Capone wants to grow old gracefully (and in reverse) with BENJAMIN BUTTON's Taraji P. Henson!!!
Published at: Dec. 22, 2008, 9:57 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Taraji P. Henson is an endless source of energy and beauty of late in both film and television. I first remember spotting her in John Singleton's grossly under-appreciated BABY BOY in 2001, but most people first noticed her as the pregnant singing hooker ("It's hard out here for a pimp!") in Terrence Howard's small stable of ho's in Craig Brewer's HUSTLE & FLOW. Since then she's made memorable appearances in such works as Singleton's FOUR BROTHERS, SOMETHING NEW, SMOKIN' ACES, and most recently sporting a fabulous afro wig in last year's TALK TO ME, opposite Don Cheadle. This year might be her busiest ever. It began appearing in the better part of the 2007-08 season of "Boston Legal," continued when she co-starred in Tyler Perry's THE FAMILY THAT PREYS, and included a three-episode stint on "Eli Stone" as her friend Loretta Devine's daughter, and wrapped up in the finest work of her career, as Queenie the adopted mother of a child aging in reverse in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. The day before our interview in Chicago, I got to see her next film, 2009's romantic-drama NOT EASILY BROKEN, in which she plays a wife struggling to keep her marriage together after a terrible accident leaves her unable to be the family's primary earner.
I find it truly and utterly bizarre that DOUBT's Viola Davis is getting so much attention (and apparently has award after award virtually locked up) for essentially one scene playing an emotionally torn mother, while Henson embodies the absolute definition of unconditional motherly love in BENJAMIN BUTTON, and she's gotten virtually no attention. She is glorious in this role, and she seems to have a real knack for finding great roles that play to her strengths as an actress of magnitude and depth. And did I mention she is staggeringly lovely to look upon, something you might not be aware of from seeing her hidden under padding and old-lady makeup in BENJAMIN BUTTON.
The day of our interview was a dreary one in Chicago, but as soon as I walked into the room where Henson was waiting, the sun came out, which immediately causing her to look at me and say, "You brought the sun with you," as she burst out into the first verse of "You Are Me Sunshine." For someone who had been doing interviews since 9:00 a.m that day (I came in somewhere in the 3 o'clock hour), she had an remarkable amount of energy and was a true joy to talk to. Enjoy Taraji P. Henson!
Capone: We just saw NOT EASILY BROKEN yesterday. I think someone found out you were coming to town and wanted us to see the film.
Taraji Henson: "Let's show it quick!"
Capone: Right. And I just saw you on "Eli Stone" the last couple of weeks, which I didn't know you were going to be on.
TH: Boo! Surprise! [laughs] I had a three-episode arc on that show.
Capone: It must have been really great working with Loretta Devine.
TH: We're friends, actually. And we've always said we wanted to work together, and there we were.
Capone: I interviewed her about a year ago, just before the show started. She's so sweet.
TH: She really is. You just want to squeeze her. She has a dark side too. She taught me about "schlocky." We ate sushi, and schlocky is hot sake mixed with plum wine, and it makes you sloppy. [laughs]
Capone: With BENJAMIN BUTTON, I love that it celebrates the art of storytelling, and not just with Benjamin's story, but every character in the film has their own story that we can follow. Did that aspect of it strike you when you first heard about the film and read the screenplay?
TH: It was just beautifully written; that's the one thing I remember. I remember thinking, "Wow, bold choices across the board." A bold choice for [screenwriter] Eric Roth to make Queenie a black woman raising this white kid who looks really odd during a time in history where race is the driving force in this country. What a bold choice, and just the way he wrote her. He didn't write her like a Mammy kind of character, which we're kind of used to seeing in these period pieces. Bold choice as far as David Fincher is concerned. You would never think that David Fincher would direct something like this. Bard Pitt, bold choice. Not a glamorous character, but in some ways he made it glamorous.
Capone: He has his moments.
TH: He does. He's still fine, even with the age makeup. He still looks good. So that's what I remember when I first read it. Bold, bold, bold. And I consider myself a risk taker. I wanted to be a part of it, even though I didn't think I had a shot.
Capone: But you'd been involved with this project before it was even greenlit. The casting director had honed in on you from way back.
