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She's wired for acting

The numbers didn't add up for Taraji P. Henson to do anything else. She's featured in 'Benjamin Button.'

December 29, 2008|Michael Ordona

Taraji P. Henson took a circuitous route to acting. Literally. She studied electrical engineering in college after her failure to get into an arts high school in her native Washington, D.C., made her believe she couldn't act.

"I was like, 'Eeny meeny miney mo . . . electrical engineering,' " she says, but the endeavor, well, it short-circuited when she failed pre-calculus. Her father took that as proof she should be acting. "He basically said, 'I told you so. Come back and do what you're supposed to be doing in life.' So I'm just glad I failed."

Henson's best-known role is perhaps Shug, the hooker with a heart of gold -- and the pipes of platinum -- in "Hustle & Flow" (2005). In "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," she plays Queenie, the proprietor of a New Orleans seniors home at the end of World War I who takes in an abandoned infant with the physical characteristics of an 80-year-old man. Over the years, the elderly-looking child gets younger and a lot more handsome (he's played by Brad Pitt), falls in love with a childhood friend (Cate Blanchett) and learns about life and death from a unique perspective. Henson's warmly maternal performance, in which she ages from 26 to 71, has been earning her accolades coming and going, including a Critics' Choice nomination and two from the Screen Actors Guild (for female support and cast -- she also shares a cast nod for her work on TV's "Boston Legal").

"I think the message I got from the film is that nobody's guaranteed the next hour," she says. "You really shouldn't fear death because it's inevitable. We're just passing through. When you think about life like that, it's really not that deep. Seeing it for the first time, I just had such a new, profound respect for life, a whole 'nother outlook.

"But I'll tell you who the character is a combination of: my mother and my grandmother. My mother doesn't shake hands; she'll ball her fists up. She hugs. She'll do the -- [Henson excitedly claps her hands twice and throws open her arms, eyes squinting hard in the smile]."

"My grandmother, she had a get-together right before I went into production. She had eight children, five of them women, one being my mom. There was a woman there for every age I had to portray. I just sat back and watched them, how they embraced age. My grandmother was just very . . . hands," she says, flitting her hands about like hummingbirds with fingers for wings. "It was the hands."

Henson looked for specific ways to convey "what actually happens to a decaying body. My grandfather -- God rest his soul in peace -- he used to talk about 'Arthur' all the time. 'Ah, that Arthur got me!' I would be like, 'Grandma, who is Arthur and what is he doing to my grandfather?' 'Oh, baby, he's talkin' about arth-a-ritis,' " she says with a long, delighted laugh. "So I researched 'arth-a-ritis.' "

Henson credits the fat suit she donned for Queenie's later years and the worn shoes that costume designer Jacqueline West gave her with transforming her walk into the character's gait. Most of all, though, it was her grandmother's spirit that defined Queenie.

"This is one thing I did pick up from all the women I watched: The joy in life they found," she says. "Particularly my grandmother, because she grew up in a time where it was rough. And she had eight mouths to feed and barely nothing. So she had a rough life, we can honestly say. But she was able to find joy in even the saddest moments. Queenie doesn't make a long drawn-out thing out of [death]; she's like, 'He's gone, you're back, let's get you a wife!' "

The film was much more than an acting exercise to Henson. Her father was as tough as they come, a Vietnam vet who fought through Agent Orange exposure and later, as a policeman, survived being shot on duty. In early 2006, he died of liver disease while she was alone with him in his hospital room. The ordeal made the hospital scenes that frame the "Benjamin Button" story difficult to watch.

"When [Cate Blanchett's character] started scratching and pulling at the wires, that's what got me. My dad did experience the pulling and tugging. They say they scratch because they feel like they're crawling out of their skin, and that's what he was doing."

The day he died, she says, "I bent down right in his ear and said, 'Daddy, if you're in pain, just let go, we're going to be OK.' And five seconds later, a moment of clarity in his eyes, and 10 minutes later he was gone.

"So then I get this film and it forces you to deal with death," says the actress, whose "Button" character treats death as a frequent guest whose visits hold no terror. "I couldn't build any defense mechanisms, I couldn't numb it. It gave me closure. Do I still get sad? Yes. That's a void that will never be filled. That's a pain in my eyes that I will never be able to fix. And I'm a very happy person, but it's still there. But the one thing that's so beautiful to me is that my dad was there to witness me taking my first breath and I was there for him to take his last."

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