The buzz in Hollywood is that talented singer/actress Taraji P. Henson will get an Oscar nomination for her heartfelt portrayal as the woman who finds and nurtures an abandoned and seemingly aged baby, who she names Benjamin. Buzzine's Izumi Hasegawa recently sat down down Taraji to talk about her career so far, the experience of working with David Fincher, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett on Benjamin Button as well as her other upcoming films Hurricane Season and Once Fallen.
Izumi Hasegawa: They are singling out Queenie as a memorable character. That must mean something to you.
Taraji P. Henson: It’s flattering. I mean, I’m with some of the greats — two of the hottest actors on the planet and, in some kind of way, I walk away with a little bit of shine, of course.
IH: Did you ever see yourself playing Brad Pitt’s mom? Was that something that was on your career trajectory…?
TPH: No. And my lesson is: be very specific in what you ask for. I said I wanted work with Brad Pitt. God, I found out, has a wicked sense of humor. [Laughs] “Oh, you want to work with Brad Pitt? Play his momma.” [Laughs]
IH: Brad Pitt is an old guy, so you never actually get to see the young, attractive Brad Pitt...
TPH: Well, I did in the makeup trailer. We had to de-robe at some point [laughs], and when he saw me come out of the thing… ‘Cause the first time we worked together was when Benjamin Button comes back to the house for the first time, after he had gone off to become a man. And so the first time Brad sees me, I’m in a fat suit and a wrinkled face. I’m like, “Great.” [Laughs] The plot thickens. And so the first time he sees me out of the suit, he’s like, “Wow.” I’m almost hot. [Laughs]
IH: Can you talk a little about working with Brad in the makeup, and what it was like to physically be on set?
TPH: It was weird ’cause you’d look like an old person and you catch yourself in the mirror, and you’re walking really fast. [Laughs] It was just really bizarre and strange. You kind of forget the makeup was there. Cate [Blanchett] said it best last night at a Q&A, that the prosthetic pieces were really really thin. I always imagine it to be really heavy and cumbersome, but it wasn’t. There were times when my skin would itch underneath, and I would go to scratch, and I would be like, god, why can’t I feel it? I’m going numb. But they did amazing work. It was almost when I would look at Brad or Cate, or whoever else had the aging makeup, it was seamless, even in person.
IH: How would you define working with David Fincher? How is he as a director, in comparison to other directors?
TPH: You know what I found quite interesting? He’s very nurturing, for a man. And I don’t want to offend any men here, but you know you guys pretty much leave that up to the women — the nurturing stuff. But he was very nurturing. I love the fact that he obsesses, because I too obsess, and I was happy because I was like, god, I thought I was the only crazy person [laughs] walking around. But it’s very rare in this industry that you get a chance to take your time with a film, and I think, with a film of this magnitude, you needed time. There was not one moment rushed in this film, and I think Fincher was the perfect director for it because he brought such a reality to something that could have been so magical and mystical and full of fantasy, but I think it would have been hard for the audience to grasp the concept of this little boy aging backwards. So I think he did a brilliant job.
IH: How long were you on the film for your section?
TPH: Started in November, I finished about the second week in February in New Orleans, and then I had like two weeks in March.
IH: For most films, that’s the length of the lead role.
IH: So it’s still a heavy portion of work.
TPH: Oh yeah. Well, we had long days. We had days where we would work on one scene ’cause it was so much, and we couldn’t flip-flop with the ages because the prosthetic process took so long. So if you were 71, you had to do all the 71 scenes that day. And nine times out of ten, you would get maybe one or two scenes done.
IH: Your aging is very believable now for the latter years. How long would you be in the makeup chair?
TPH: For the oldest age, 71, four hours at, like, 4 o’clock in the morning.
TPH: Yeah, lots of fun. When it’s in the winter and you’re having cold prosthetics applied to your face, sure, a lot of fun. But I tell you this: I have a newfound respect for Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry — these guys who do this all the time — because you know they sit in the chair longer — eight hours sometimes — and then they still have to go and do their day. I couldn’t imagine.
IH: They do more fart jokes, though.
TPH: [Laughs] Because they’re boys. [Laughs]
IH: You sing songs about pimps and whores, so I don’t know who has more fun. Hustle and Flow was really your breakout movie, and everyone expected you to get a nomination for that. How surprised were you that that movie struck a chord and that its song won an Oscar?
