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Who is Taraji P. Henson, star of 'What Men Want' and 'Empire'?

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Taraji P. Henson has reached critical media mass this week. The star of "Hidden Figures,' "Empire" and the new comedy "What Men Want" lives primarily in Chicago with her fiancee, former NFL cornerback Kelvin Hayden. Her face is on screens everywhere. Earlier in the week Henson, 48, began a multi-couch sprint through one talk-show appearance after another, offering love and support for her "Empire" costar Jussie Smollett. By Friday, the reported attack and hate crime committed against Smollett Jan. 29 in Chicago, subject to an ongoing Chicago police investigation, had apparently become off-limits with Henson and her team.

She'd rather focus on other matters. "What Men Want" gives Henson her long-awaited headline role in a screen comedy. It's about an Atlanta sports agent who acquires the power to hear men's innermost thoughts. The premise reworks the 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle "What Women Want."

Her next film opens April 5: Costarring Sam Rockwell, "The Best of Enemies" gives Henson another juicy role, this time as civil rights activist Ann Atwater. Meantime, the fifth season of "Empire" finishes shooting at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios at the end of March.

We talked last month, an eternity before the Jussie Smollett news cycle. Henson's frank about various obstacles and career frustrations en route to this moment of critical mass, about roles dangled and then not offered (thanks, Harvey Weinstein) and Oscars not yet won (hers, for example). And about LA, where she raised her son, Marcell, now 24, and where she maintains a residence.

"People go to LA to take; no one really goes to give," she says. "No one goes to LA to fall in love ... people go there chasing the limelight, or a lifestyle. Here, in Chicago, the people are real. They live on the earth, you know? I have a better social life here. I actually go out here."

Henson on Jussie Smollett: Her "Empire" costar plays the son of Henson's formidable matriarch, Cookie Lyon. "I wish what happened to my baby was just one big bad joke," Henson told SiriusXM radio's Bevy Smith, regarding the Jan. 29 attack. "But it wasn't and we all feel his pain right now." In recent days, Henson has declined comment on the incident involving Smollett, and on an earlier incident reported by Smollett of a threatening letter containing a white substance (determined later to be acetaminophen, or Tylenol) sent to Fox's Chicago production studios Jan. 22.

 

According to Chicago film representatives working the "What Men Want" account, Henson's team declined to update her Tribune interview "due to the investigation, and for security purposes."

Never believe a junket journalist: "When I was on Lifetime," Henson told me, "I was on this show called 'The Division' (from 2002 to 2004). I had just done John Singleton's 'Baby Boy' and I had all these journalists telling me, 'Oh, my God, you're going to be a big star, do you know what John Singleton does for actors' careers?' But for whatever reason I had the wisdom not to fall for that. I was smart enough to know that things would be different after doing 'Baby Boy' for myself compared to Tyrese Gibson. Because he was a man. And what happened? Tyrese went on to book two franchise films, 'Fast and Furious' and 'Transformers.' And where was I? The Lifetime network. And I was the veteran actor."

Then came ... "Hustle & Flow," followed by the criminally undervalued and mismarketed "Talk to Me" starring Don Cheadle. Henson was a gas as Vernell Watson, deejay Petey Greene's cohort.

"I booked that before I booked 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.' I knew I had 'Talk to Me' when I got a call from my agent to meet David Fincher for 'Benjamin Button.' But I had a garage sale going on the same day, a Saturday. It was the garage sale of the century, and I wasn't gonna go meet Fincher. My agent was like, 'Just close the damn garage door and meet the man!'"

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