Throughout her career, Taraji P. Henson has had more than a few instances when she was told this was her big break. The actress has shown her incredible range time and time again, from her first starring role in the 2001 coming-of-age film Baby Boy, to her Oscar-nominated performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to her comedic turn in 2019’s What Men Want. The accolades — and the acknowledgments — have been piling up as well: She has a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Television Award for her role on Empire, not to mention three Primetime Emmy nods. And earlier this year, Henson made her permanent mark on Hollywood with a star on the Walk of Fame.
After countless roles on the big and small screen, and with her 50th birthday approaching, the actress says there’s so much left for her to do. The only timeline Henson says she adheres to is her own, and spoiler alert: She’s just getting started.
In the past, you’ve talked about how we place age limits on women in Hollywood, while male actors don’t face the same issue.
Absolutely, men don't have an age limit put on them at all. They don't. I have not seen a man stop working because of his age. I haven't even seen a man stop working because of his receding hairline or his beer gut. So why should women have a limit? That's what Viola [Davis], Regina King, and I are all fighting for: To break through that ceiling. We're still talented, why should we stop working?
Black women specifically have a reputation for aging like fine wine. Obviously, "Black don't crack." And you are definitely in that category of women who just get better with age. How do you do that? Do you feel pressure, or is it just something that comes naturally?
I don't feel any pressure to do anything but live my best life and be healthy and happy. You're going to age. There's no way around it — it is inevitable. I just think you accept it, and you try to age as gracefully as possible. What, you going to freeze yourself, going to walk around on a frozen ice cube? (Laughs) No. You live your life. I laugh a lot, I take a lot of naps, I drink a lot of water, and a lot of it is genetics. My grandmother, she doesn't look a day over 70, and she's 94.
Was there any point in your career where you felt like, "This is it. This is where I'm taking off."?
I've just been told that I've had a lot of false starts in my career. You know, everybody thought [my big break] was going to be Baby Boy, and then it wasn't. And then it was going to be Hustle & Flow. But I never relied on one project to do it for me. I just wanted to do work that will be talked about long after I'm gone. I studied greats that came before me and I just want to be a great that the young ones study.
Can you talk a little more about that false start? How did that feel? Did you have moments of disappointment?
I was smart enough to not let it get to me. I don't know by whose clock, but people say I got started late, whatever that means. But I just remember I was mature in my thinking, so I just knew the world.
I knew that it was going to be very different for me and Tyrese after Baby Boy. I just knew because he was a guy, his career was going to take off. And, what happened? Tyrese booked Transformers, he booked two big franchise movies, Transformers and Fast and Furious right after Baby Boy. And where did I go? To a show on Lifetime that no one, pretty much, watched.
I remember saying it to John [Singleton], "I'm going to have a sex change. I see it's easier for men. I'm going to turn myself into a guy." He was like, "Please don't."
Do you think that there's been a shift in that gender disparity that you're speaking to?
There absolutely has been a shift. That's why you're seeing all of these movies that are starring women: Ghostbusters and Hidden Figures were both greenlit by women, and my movie, What Men Want. That's what you're starting to see now that women are moving into power positions. They're taking over — not taking over — I don't want to scare the men. But they're moving into these positions where they're able to greenlight movies that are women-friendly. Think about it: We bring the husbands to the movies, we bring our families, our boyfriends, we are the box office draw so why not cater to women. That's a no-brainer.
You are turning 50 next year.
I wouldn't know. But what does that mean to you? What does this next chapter look like?
I still feel like I'm just getting started. I still feel like I have so much more to do. I'm a character actress. I have another fantasy role, heavy prosthetics. I want to not look like myself. I wouldn't mind doing a Dr. Seuss story. I love the craft of acting and I don't feel like I've done it all yet.
Is there a dream role that you haven't done yet?
Oh, God. You know what? I would love to play the female Joker. That is a character that I am obsessed with. And I would love to get a spin on a female version. Or just a villain. I'm always the good, strong, moral character. I want to be bad.
If men could hear what women want, what would you want them to hear?
If you're a man in a power position, I’d want you to hear: Pay me my money. Pay me what I deserve. We deserve it and you need us. The end.
I'm only interested in appealing to the men who call the shots.
How would you finish the sentence, "Life begins at ...?
Life begins at that first breath you take, that's when life begins.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Welcome to Life Begins At. Refinery29 is proud to team up with AARP to bring you honest, intimate stories that aim to uncover all the unique experiences that come along with living — no matter your age. It’s time we shed the negative stereotypes, unconscious cultural bias, and misconceptions associated with age and get real about what aging really looks like for us. Because it’s not about how old you are; life begins when you decide to start living it. Have your own story to share about aging? Fill out this form or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org