Taraji P. Henson

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Taraji P. Henson



An increasingly visible presence on film and television screens in the early 2000, actress Taraji Henson broke into the top echelons of the entertainment industry through ambition, hard work, talent, and imagination. After major roles in the hit films Hustle & Flow (2005) and Something New (2006), Henson became a cast member in the Lifetime cable network series The Division and had a host of new projects in the pipeline. "She's the epitome of a strong person," Henson's Hustle & Flow costar Terrence Howard told Teresa Wiltz of the Washington Post. And indeed Henson had overcome major obstacles in her quest for stardom.

Taraji Penda Henson was born in 1971 and raised in southeast Washington, D.C. One of her ancestors was North Pole explorer Matthew Henson. She grew up, she said in her Division cast biography, "in an apartment that was one step up from the projects." Although her parents went their separate ways when she was two years old, she remained close to both. Henson credited her mother for her own strong work ethic. "My mother was an incredible mom," Henson explained to IONA magazine. "She worked very hard and worked her way up the corporate ladder from the basement." Starting at a low position, her mother eventually worked her way into a manager position at the Woodward & Lothrop department store.

One of the key experiences of her childhood was seeing her father, a former metalworker, become homeless when she was 11. "I was never ashamed; he was never ashamed," Henson told Wiltz. "He was always there. He would come pick me up in the same van he was living in and we'd go for a ride." Henson encouraged her father as he found an apartment and started working as a janitor at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. His "tenacity rubbed off on me," Henson told IONA. "Watching him hit rock bottom and work his way back from that made me a stronger person." Meanwhile, she was turning into a role-player who often pretended to be someone else.

Henson had an early setback when she applied to the acting program at Washington's Duke Ellington School for the Arts but was turned down. She graduated from Oxon Hill High School in 1988 and then studied electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T University for a year, all the while wanting to try acting. "She told me, 'Oooh, Daddy, that's not what I want to do for the rest of my life and be happy,'" Boris Henson told Wiltz. And he answered, "So get on with what you're supposed to do."

Transferring to Washington's Howard University, Henson immersed herself in theater. Working at the Pentagon to pay her way and taking another job on the side, she appeared in plays whenever she could and took jobs on the stage or lighting crew when she didn't get a part. She made the dean's list at Howard and won a scholarship funded by Howard alumnae Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. For one production of Dream-girls, she had only a small part in which she had to move a clothes rack across the stage, and she made herself into a scene-stealer. No matter how big or small her parts at Howard, her family was on hand in the audience cheering.

While she was a student at Howard, however, Henson became involved in an abusive relationship and then became pregnant. She didn't let her son, Marcell, slow her down a bit, toting him to rehearsals and to work. Henson graduated from Howard and decided to leave her abusive situation and her hometown, worried that she was setting a bad example for her son. With $700 in cash, she moved to Los Angeles. Once again she had encouragement from her father, who asked her, she recalled to Brett Johnson of Essence, "How do you expect to catch fish on dry land? You need to go where the jobs are."

Henson took an office job at first, but it wasn't long before she was stepping out from the crowd of would-be starlets working low-wage jobs in Southern California. In 1997, the year her Washington boyfriend passed away, she landed bit parts in two WB network television series, Smart Guy and Sister, Sister. By the next year she was winning roles in hot shows like ER and Felicity. Her first film part was in 1998's Streetwise. One key event that happened early in Henson's Hollywood career was that she acquired a manager, Vincent Cirrincione, who was also employed by actress Halle Berry. Cirrincione told her that he would only take her on if she knocked his socks off, but he didn't count on the enthusiasm Henson brings to auditions. After she was through, he handed her his socks.

Henson's breakthrough came in 2001, when she was picked by director John Singleton for the female lead role in the film Baby Boy. She played Yvette, the young mother of a child fathered by Jody, who was played by vocalist Tyrese. Two years later she joined the cast of The Division; she had never played a police officer before, but coaching from series creator Deborah Joy LeVine led to a secure recurring role in the series as Inspector Raina Washington.

