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Just stand back when she puts on that Afro

The hair isn't the only thing that Taraji P. Henson does big as she stars with Don Cheadle in `Talk to Me.'

July 08, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

TARAJI P. HENSON nearly steals the new film "Talk to Me," which opens Friday, with her no-holds-barred turn as Vernell, the former stripper girlfriend of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr. (Don Cheadle), an ex-con who was a popular, albeit controversial DJ, TV personality and activist in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The 36-year-old actress recalls the moment she became one with the sassy Vernell.

"We got to Toronto, where we filmed the movie," Henson relates. "We had a camera test. I just had met Don, and we were sitting in the [makeup] chairs and catching up. All of a sudden, they put the wig on me and they are putting on her lashes, the nails and the outfit, and I am seeing her come to life.

"I look over at Don and he looks over at me, and it's like, 'Right on. Power to the people.' We kicked the trailer door open, and it was like Vernell and Petey were born. Everybody [on the set] was like, 'Here they are.' "

Sporting an Afro that would make Pam Grier envious, trashy boots and an even trashier miniskirt and using language so bad she'd make David Mamet blush, Vernell is a force of nature.

"They were free," she says of Vernell and Petey. "They would do whatever they thought they could do."

Though "Talk to Me" is based on Greene's life, Vernell is a composite character. "Once I found out she was fictional," Henson says, "I said, 'I have free reign' " to create her.

Henson, who came to Los Angeles from Maryland a decade ago with her young son, previously appeared in such films as John Singleton's "Baby Boy" and "Four Brothers" and "Hustle & Flow," in which she played the despairing pregnant hooker Suge. Henson is also joining the cast this season on ABC's "Boston Legal" as a high-powered litigator.

Originally, "Talk to Me" was supposed to reunite Henson with her "Hustle & Flow" leading man, Terrence Howard. Cheadle was attached to star as Greene's radio producer, Dewey Hughes, who is now played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

"The script had been around for like 10 years," she recalls. "Terrence called me shortly after 'Hustle & Flow' and said, 'I have this great script. You have to read it. It's written for you.' I said, 'I don't need to read the script. If it's you, me and Don, where do I sign?' "

But then Howard fell out of the project and Henson found herself having to audition for the role that was "written for her." "But I fought the good fight, and here we are," says Henson.

Henson realized going into the project that there were pitfalls inherent in playing as outrageous a character as Vernell. "You can play it big," she says. "But she was brilliantly written because she had so many levels."

Before production began, Henson watched documentaries about the turbulent chapter in American history covered in the movie. "All the people in that era had a certain mind-set," she says. "They were not afraid to speak their minds. They were not afraid to live their truth. If the president was wrong, they would call him on it."

To familiarize herself with the lingo of the era, she watched black exploitation films, especially those starring Grier. "The way people talked, it was very melodic," she says. "It was like, 'Hey, how are you doing, sugar?' "

Cheadle and Henson didn't rehearse their scenes beyond discussions with director Kasi Lemmons. "We didn't want to beat it over the head," she ways. "We wanted to leave a lot of the spontaneity for the camera."

That spontaneity sparks one of the movie's sexiest scenes, in which the two dance in their new apartment.

Cheadle had found a clip from the old "Soul Train" TV series, which had couples bumping, grinding and boogieing to some sweet soul music. "We watched that and then we were in the trailer just dancing," says Henson. "The trailer would be rocking and people would go, 'It's Don and Taraji dancing.' "

Vernell grows up and blossoms after she leaves Petey when his personal demons overtake him.

"Every women can identify with Vernell," Henson says. "I am just coming to this realization through my own trials and tribulations with personal relationships. God gave us a gift, and that is to love unconditionally. Only women can do it. We give birth. We nurture. That is what we do by nature. Men don't know how. They don't love as often as we do."

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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