TH: Laray Mayfield, the casting director, did. But I still had to go in and prove myself. I took the audition process seriously, but I never thought that I had a shot at this. I didn't know at the time that she was really pushing for me. I had no idea; I knew she like me, but I didn't think I had a shot. I've had casting directors push for me before, and the studios would go, "No, we want a name."
Capone: I have to know this, when you were actually filming the movie, and you were in a scene in which we see Brad Pitt's head on this body that is clearly not his own, what were you looking at while you were shooting?
TH: When he was an infant, that was an animatronic baby that they built. It took three puppeteers to operate it. And the apparatus they used looked like a remote control for a car or boat. They would make it wink at me sometimes in between takes, which freaked me out [laughs]. Then they hired three actors of various sizes, and they each had, I like to call it a blue sock because it fit really tight on their heads and it had a lot of X's and O's and dots on it. The face was cut out so I could see their eyes, and we could communicate, and they were giving me things to respond to. And David was there to guide them, because each actor interprets things differently. So David had to tell them what Brad Pitt or Benjamin Button was thinking and how he was reacting in certain scenes, to make sure it was the some interpretation. So I was acting opposite and actor. And I sort of got used to the blue cap. I just remember going to the video village, and saying, "I don't understand, how are you going to make this work?" I remember it was weird because at first I didn't know should I touch his head. And David said, "Touch whatever you want. That's somebody else's problem."
Capone: The effects are flawless.
TH: It is.
Capone: And I come out of that geek culture that is looking…
TH: You're looking. You're waiting. You're trying to see the seam, right? [laughs] Everybody involved with this film is a perfectionist in their own way. I'm just happy that I met people who are more obsessive than me. I thought I was crazy.
Capone: Well, David has that reputation.
TH: But I love it, and I love him for it, because I'm the same way. He and I talk now, and I'll say, "You know I'm still obsessing over this one thing." And I think he feels the same way: finally he met someone who obsesses more than him [laughs].
Capone: The New Orleans setting--and I know you just show another movie down in Louisiana, HURRICANE SEASON with Forest Whitaker--what was it like being down there and being one of the first productions after Hurricane Katrina to shoot down there?
TH: You know those scenes in the movie that take place during Katrina were actually done on a sound stage?
Capone: Really? Well, I guess they'd want to control all of the wind and rain effects. But what was it like for you being down there?
TH: I had never experienced New Orleans pre-Katrina. I'd never been there. I remember people talking about New Orleans and the spirit of it, and the magic and mystery. I just remember when I first landed to start the production how empty it felt. It totally added to the characterization of the film and to my work. It's a huge span of time that the film covers, and it was a harder way of living in times like the Great Depression. So that atmosphere of emptiness and hard work and not having enough added to the characterization of the work. I can say I am proud of a lot of things having to do with this film, but the one thing that is dear to my heart was that we were this huge production coming to New Orleans, bringing revenue, bringing jobs for people. It was during the holiday seasons, so we bought families meals; you name it, we did it. I adopted a family that actually lost everything twice--a single mom with two daughters who lost everything to Katrina, of course, but when she came back to rebuild, there was a problem with the gas line and there was a leak and the place blew up, and she lost everything again. So I got her a place, paid her three month's rent, and bought her a holiday dinner.
Capone: Did you have a chance to play while you were down in New Orleans?
TH: Oh, we played. I mean, it's New Orleans. But it was bittersweet because it's a place known for drinking, but it was sort of sad because it seemed like a lot of people were drinking to numb the pain. It was a weird feeling, an eerie feeling.
Capone: When you first saw the finished film, was it exciting for you to see all of these other stories that Queenie wasn't a part of coming to life? I'm sure you read the whole script, but that's different than seeing it all put together.
TH: It was so incredible. I just remember being blown away. I was speechless. I went to a screening at David's office, and as soon as the door cracked open, he ran out, and the first thing he wants to know is how he can make it better. What can he change? And I was like, "David, first of all, slow down. I need a moment here. That was a lot to take in. As a matter of fact, give me a week; I need to process." I was just so moved, and I remember eventually calling him and saying, "Don't change a thing." I haven't seen the film since that screening, but I can't imagine that he changed much. It was so moving. Grown men in the screening needed a moment before they could get up. That's what I'm noticing on this tour and during the Q&As, the credits are still rolling and the lights come up and they introduce me, and people are like are sitting their with tears in their eyes. I'm thinking, maybe we should give people a minute, let the credits role, let them digest. In a lot of cities, they couldn't even get a question from the audience because they needed to process.