In 2005 Henson took aim at the role of the prostitute Shug in Hustle & Flow, a hit film about a pimp who tries to escape life on the streets. John Singleton, who produced the film, sent her the script, but she quickly realized she was going to have to fight for the part: star Terrence Howard had envisioned a different actress in the role. "I sold them on this," Henson told Wiltz. "I told them, 'Trust me, I get it, she's a beacon of light, she's an angel, she's the matriarch of the household, I get it, I know this girl … Terrence Howard, he was looking at me, like, 'Oh, I gotta up my game, you're for real.' I was like, 'Yeah.' See, I commit."

She got the part and impressed writer and director Craig Brewer during filming by stopping and talking with prostitutes on the streets of Memphis in order to learn details that would fill out the role. "She even came to set with baby powder on her chest," Brewer told Wiltz. "When I saw it on her, I said, 'You're brilliant.'" Baby powder was a time-honored trick among streetwalkers who had to be outside in the heat. Hustle & Flow gained both critical acclaim and popular success, raising Henson's profile in the industry significantly. She also contributed vocals to the film's trademark song, "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp," and performed the song on the annual Academy Awards telecast in March of 2006.

At a Glance …

Born in 1971 in Washington, DC; children: Marcell. Education: Attended North Carolina A&T University, studying electrical engineering; Howard University, BA, theatre, 1995.

Career: Los Angeles, CA, office work, late 1990s; actor, 1997–.

Addresses: Agent—Vincent Cirrincione Associates, 8721 Sunset Blvd., Suite 205, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

Henson's schedule became busier in 2005 and 2006, with several film and television roles, including a role in Singleton's Four Brothers, a major supporting part in the interracial-romance comedy Something New, and an appearance on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. She found time for dating in between jobs but was in no hurry to commit. In 2006, she denied speculation that she and rapper Common were romantically linked. Three films were in the pipeline for 2007: Smokin' Aces, Talk to Me, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the latter based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Henson hoped one day to play the lead role in a film devoted to the life of singer Diana Ross. "I can identify with her hunger and lust and passion," she said in her Division bio. "It's an actor's dream role." However, her bigger dream, she told IONA, was to one day have her own name bring in crowds to movie theaters.

Selected works


Baby Boy, 2001.
Hair Show, 2004.
Hustle & Flow, 2005.
Four Brothers, 2005.
Something New, 2006.
Smokin' Aces, 2007.
Talk to Me, 2007.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2007.


Satan's School for Girls (TV film), 2000.
Murder, She Wrote: The Last Free Man (TV film), 2001.
The Divison, 2003–04.

Also has made guest appearances on various television series, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Felicity, ER, Smart Guy, and Sister, Sister.



Ebony, April 2005, p. 110.

Entertainment Weekly, June 24, 2005, p. 127.

Essence, August 2005, p. 104.

Washington Post, July 21, 2005, p. C1.


"Cast Bio: Taraji Henson," The Division, www.life-timetv.com/shows/division/bios/cast_taraji.html (July 20, 2006).

"Cover Girl: Taraji P. Henson," IONA Magazine Online, www.ionamagazine.com (October 20, 2006).

"Taraji P. Henson," Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com/name/me0378245/ (July 20, 2006).

"Taraji P. Henson Prepares for Her Oscar Close-Up," AOL Black Voices, http://blackvoices.aol.com/black_entertainment/featurecanvas/_a/bv-entertainment-newswire-march-1-taraji/20060301130609990001 (July 20, 2006).

views updated

Henson, Taraji P. 1970- (Taraji Henson)


Full name, Taraji Penda Henson; born September 11, 1970, in Washington, DC; father a metal worker and janitor; mother a retail sales clerk and department manager; children: Marcel. Education: Attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; Howard University, B.A., 1995.


Agent—United Talent Agency, 9560 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 500, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Manager—Vincent Cirrincione and Associates, 1516 North Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046.


Actress. As a college student, worked as a secretary at the Pentagon and as a singing-dancing waitress on a cruise ship; also worked as a substitute teacher.

