jazz — that’s a lot.” She still found the material daunting when signing on to the new film, but it thrilled her to push through that fear to make the character her own, drawing inspiration from close to home.
“Whenever you seeing me playing these Southern women, know that I’m my grandma,” Henson said. “My grandmother’s still very much a lady with her pearls and her clothes, and she’s very conscious of how she looks when she goes out still: She goes to the salon and gets her hair done, gets her nails done. And she raised nine children on a sharecropper’s income!”
Henson is proud of the work she put into the film, but she had to fight to get cast and be paid her worth, and her spirit is still sapped from all that negotiating. She noted that at least she had one of the producers of “The Color Purple,” Oprah Winfrey, in her corner, but these are battles she’s had to wage alone too often.
“It hurts my feelings when it’s not reciprocated, but I know this world is cold and nobody really cares, and you got to go out and fight for what you want,” she said. “What else do I need to do to prove my worth? Now that I’m singing and dancing for you, and I climbed up on the table 88 times with my knobby knees and had to ice my knees in between takes, what else do I need to do?”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
When Henson was unable to get a raise, she said that studios advised her, “‘You need a new team. Fire your team.’ Well, I did that,’” she said. “Nothing’s changed.”Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times
How did this new incarnation of “The Color Purple” come to you?
My manager called during the pandemic and was like, “You’re being tapped for Shug Avery, they’re remaking ‘Color Purple.’” And I was like, “God, why?” It wasn’t until I spoke to Blitz and he told me his radical vision that I felt two reasons I needed to do it. One, because it was a Black director, and we get to own the narrative this time. We don’t wallow in the muck of our trauma — we find joy, we go to church, we dance, we sing, we’re vibrant. I just knew it would look different.
Blitz saw something in me. I became a mother in my junior year of college and everybody was trying to get me to go to New York and pursue musical theater and music, but the music industry just seemed a bit dark and uncertain to me. When you become a parent, you start thinking differently: I couldn’t tour, I have a kid. Who was going to protect me in this daunting industry? So I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to be music,” and I never looked back.
When Blitz came to you with an offer to return to your musical roots, was it an easy yes?
Well, it was an easy yes to him. Oftentimes in the industry, you can be the director’s choice but not the studio’s, so I had to audition. I had to check my ego because I was like, “Why am I auditioning?” I mean, I get the singing, because there’s nothing out there that shows me singing like that. But I had to sing, dance, and they read me. I was like, “Ouch.”
When was the last time you had to audition?
I don’t even know, because at this point I’m a Golden Globe winner [for “Empire”] and Academy Award-nominated [for “Benjamin Button”]. So I went in there with a chip on my shoulder because I was like, “You will never second-guess me again.” I found a dress that was very Shug, I had did my hair up and put a flower in it, I wore a faux-fur shawl, and I went in and literally kicked the door down. He was like, “Do you need to rehearse?” I was like, “No, let’s go.”
Blitz tells it like, “Within 20 minutes, she sealed the deal.” But I’m really getting tired of fighting, I’m tired of proving myself. It seems like every time I break a glass ceiling, when it’s time to renegotiate for another job, I’m right back like I did nothing. I almost had to walk away from “Color Purple.”
While you were negotiating?
Yes. I haven’t had a raise since [the 2018 film] “Proud Mary,” and I still didn’t get a raise. They don’t care, they’re always looking for a deal and trying to pay you the least amount. I remember on “Empire,” I was fighting over trailers [that stars use as their home base while shooting].
Even after Season 1?
That’s a whole other book. I’m arguing over trailers, and then I go down the street to “Chicago P.D.” and they got the nice [ones].
You were the biggest star on Fox at that time.
You understand what I mean by “I’m tired of fighting?”
So you audition for Shug and win the role. What’s next?
I get with my vocal coach, Stevie Mackey, and I worked with him for two months to find my voice again, because I had stopped singing like that since college. And I do what I always do with all my characters, I write my back story, what happened to Shug. Yes, things are in the book, but then I add my special sauce to her story to make it mine. The most important thing with playing these characters with bigger-than-life personalities is if you don’t handle it with care or get to why that person is the way they are, then it becomes a caricature and no one cares or empathizes. Cookie was like that: If I didn’t give the “why” to her, she just would have been a sassy Black woman.
What was most daunting about playing Shug?
I’m very confident in my acting because I do the work, but I was nervous about my singing. Fantasia’s nervous about acting because singing is her thing, so we held each other’s hand and lifted each other up.
