How HIDDEN FIGURES Lead Taraji P. Henson Relied on Faith Over Fear
By Movieguide® Staff
Note: This story is part of our Faith in Hollywood series. For similar stories, click here.
Hollywood star Taraji P. Henson is known for her roles in critically acclaimed movies such as HIDDEN FIGURES, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and GET ON UP.
However, the actress revealed that her family struggled during her childhood and before her entertainment career.
“I grew up in southeast Washington, D.C., in a rough neighborhood. It was me and my mom against the world, and what a tough world it was,” Henson wrote in 2017. “She worked long days at a department store. A trip to McDonald’s was a luxury! I can still see Mom hunched over a stack of bills at the kitchen table, rubbing her temples, the words Final Notice and Past Due written in red block letters. I remember tiptoeing up to her in my pajamas, trying to comfort her: ‘Don’t cry about money, Mommy. I’m going to be rich one day.'”
Despite their monetary difficulties, Henson said she remains thankful for her father and mother’s role in her life.
“I was lucky that my dad stayed in my life no matter what he was going through, and I always knew how much he loved me. Daddy was a Vietnam vet. He made decent money as a metal fabricator installing bars on windows through metro D.C. But as for so many Vietnam vets, his psychological war wounds went untreated. He battled his demons, turning too often to the bottle. Mom had to kick him out. The economy went south, and there were times he couldn’t pay his rent and had to live in his van,” Henson recalled.
“‘What about all your things?’ I asked him when he lost his apartment and everything that was in it. He had so little to lose,” she continued. “He cupped my face and looked me in the eye. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘That’s just material stuff. What matters is I’m alive. I’m free.’ Even during those hard times he would pick me up from school and spend part of his day with me. He eventually got his life together. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.”
Henson shared that her desire to become an actress began at a very young age after her mother sent her to live with her grandparents.
“During the summer, Mom sent me down to North Carolina to live with her parents, former sharecroppers. It was a break for Mom. Not so much for me, an urban kid used to the stimulation of the city. I almost died of boredom,” Henson said. “I’d turn to my imagination. A branch in my hand became an explorer’s walking stick, a huge rock would be a dinosaur’s toe. At dusk I’d chase fireflies, cupping them in my hands like diamonds.
“Upstairs, in what had been my aunt Glenda’s bedroom, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror and sing into a makeshift microphone, imagining I was on Soul Train. Or I was Lucille Ball in one of her TV sketches, rolling up my pants, stepping into a barrel of grapes and feeling the disgusting squish of the fruit between my toes. I wanted to be an actress more than anything,” she added.
However, as Henson began acting classes at Kennedy Center in D.C., fear of failure started to squash her acting dreams.
“My father was my biggest cheerleader, like a corner man hyping up a prizefighter,” Henson said. “‘Taraji, you already got the glory. You’ve already collected your Oscar. You’re the greatest actor alive.’ If I ever felt like I wasn’t going to make it, I could turn to him. ‘Fear is a liar,’ he’d say. ‘Make a point of calling its bluff.’
“Was it fear of failure that made me decide to major in engineering? I’d already failed to get into my first choice, Howard University, with its prestigious theater department—I bombed out in my audition. So I chose North Carolina A&T,” Henson said. “My first semester, with my bad marks in precalculus, and my self-esteem reeling, it was Daddy who set me straight. I was sure he was going to blow up when I told him how badly I was doing. Far from it. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘You had to fall on your face to see that’s not what God intends for you.'”
Henson reapplied to Howard shortly after and got in. However, success was not immediate for Henson.
“My nemesis at Howard turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life, my acting teacher, Professor Vera Katz, with her shock of red hair and raspy voice. ‘Go deeper,’ she’d implore me, interrupting my monologues in class, chastising me for being showy and superficial. She was hard on me. Some days I pushed back. But every class I learned more about what it meant to bring a character to life,” Henson said.
“Successful? It didn’t look like that for a long, long time. Sometimes all I had to go on was faith,” Henson said.
Henson added that while she attended Howard, another type of fear came about through an unplanned pregnancy.
“We were together long enough to have a child—my son, Marcell—and then the whole thing blew up. The father of my child was out of my life, but what kind of life would it be now? I still believed what Daddy told me—God had a plan for me. Had I let God down? I would just have to be like my mother, a single mom, the two of us against the world,” Henson said.
Henson knew that acting was still her goal and held on to her faith and that God had a plan for her life.
“There were plenty of people to discourage me, but their words were like gallons of high-grade gasoline adding fuel to my fire. I had faith in God and figured I just had to try harder waiting for the tide to turn in my favor. Daddy was right. Fear is a liar. Time and again I called its bluff,” Henson said.
She added: “Faith always pays off. I’ve been a working actor ever since, which is an incredible blessing.”
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