TPH: That part I was surprised about. I wasn’t surprised that the film was going to be successful, it’s just a feeling you have. You don’t have it that often. I had it with this, and I had it with that, and I think my instincts are right. [Laughs] But you do this long enough, you know when you have good material. You know what it looks like. And Hustle and Flow was one of those rare scripts. By the tenth page, I was sold, and I tell you, the curveball was the song getting nominated…and winning. I remember, Three 6 Mafia was sitting behind me at the ceremony, and I turned around and I was like, “Guys, just be happy you made it this far. Just be happy. We’re going to sing the song, pat yourself on the back, we’ll go home, and it’ll be great.” And when they said, “And the winner is Three 6 Mafia,” they couldn’t even talk. They didn’t have a speech prepared! C’mon! [Laughs] Be happy hip hop made it to the Oscars. [Laughs]
IH: What was the experience of being at the Oscars like for you?
TPH: Bittersweet, ’cause my dad died two weeks prior to going there, but incredible nonetheless because I had to get through it. It’s what he would have wanted me to do. It’s what I needed to do. And I tell you, I couldn’t look out in the audience ’cause I would have frozen. I mean, you have Tom Cruise, you have Nicole Kidman, I mean, anybody that you can imagine is sitting there staring at you. I looked above their heads and I found a speck in the back [laughs] of the audience, and that’s what I focused on. [Laughs] And I’m singing “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp!” [Laughs]
IH: To a bunch of agents and actors…
TPH: But it was funny because, when I went to the rehearsal, you had all these older Jewish guys and they were like (imitates old Jewish guy accent), “Yeah, baby, sing “and it’s hard out here for a pimp.” And I’m like, somebody pinch me. [Laughs]
IH: There’s so much visual effects in that role — mindboggling — and I’m thinking about working on it from that point of view. When you’re doing the scenes with the old Brad Pitt character, did you have to work with Brad Pitt and work with a stand-in? Because I have no idea how they do that. [Laughs]
TPH: Okay, when Queenie first meets Benjamin, they built this incredible animatronic baby. It took three puppeteers to operate it, and the apparatus looked like a remote control that you would use for a car or a boat, and they would make it wink at me between scenes. It was really freaky. [Laughs] And then, as he got older/younger, they hired three really good actors, different sizes, and Brad, David, and the actors, made sure they were all on the same page as far as who Benjamin was, so that in post-production, when they had to do the CGI work, it matched what the actors were doing. And the actors were really good. They gave me so much to respond to, so it wasn’t like it was a stand-in and someone’s reading the sides off-camera; they had blue socks on their heads with Xs and Os that pretty much represented the green screen, and they had a place cut out so I could see their eyes and we could respond with each other.
IH: So they superimposed Brad’s features on them…?
TPH: I don’t know. Well, yes. And what Brad had to do in post… Because when I went to do ADR [Automatic Dialogue Replacement, i.e. dubbing], Brad’s face had been generated on some of the scenes, but not all. And then it got to the scenes where his face wasn’t there, and I was like, “Wait a minute. That used to be Peter’s face,” and it was just the black hole. [Laughs] So when it was time for Brad to go in and do his work in post — I want everybody to understand — I don’t know how Brad did it, because he couldn’t move his body. They put him in this contraption that limited his body movement, and all he could do was move his head and use his face. And so I don’t know how he did it. He had to look at the screen and re-enact each scene that he physically was not a part of, and he only could move his head. When you talk, sometimes you want to move. Could you imagine being restricted and just having [laughs]… And then I’m looking at it and I see the final product, and I’m like, “Wait. That was a blue sock. How does it have hair now?” How seamless. I knew where to look. I knew where to look for the lines. Seamless, brilliant.
IH: What did you guys discuss about mother and son? Did you have a conversation with him and talk about mother-son relationships with him?
TPH: No, I am a mom. So once a mother, always a mother. I try to mother my friends and they’re like, “Get away from me, you’re not my mother!” So that I already had on board, and I think unconditional love is something… I don’t want to slight the fellows again, but women, we nuture. We give birth to babies… Absolutely men have their place. We need men. C’mon, you can’t make a baby without one.
IH: Well now you can.
TPH: Now you can. No, but you can’t. You still need the man. You don’t physically need him, but you need something from him. [Laughs] But I think unconditional love is what comes with being a mother. That’s certainly something I understand. That’s something Queenie understands. Even when the film opens, she’s not able to physically have her own children, so her need to nurture is intense. She is used to taking unwanted people. It’s unfortunate that a lot of elders get put off in these homes and no one ever comes to visit, and she’s a woman who believes that every human deserves love. She feels a need to give that and she really honestly feels that’s why she’s been put on this Earth. If she can’t have babies, then it’s her journey and her job to give as much unconditional love to humans in general as possible. It’s just unfortunate that everybody that she loves is dying. So Benjamin Button represents life to her.
IH: Where’s home?
IH: Speaking of DC, one of the departures from the short story was that it was set in Maryland…
IH: Particularly this, in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, and you have another movie coming up about Katrina. Why do you think that’s important to the story?
