Movies

Taraji P Henson talks Hidden Figures

Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe winning actress Taraji P. Henson stars in Hidden Figures, the story of three women who made enormous achievements in the face of discrimination.

Henson leads a stellar cast as Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician working at NASA during the early 1960s space race.

Together with her equally gifted colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson (Grammy-nominated Janelle Monae), Johnson was instrumental in helping America to eventually win the space race.

Directed by Ted Melfi, it also stars Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons and features several original songs from multiple Grammy-winning musician/composer Pharrell Williams.

Henson sat down to discuss the movie.

FINDING THE STORY

It was just amazing to find out that so many women were involved in getting people to space, because when you look at all the footage, or documentaries about the space race, you never see black women or any women involved or mentioned.

So now I think, what happened? Did we just erase all of this from history? What's going on?

I felt that this story was very important historically.

DISCOVERING KATHERINE

There is a very quiet strength to her. I guess that Katherine's mind is so brilliant; that she seems to gravitate above others in a higher way, almost in a higher spiritual way.

Because people like her are so clever, I think they somehow know things that regular humans don't know (laughs).

It's not that Katherine is ever thinking 'I'm better than you' herself, it's just that brilliant people like her are born with a special gift that others do not have.

MEETING THE REAL KATHERINE JOHNSON

Meeting her was an amazing opportunity and the one thing that really stood out to me is that she is a huge team player and in the same way, I'm a team player too, I am not a selfish actor.

I know that I'm nothing in a scene without my partner; you need your partners. What is the fun in doing it all by yourself?

I related to her in the way that she never takes herself too seriously.

When I was with her, she told me an interesting story. She said she had a professor who would always say to her: "I'm tired of you asking me questions that I know you know the answers to," and she said, "well, I know that these six people around me don't know the answers and I want them to know." So she's very humble.

When I was doing research and watching interviews with her, I noticed that whenever you see her speaking, and when the interviewer talks about Katherine being exceptional in what she has achieved in her life, she always responds by saying: "No it wasn't just me, we all were a part of this, we were a team."

I think that's how I feel about my talent. I don't think it's a selfish thing; it's something that is shared.

PREPARING FOR THE ROLE

I did lots of research. You have to deal with the time period and what was going on at the time. There was segregation.

I didn't really know anything about segregation because I grew up in integration.

So I had to research it all. Then I had to learn about this woman and her brilliant mind.

I had to gather all the footage that I could find of her and of course it was great that I could go and meet her and sit down and talk to her.

And there was also just a lot of reading and a lot of learning math!

THE MATHS CHALLENGE

Personally, I was not mathematical and I was not scientifically wired. So this movie scared the hell out of me because it deals with everything that I could not pass in school (laughs). My heart palpitated with the math.

But at the same time, that is why I'm an actress, I love the struggle, I am a trained actress and that is what you do in this job.

THE VARIETY OF ROLES

Of course I play Cookie (in Empire). But what has been happening in my career recently, because of the success of Empire, which is great, now there's a tendency for people to just see me as Cookie and they often forget about all the other characters I have portrayed, like Queenie (in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) and so I have to remind them, "No, I'm not just Cookie".


STEPPING BACK INTO THE 60s

I wasn't born in the 60s and women were very different then in their appearance.

Look, they dressed differently, there's nothing [no flesh] showing. I am wearing stockings.

I don't take credit for the look, it is a group effort. I leave the costume and the make-up and hair to those departments, because they're really brilliant at what they do and they research everything that I wouldn't necessarily research myself.

I don't worry about that. I do my part and I let everybody else do their own jobs.

My job as the actor is to make sure I do my work and make it believable.

I'm always intrigued with what the other teams come up with, even the props are amazing.

HER ROLE MODELS

I would have to say it all started with my grandmother, who was amazing. She was a tangible role model for me.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother during the summers and it was inspiring just to watch the way she cared for my grandfather and her family.

That was amazing to me because I grew up in a broken home, so I didn't get to see that kind of family connection every day. So it was just a refreshing view on relationships.

She grew up in the segregated South and she raised all of her kids there. She raised eight children in a two bedroom, tin-roof house. My grandfather was a sharecropper, so life was very hard for them.

When my grandmother sees me on television or in a movie, she watches with tears in her eyes. She can't believe that she sees me, a part of her, on television or in a movie. She said she never thought she'd live to see one of her family doing that.

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