Capone: It is a deeply emotional experience.
TH: And it stays with you.
Capone: People spend so much time analyzing Brad Pitt's personal life, they forget what a gifted actor he can be.
TH: He really is.
Capone: What did you learn from working with him?
TH: We never talked about process. Actors live between takes, and who wants to talk about work when you've got five minutes for a set up, and you could be talking about stuff. I just watched him, and it was really strange, because I'm a huge fan of his. Like you say, he's an incredible talent. Of course, he's gorgeous, but he's an amazing talent. And to he naked eye, it looks like he wasn't doing anything. And I remember calling some friends and saying, "I don't know if this was a good choice for Brad. He's not acting at all; he's not doing anything." And then when I finally saw the final product, I realized he was brilliant. He was perfect. Because if you think about it, he was a child the entire part of the film that I'm in with him. And what do children do? When you talk, they hang on to your every word because they're sponges, they're just trying to learn and gather up information. And in the hands of a lesser actor, they would have done too much. It's one of those things where he's just responding to all of these incredible characters that he comes into contact with in his life. And like I said, with a lesser actor, they may have felt like they weren't doing enough and so they'd do too much. He was spot on.
Capone: Did you ever consider why Queenie decided to take that strange-looking infant into her life? And as a single mother of a son yourself, did you think about what it must have taken for her to make that decision?
TN: Absolutely, that's where he story started. First of all when the movie opens, she's barren, she can't have kids. But I know that the weight was on me, on Queenie, when you first meet Benjamin. If Queenie did not immediately fall in love with Brad…ha, with Brad Pitt, oops Freudian slip [laughs]…if she did not immediately fall in love with Ben Button, the audience wouldn't either. From the moment she sees him, it has to be [slaps her hands together] instant love. If she didn't do it, the audience wouldn't, and I knew that. I raised the stakes. I put smells to things. She lives in a house that smells of death [Queenie runs an old folks home], she's surrounded by death, everything smells old. There's nothing new, no new scent in the house. So when she sees this baby, she says, "Oh my God. Here is life. Here is a chance for me to be a mother, and she doesn't think twice about it. She's the embodiment of unconditional love. So when you love someone…first of all, I don't think there is any way else to love but unconditionally. How do you put conditions on it? So when you do love like that, you see beyond race, you see beyond physicality. You see spirit, and that's what she saw in Benjamin.
Capone: Having it set in that environment really underscores the concept of age and aging. Did you consider as his mother how life would be different for someone growing old while growing young?
TH: It made me think how lonely he might feel, and why he needed someone who wanted to love him. Because remember, he was born in this world thrown away. Of course, she took that into consideration. He needed someone who wanted to be there, and she knew it was fate. He could have ended up on anybody's doorstep. She knew immediately that there was a reason that this baby ended up on her doorstep.
Capone: Let me ask you about a couple things you have coming up because you certainly have been busy lately.
TH: I hope to keep it that way. [laughs]
Capone: In addition to NOT EASILY BROKEN, which comes out in January, you have HURRICANE SEASON later in 2009. Who do you play in that?
TH: I play Forest Whitaker's wife, and he's a devoted coach to a basketball team, so the family gets put on the backburner sometimes. It's dealing with Hurricane Katrina and how it affected this team and every family involved, and you kind of look at how Katrina affected different people through the eyes of this team--who stayed, who had to leave, who was bussed away, who lost their parents.
Capone: You have another film, with Ed Harris--ONCE FALLEN.
TH: Ed Harris and Amy Madigan. That's an independent film. I don't know when that's going to come out.
Capone: Who do you play in that film?
TH: I play Brian Presley's love interest. He plays Ed Harris' son. And Ed Harris is the leader of the Aryan Nation while he's in prison. It's a different kind of story…
Capone: I think I can already see where that one's headed.
TH: Right right right. You can see the conflict of interest there. [laughs]
Capone: Well, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure meeting you.
TH: The pleasure was all mine. Happy holidays. Stay warm. How do you do it here? It's too cold!
Capone: Layers. That's the secret.