TPH: To Benjamin Button? Because it’s just a beautiful display of history and it spans such a wide time in history, and Fincher really wanted to make it present, bring it home, and they were going to film it in New Orleans before Katrina hit. That just kind of happened. And so now we’re in New Orleans, we can’t act like Katrina never happened, so how do we implement in into the film? Which, to me, will never forget Hurricane Katrina, because I think this film is going to be around long after we’re gone. For the technology alone, people will be studying it.
IH: What’s the name of the Katrina film you’re making?
TPH: Hurricane Season.
IH: When is that coming out?
TPH: February or March. And I had the pleasure of working with Forest Whitaker. I’ve really been blessed to work opposite some incredible actors, and he’s definitely one of them.
IH: Is that a studio movie?
TH: Yeah, Weinstein.
IH: I’ve got a question about Once Fallen. Now is that the one that Ed Harris is directing?
TH: Yes, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan. It’s an independent film. That’s what made me. I will never get too big to do independent films. To me, those are some of the richer scripts, so yes. And if Ed Harris can do it… [Laughs]
IH: It’s not another Western, is it?
TH: Oh no. He plays the leader of the Arian nation in prison, and his son falls in love with me. [Laughs] So you see the conflict of interest here? [Laughs]
IH: What’s the problem with that? I don’t understand.
TH: I don’t either. We couldn’t understand. His father was silly. [Laughs]
IH: Do they all learn something in the end?
TH: Yeah, they all pretty much die. [Laughs]
IH: Do you think it’s different when you’re a director who is also an experienced actor? Ed Harris is one example, Bill Duke is another. Does that make a difference?
TH: I think so. I think those are the actors-directors because they know both sides. But even though Fincher…I don’t know if he’s done any acting. I think he has, he just won’t let on, because the things he would say to me, I would be like, “Wait a minute, dude. You’ve done this before. You’ve been on this side of the camera.” It’s even better when they’re writer, director, and actor because that’s full circle. But directors who have acted before really understand actors. [Laughs] They know we’re crazy, but they allow us our process. But again, Fincher did the same thing.
IH: When you first read the script, what was your reaction?
TH: I’m never going to get this. They have some big names offered, they have an offer out to some big names, and they’re just holding these auditions as a back-up plan…
IH: Yeah, Beyonce was offered the role.
TH: I honestly didn’t think I had a shot. I was planning a garage sale. [Laughs] I really was.
IH: Did you think that they could pull it off?
TH: I just remember initially getting the script and I was like, wow, this is really bold. I thought bold across the board. Bold writing. Eric Roth, to make this woman African-American in the early 1900s, I thought that was really bold, ’cause she didn’t have to be. I thought it was a bold choice for Fincher to direct it, and bold for Brad Pitt to be in it. And I consider myself to be a risk-taker as an artist, and I like to make bold choices, so I was like, wow, I hope I got a shot. But honestly, I took the audition seriously. The only thing I was hoping to do was to go in and make such an impression on Lorraine Mayfield, and maybe Fincher would see the tape, that they would remember me and call me back in later. I really had no idea that Lorraine Mayfield had me in mind from the beginning.
IH: What feedback were you getting while they worked with you during the film? Was there a point where you accepted: “Okay, I got this and they want me”?
TH: No, I told you I was planning a garage sale. Up until the point where I got the call, I hadn’t even been called back in.
IH: How about like say around mid-December, when you’d been working a couple of months with them: “Okay, I see what they wanted”?
TH: Oh. I don’t even know if I could see that they wanted. I was just hoping I was giving them what they wanted, and I guess I started hearing little things, like Eric Roth was like, “Thank you so much for bringing Queenie to life.” And I’m looking at him like, are you kidding me? Thank you for writing such a rich character. Something that blew me away — two things, actually. The first thing that Brad and I worked together on, as Brad comes to set, Fincher tells me later that he was nervous. And was like, wow. That was so calming because he’s Brad Pitt. He still gets nervous. And Fincher says he comes over to him, and he’s like, “I’m nervous. I really don’t have anything to do in this scene,” and Fincher was like, “Don’t you worry, Taraji’s got it.”
We do the scene, Fincher yells “cut,” Brad goes over to video village and he’s like, “Oh my god, where did you find her? She’s incredible.” And I’m looking at Fincher telling me this, and I see his mouth move, and I’m like, “Brad said that about me?” And then there’s a scene — the only one scene I really had interaction with Cate. I go to the makeup trailer, I think it’s the next day, and she grabs my hand and she says, “I love what you’re doing with Queenie. It’s absolutely marvelous.” Of course, I’m an actress, so I took it. I was like, “Thank you so much.” [Laughs] I walked out of the trailer. I was like, “Oh my god!” But that’s when you know you’re doing something, when the greats tell you “good job.” [Laughs]
IH: Now you’ve done some film and you’ve done some television. Do you have a preference?