Awards, Honors:

Special mention (with others), Locarno International Film Festival, 2001, and Black Reel Award nomination, best theatrical actress, 2002, both for Baby Boy; Washington DC Area Film Critics Association Award nomination, 2004, Black Movie Award, 2005, and Black Reel Award, 2006, all outstanding supporting actress, Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a motion picture, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 2006, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination and Black Reel Award nomination, both best ensemble (with others), 2006, and MTV Award nominations, best kiss (with Terrence Howard) and best breakthrough performance, 2006, all for Hustle and Flow; Black Reel Award nomination (with others), best ensemble, 2006, for Four Brothers; Black Entertainment Television Award, best actress, 2006; Gotham Award (with others), best ensemble cast, Independent Features Project, 2007, Satellite Award nomination, best supporting actress in a drama, International Press Academy, 2007, and Image Award nomination, outstanding actress in a motion picture, 2008, both for Talk to Me; Screen Actors Guild Award nomination (with others), outstanding ensemble in a drama series, 2008, for Boston Legal.


Film Appearances:

Streetwise, 1998.

(As Taraji Henson) Left-wing student, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (also known as Die Abenteuer von Rocky und Bullwinkle), Universal, 2000.

Kiki, All or Nothing, Keys East Entertainment, 2001.

Yvette, Baby Boy, Columbia, 2001.

(As Taraji Henson) Tiffany, Hair Show, Innovation Film Group/Urbanworks, 2004.

Ramona, Animal, DEJ Productions, 2005.

Shug, Hustle & Flow, Paramount, 2005.

Camille Mercer, Four Brothers, Paramount, 2005.

Nedra, Something New, Focus Features, 2006.

(As Taraji Henson) Sharice Watters, Smokin' Aces (also known as Mi$e a prix), Universal, 2006.

Vernell Watson, Talk to Me, Focus Features, 2007.

Clarice Clark, Not Easily Broken, Screen Gems, 2008.

Queenie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Paramount, 2008.

Television Appearances; Series:

Inspector Raina Washington, The Division (also known as Heart of the City), NBC, 2003-2004.

Whitney Rome, Boston Legal, ABC, 2007-2008.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Paige, Satan's School for Girls, ABC, 2000.

Bess Pinckney, Murder, She Wrote: The Last Free Man, CBS, 2001.

(As Taraji Henson) Fourth date and ghetto girl, Book of Love: The Definitive Reason Why Men Are Dogs, Black Entertainment Television, 2005.

Television Appearances; Specials:

(As Taraji Henson) 25 Strong! The BET Silver Anniversary Special, Black Entertainment Television, 2005.

Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:

The 18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards, The WB, 2004.

(As Taraji Henson) The Third Annual Vide Awards on UPN, UPN, 2005.

The 10th Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, syndicated, 2005.

(As Taraji Henson) The 78th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 2006.

The 37th Annual NAACP Image Awards, Fox, 2006.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Monique, "Big Picture," Smart Guy, The WB, 1997.

Briana, "Two's Company," Sister, Sister, The WB, 1997.

(As Taraji Henson) Patrice Robbins, "Of Past Regret and Future Fear," ER, NBC, 1998.

(As Taraji Henson) Elan, "Split Second," ER, NBC, 1998.

Second resident assistant, "Drawing the Line: Part 1," Felicity, The WB, 1998.

(As Taraji Henson) Art student, "Todd Mulcahy: Part 2," Felicity, The WB, 1999.

Rhonda, "The Right Thing," Pacific Blue, USA Network, 1999.

Crystal, "Drug Interactions," Strong Medicine, Lifetime, 2000.

Guest, Holla, Black Entertainment Television, 2002.

Kim, "In Through the Out Door," All of Us, UPN, 2004.

Gabrielle, "The Big How to Do & Undo It Episode," Half & Half, UPN, 2005.

Moira, "Spin," House M.D. (also known as House), Fox, 2005.

(As Taraji Henson) Christina, "I Like to Watch," CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (also known as C.S.I., CSI: Las Vegas, and Les experts), CBS, 2006.



Appeared in the music video "Testify" by Common.



Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 58, Gale, 2007.