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NUNN ON ONE, FILM Taraji P. Henson on newest film, LGBT storylines
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

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Actress Taraji P. Henson has slowly climbed her way to the top of the heap, now headlining movies and taking home awards.

Her breakthrough roles came with Baby Boy and Hustle & Flow. Awards-voters started to take notice with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which Henson received Academy Award, SAG Award and Critics Choice Award nominations.

On the small screen, Henson, a Washington, D.C., native, garnered a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Lifetime's Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story. But it was her portrayal of Cookie Lyon on the Fox television show Empire that really allowed her to take home the trophies, including Critics Choice Television Awards, Golden Globe Awards and two Emmy Awards.

Henson returned to movies with Hidden Figures, and had three more films released last year: Proud Mary, Acrimony and Ralph Breaks the Internet. This year, she stars in What Men Want, based on the Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want. Openly gay director Adam Shankman brings the story of women who can read men's thoughts to life. Henson sat down at the Chicago Sports Museum to discuss her new role as a sports agent.

Windy City Times: When I was in the background for Fox's Empire when you stood up in front of everyone and said you appreciated our work. I will never forget that.

Taraji P. Henson: I take care of extras because they get treated so bad sometimes.

WCT: Much like cattle.

TPH: Yes, like cattle and they get a different meal. Sometimes I will order a food truck and invite everyone, not just SAG. I don't care who is working on the project—just get in line and get as many tacos as you want!

WCT: How do I get to be your gay assistant like the one you had in the movie?

TPH: Wasn't he great? Brandon, played by Josh Brener, was so good. I had so much fun with him. I think we should be in another movie together.

WCT: You have been very involved with the gay community in Chicago. I know you dropped into Sidetrack and Howard Brown Health's Broadway Youth Center. Where does your support of the community come from?

TPH: It is in my DNA to help people that are less fortunate. I had a cousin in the suburbs whose kid was bullied. I was always defending her. My dad said, "If you are blessed, it is your job to be a blessing." That is what I live by. I don't care who you are, gay, straight, purple or green. If you need help I am there. That's who I am.

WCT: There were more things for gay audiences than the first version of What Woman Want.

TPH: We wanted this film to be as inclusive as possible. People might think that with the title What Men Want, and it's a woman as the star, that they will bash men. That is not what we wanted to do. We want to nurture men—all men, gay, straight, whatever. I think we did a good job with that, especially with the single fathers. You never see single fathers on a pedestal or handled with such care like this movie does so well. Richard Roundtree was a single father to me in the film.

WCT: Aldis Hodge was easy on the eyes as your boyfriend in the film, but who was the hunk living in your building?

TPH: He's from Twilight. His name is Kellan Lutz and he played Captain Fucktastic. My little sister had the biggest crush on him. She would say, "My boyfriend is here." She would act stupid around him. He's so charming and such a team player.

WCT: By the way, Pete Davidson played a non stereotypical gay role for a change in What Men Want.

TPH: Yes. He was really good. I love my little Pete.

WCT: How did Erykah Badu get involved with this project?

TPH: When I read it, I called producer Will Parker and asked if he was getting Erykah for it. I didn't know the writer had Erykah in mind. Clearly when I read it, I thought it was Erykah all day. When I heard Whoopi Goldberg was being considered, I wasn't sure about that. I think both would have been great, but Erykah was good because she was unexpected for many people.

WCT: I have never seen woman-scaping depicted onscreen before.

TPH: That was out of Adam Shankman's brilliant mind.

WCT: There were many ol' school jams from the '90s in What Men Want. Do you have a favorite?

TPH: Any from that era. That is when we sang about good shit. I remember at the time, this girl I knew, who was a lesbian, was trying to be an artist. We would do her backup singing for her. We would perform at all of the lesbian clubs in D.C. They would protect me and tell people I wasn't gay [laughs]. It was the time of my life!

WCT: Did you watch RuPaul's Drag Race when they did your Cookie character from Empire in drag?

TPH: I missed that. I will have to look it up. Listen, I have been trying to do that show for a long time. The timing never works out. I am definitely going to be on that show. It's one of my favorites. I get a box of tissue out when I watch it. Some of those stories will make you cry with their families turning their backs on them, then they get to shine.

WCT: Empire has had so many gay storylines. Is there a storyline you would like to Cookie go through that hasn't happened yet?

TPH: Well, we did one story where we dressed up like Prince, so just a fantasy like that, or remember when Moonlighting did that black and white musical?

WCT: Yes. Have you done any musicals?

TPH: Absolutely. That's what I went to school for.

WCT: What's your favorite one?

TPH: Dreamgirls. We toured that in Hong Kong. Someone came and saw our amateur production at Howard University. They paid for our entire cast and crew to be flown to Hong Kong. We were so good they closed a production of 42nd Street to get us in.

WCT: What part did you play?

TPH: I was in the chorus, but I was the understudy for Lorrell. [Sings] "I'm looking for something!"

WCT: What upcoming projects do you have?

TPH: I have another movie called The Best of Enemies. It's a true story with Sam Rockwell as my costar. My character is Ann Atwater and she was a civil rights activists in the '70s in North Carolina. The Black school burned down so they had to integrate into the white school. The white side of town doesn't want that. It turns into a big deal and gets to Washington where they send a political figure down for a charrette to hash out our differences. That is what we had to do. Sam Rockwell plays C.P. Ellis, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. My character represents the Black side of the charrette and he's the white side. They put us together to work it out, even having us eat together. Guess what happens? This is not giving it away. He denounces the KKK and becomes best friends with Ann until the day they die. He becomes a civil rights activist fighting with her. It's beautiful and we need that right now.

WCT: Absolutely. Well, can there be a part three to your current movie, What Gays Want?

TPH: You know what, I'm for it!

What Men Want opens in theaters Feb. 8.

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