TH: No, I like features. I love every aspect of the art, but I’m drawn more to features, because TV’s too fast. Those scripts are coming at you like this [snaps her fingers] — so many writers, too many opinions. It’s too much. I like the check, but I prefer the work over the check. Call me crazy. And I like to portray different characters. I bore easily. [Laughs] So playing the same character for ten years, I couldn’t imagine.
IH: What do you plan on doing next? Do you have any idea?
TH: Hopefully another brilliant film. [Laughs] I don’t have anything lined up right now. Things are starting to slow down.
IH: So you can do that garage sale now.
TH: I can do that garage sale.
IH: Do you have a dream role that you always wanted to do?
TH: Yes, I want to do a very funny film. I don’t think my audience understands I’m a comedic actress. I keep getting these dramatic roles, which I’m thankful for because it’s kind of hard to break as a comedic actress and then prove yourself as a serious actress, so I’m glad it happened this way. It’ll be easy to prove I can be funny. That’s what I do. And then to portray Diana Ross, I would love. I’ve always been intrigued by her story. I’ve always had a love affair with her. She doesn’t know it.
IH: We’ll tell her.
TH: Please do. And I think she’s an iconic figure. Wouldn’t you want to know her story?
IH: Well, there’s Dreamgirls.
TH: That was loosely based. [Laughs]
IH: She’s had an interesting life.
TH: Very. And what a talent.
IH: Have you tried to option the rights to her…?
TH: No, I think everything in due time. I think I have to prove myself some more ’cause, it’s all “can she carry a film? Can she open a film?” So I have work to do first, before I get there.
IH: Did Talk To Me do anything for you, ’cause when that came out, it sort of flew under the radar.
TH: The critics loved it. [Laughs] That’s actually my favorite character to date. I thought, thank god for critics, ’cause otherwise nobody would know it exists. [Laughs]
IH: In the industry, did it do much for you at the time or in retrospect?
TH: No, not really. You have a lot of very uncreative people making creative decisions. They’re not watching the movie, they’re watching numbers. So it didn’t make numbers. Thank god for critics again. [Laughs]
IH: You say that’s one of your favorite characters. Why?
TH: Because I think it showed my range. I think it showcased that I can be funny. She was a lot of things. She was one of those characters that, if you didn’t play her right, she could have been sort of a buffoon, with the makeup and the hair, and she’s so bigger-than-life, but she aged and I did it without makeup [laughs], without prosthetics, and I just felt like I was able to really show my range and let go, ’cause she was crazy and I could just go there. And Casey Lemon just created a such a safe environment where there were times when I walked away from the set like, oh my god, I did too much today. Jesus, I overdid it, and she was like, “No, that was the scene to let it all go.” So it was a great ride. It really, really was.
I mean, she had her quiet moments, she had her loud moments, she had her mad moments, she had her moments where she would break down…she was vulnerable. And what I enjoyed was bringing the humanity to her, ’cause yes, I could have played her just big and sassy, but I found the joy in showing why she was the way she was, and I think the characters that I portrayed could have been very stereotypical, even Shug — a whore. [Laughs] There’s always a reason why a person ends up the way they are. There was a reason why she was loud. It takes a certain kind of woman to love a man like Petey Greene, and that’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t judge my characters, because if I judge them, then the audience will judge.
IH: Did you discuss with Eric about the backstory involved with your character and “she’s a maid or…”? I was quite confused when I watched this movie. So she’s the maid of the house?
TH: She runs the house. Yeah, she’s in charge.
IH: The African-Americans, the period of running such a big place, did you make a backstory of your character?
TH: Yeah, I make backstories for all my characters, but what I loved about his writing, that again could have been another cliché character, she could have come off as like a mammy role, but that’s not who he wrote. I remember even saying that’s not the character that he was interested in writing, that’s not the character that David Fincher was interested in directing, that’s not the character I was interested in portraying. It’s a stereotype. I remember when the one elder woman comes out after I just found Benjamin Button, she knocks on the door and I open up the door, and she’s like, “I can’t find my pearls,” and I pick up the pearls. I say, “They’re around your pretty white neck.” And I was like, “Whoa, Fincher, she wouldn’t say this in this time.” He said, “Absolutely she would.” He says, “She runs this household. If she falls on her pretty white ass, who’s going to pick her up? They need you. And you act like it. They need you.” And I think that helped with breaking that stereotype, because she really could have been, “Oh, lawdy!” [Laughs] I certainly wasn’t interested in portraying that. We’ve seen that already. [Laughs]
IH: Have you been to Fitzgerald’s grave in Rockville?
TH: No, I didn’t even know. I feel horrible.
IH: Did you read the story?
TH: Yeah. I didn’t want to read it before because I didn’t want it to distort the beautiful story that Eric had wrote.
IH: Quite different.
TH: Very different. It’s loosely based. [Laughs]
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is in theaters now from Paramount Pictures.