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Taraji P. Henson: Fighting her way to the top

Kasi Lemmons, Taraji P. Henson’s director in “Talk to Me,” says that there’s this wonderful amalgamation inherent in some movie stars that’s classic and that Henson has it. By Miki Turner

Kasi Lemmons, Taraji P. Henson’s director in “Talk to Me,” says that there’s this wonderful amalgamation inherent in some movie stars that’s classic and that Henson has it.

“It’s the ability to be funny and sexy at the same time,” says Lemmons. “That’s a winning combination. Taraji’s got it. She’s so awesome.”

While those are certainly invaluable weapons to have in one’s arsenal, it’s Henson’s criminal past that has really set her apart. The 36-year-old award-winning actress, who recently inked a deal to do one season of ABC’s “Boston Legal,” has stolen from the best of them.

She managed to jack Terrence Howard, a formidable thief in his own right, in “Hustle & Flow.” She “borrowed” a few scenes from Tyrese Gibson in “Baby Boy.” And now the repeat offender is at it again in “Talk to Me,” playing Don Cheadle’s flamboyant and combative love interest Vernell Watson, in the film that opens Friday.

But Cheadle, who will likely have a bucket of Oscar dust dangling over his head for his portrayal of Petey Green, a controversial and outspoken D.C. radio personality in the mid-60s, didn’t seem to mind getting robbed at all.

“She’s great, she’s a live wire and I know at some point it was talked about that the role should go to someone other than Taraji and I was like ‘you guys are crazy,’” Cheadle said. “‘What are you talking about? How could anyone else other than Taraji do this part?’ I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it.”

He’s right. Who else could have donned an enormous afro wig, shamelessly pursued her man’s co-worker and worn all those loud and dizzying patterns from the ’60s and ’70s while not coming off as absolutely cartoonish?

Playing the ‘heart and soul’But underneath it all, Henson found a (composite) character that she could embrace in this story loosely chronicling the rise and fall of Petey Greene.

“I guess what appealed to me is all of her dimensions,” Henson said during an early morning telephone interview from the set of her new film “Not Easily Broken.” “She’s very colorful and very free so I was able to live vicariously through her. She’s free to say and do whatever she feels. People always say I play the heart and soul of a character and I guess that’s a little bit of who Taraji is.”

The single mother with a young son is also one of those people who can start fires without matches. Henson, a Washington, D.C. native, is oozing with personality, devoid of pretension, and according to one of her former classmates at Howard University, she graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in right moves.

“She makes really good choices and she lights up every scene she’s in,” says Anthony Anderson, one of Henson’s “Hustle & Flow” costars. “It’s really kind of uncanny how she just seems to know what moves to make and when. She’s the real thing.”

When asked about her choices, Henson, 36, kept it real.  Despite an impressive resume that includes roles in “Smokin’ Aces,” “Four Brothers” and the upcoming David Finch film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

Unlike those two, however, Henson knows that when it comes to her career she’s got to go the distance every time she laces up her boxing gloves.

“It’s not even that I can select,” said Henson, who shares a manager with Halle Berry. “I am an African-American female and it’s different. Our struggle is all up hill in this business. There are so many of us who are talented and available. So, it’s not like I’m being handed these scripts. I have to fight for them. I read it and I have to go in and audition like everybody else.

“I guess the choice is for me to go in and fight for the job.”

Fighting to work with her heroesShe fought for “Talk to Me” because Lemmons and Cheadle were attached. It was an opportunity to work for an African-American female director she had admired since “Eve’s Bayou”; and the chance to work with an actor she feels embodies every character he plays.

“You don’t see Don,” she said. “It’s like Don, where did you go? He’s giving and you can trust him in a scene. So, it was like going back to school again. I learned a lot. He’s so good and I’m so uninhibited that I’ll try anything. I felt safe going there with him because I knew he had my back. So, I guess that’s why that chemistry was so electric on the screen. We kind of come from the same school.”

Henson was actually bitten by the acting bug during a kindergarten play. Her first job was to recite a few song lyrics and when it came her turn to get on stage, she ate up more than cookies and milk that day.

“I was just about the loudest thing and I had so much personality,” she said. “I just remember the roar of the audience.”

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When she experienced that same rush again in fifth grade she decided she had to be an actress. Henson wanted to go to D.C.’s famed Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, but didn’t get in. Unable to handle the rejection Henson decided to abandon that dream and enrolled at North Carolina A&T University as an electrical engineering major.

That didn’t work out either as she “failed calculus with flying colors.” Later that year, however, she auditioned for the theater department at Howard and got in.

“Howard University prepares you,” Henson said emphatically. “You have to learn every aspect of theater from staging to set building to makeup to costuming to lighting — everything! They don’t let you fly easily. You can’t breeze through. If you didn’t have it they would tell you that you needed to change your major.

“I developed my tough skin and my hunger there.”

‘Everybody has a Petey Greene’ storyEven though she grew up in D.C. and went to Howard where Greene’s show once aired on the campus radio station, Henson is too young to remember the reign of Petey Greene. But when she got the part she reached out to some of the older members of her family.

“I mentioned his name and everybody lit up! ‘Petey Greene, that’s my man! He told it like it was’! Everybody had a Petey Greene story,” she said. “That’s really when I knew I had to do it. He just sounded like he was something else! And what I loved about Vernell is that she realized she loved him no matter what. She was there through the lowest points of his life and was there to build him up. She was a great character to play.”

And Lemmons was happy to give her the opportunity to do so.

“We always had a sense about Taraji maybe being the right person because I knew her work,” Lemmons said. “But she came in and read and she’s just like a fire house. She’s so amazing. I think of her like a volcano. She’s erupting with talent. But you know she’s really different in all the movies that she’s in. I think she’s one of the great actresses working and she should be working more.

“And now that I have worked with her, I look at everything I can to see if Taraji can play this role.”