This movie is more candid about the relationship between Shug and Celie than the Spielberg version.
I’m most proud of that part because remember, in 1985 we couldn’t really show that. We’ve opened up our thinking, because who you lay down with ain’t bothering me. Are you happy? Great, do it, live and let live. And I love the way he handled it, because it wasn’t about sex. It was about the tenderness of unconditional love, and these women hadn’t experienced it.
In your memoir, you’ve said, “I’ve learned to love myself in ways I simply didn’t when I was younger.” How have things changed?
You get older and you realize life is just not about grinding, and that’s the thing that almost took me out: You grind and it’s like, why? No one is paying me my worth, so what am I doing?
What did grinding used to mean to you?
Work, work, work. If I didn’t have nothing else lined up, I was yelling, “Where’s my next job?” So once the pandemic came and you realize you have no control, I was like yeah, when the world opens back up, I don’t think I want to work like that anymore. I want to enjoy it.
If you don’t leave room to enjoy the fruits of your labor, then it’s just labor.
And after a while in this industry, you just get tired of having the same conversations. So then it’s like, OK, what’s my exit strategy? I don’t want to be working when I’m 70 unless it’s something that is incredible. But I don’t see myself doing that.
You’ve talked about wanting to be able to pass the baton to the actresses who are coming up behind you. What do you think you can make easier for them?
Hopefully, we’ll get to a place where people are getting paid what they’re worth. At least can we start there? So that’s why I fight so hard. When I was younger, I would be so full of fuel when I talked about it because I’m thinking I’m making a change, then 10 years later, I’m still having the same conversation. It’s a joke at this point. I watch these studios and I’m like, “You’re playing right in my face, I see it.” They say, “You need a new team. Fire your team.” Well, I did that. Nothing’s changed. So what is it?
What do you think it is?
When Black women speak, no one listens. And I’m not making this up.
Have you seen Beyoncé’s new concert film?
Even she has to deal with that kind of disrespect behind the scenes, and she’s Beyoncé. She says it in the movie: “Communicating as a Black woman, everything is a fight.”
Serena Williams almost died in the hospital. It’s like we can’t win for losing.
But one of the lessons of “The Color Purple” is that even when things feel so stacked against you, sisterhood can help you move forward. I’ve seen the way your co-stars Fantasia and Danielle Brooks talk about you and cheer for you. They’re in your corner.
I didn’t tell them, but a lot of the stuff on that set, they got because I fought.
What did you fight for?
They gave us rental cars, and I was like, “I can’t drive myself to set in Atlanta.” This is insurance liability, it’s dangerous. Now they robbing people. What do I look like, taking myself to work by myself in a rental car? So I was like, “Can I get a driver or security to take me?” I’m not asking for the moon. They’re like, “Well, if we do it for you, we got to do it for everybody.” Well, do it for everybody! It’s stuff like that, stuff I shouldn’t have to fight for. I was on the set of “Empire” fighting for trailers that wasn’t infested with bugs.
It wears on your soul because you fight so hard to establish a name for yourself and be respected in this town to no avail. With Black films, they just don’t want to take us overseas and I don’t understand that. Black translates all over the world, so why wouldn’t the movies? I have a following in China of all places. Y’all not going to capitalize on that? Don’t everybody want to make money here? I’m not the person that pulls the race card every time, but what else is it, then? Tell me. I’d rather it not be race, please give me something else.
How do you maintain your vulnerability as an actress when dealing with things that could harden you?
When I felt my light dim, that’s when I ran to Bali. It was like I wasn’t myself. I’m the one that’s usually looking at the brighter side, a consummate optimist. That’s how I’ve been my entire life, that’s what got me here. Sure, I’ve been in some [messed-up] situations, but I never let life make me jaded or bitter, and I started feeling like that. That’s when I was like, yeah, let me go take care of myself because I’m letting this thing consume me.
I always want to be this shining example of how you age in this business and show grace to those coming up, so I had to go work on myself because I was becoming tired of the fight. I thought maybe I’d just quit, but then I have Danielle and Fantasia saying, “If you quit, then what about us?” I know that they appreciate it. They know how hard I fight, and they’re like, “You taught me so much.” I don’t want them to have this conversation. I’m tired of Black women having this conversation, and I’ll be glad when it’s a different conversation we’re having.
So I guess I can’t quit just yet. I said all of that, just to say I can’t quit.