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A Conversation With Taraji P. Henson - 2015 American Black Film Festival

Source: Noam Galai / Getty

Last Friday, on a breezy summer Manhattan evening, a long line of eager fans and press stretched across the third floor of the New York Hilton Midtown Hotel, waiting for the moment when first-time ABFF Ambassador Taraji P. Henson was set to chat with Gayle King.

Equally as excited to see the Empire star, I took my place and watched as the crowd faded into the massive Grand Ballroom. Anxious fans, journalists and cameramen were on alert, waiting to catch a glimpse of the actress (and her TV alter ego, Cookie), who we’ve come to know and love.

The festival had kicked off the night before with the premiere of Dope. Henson, sun-kissed and donning a radiant orange midi dress, graced the red carpet, posing for pictures and chatting with reporters.

But, as beautiful as she had been at the premiere, it was the chance to see her answering person questions, stripped of all of her red carpet poses and photo-ready smiles, that we were all truly waiting for. And she did not disappoint.

Within minutes, Taraji’s larger-than-life personality had the audience cracking up. She told us how cold she was and wanted to wear a black blanket that covered her two-toned dress.

A Conversation With Taraji P. Henson - 2015 American Black Film Festival

Source: Noam Galai / Getty

After a bit of coaxing, Taraji took off the blanket and the interview lesson began. Here are the bits of wisdom she dropped that truly stuck with me.

1. Fear Is Powerful

“I auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the tenth grade, and I didn’t get accepted.  My best friend did, isn’t that horrible? I took it to heart. I thought that meant I could not act, so I stopped acting. When it was time to go to college I knew I had to go to school, so I just said electrical engineering because it sounded like I could make a lot of money.  But, I was terrible at math. Acting was still in me, but I was just afraid.”

“When I was at A&T, I had to pass the fine arts building to get to my English Class. One day, I walked passed and they had an audition for a play and I was like ‘I’m gonna do it.’ And I got my monologue, and I remember standing on that stage and the only thing I kept hearing in my head was ‘No’. I was nervous and my hands were shaking, it was horrible. And they said, we’ll put up on the bulletin board the next day who gets the call back. I was so riddled with fear that I never went back to see if I got the call back.”

2. Being Quirky Is Cool

“I grew up in the hood and I wasn’t the coolest. I was an artist. I was a little quirky and to the left. I dressed a little crazy. But you know, I would set trends I would do kooky things like wear clips in the front of my hair and next thing you know, Peaches and them got clips in the front of their hair.”

3. Having A Baby (In College) Isn’t A Disease

“Having a baby is not a disease; that’s a blessing. I get off on people saying, ‘You can’t’. I’m like OK, now I have to prove it.  So I showed all the naysayers, when I walked across that stage and collected my diploma with my son on my hip. So many girls got pregnant in college and dropped out, I didn’t want to be that statistic. I wanted to show girls that just because you got pregnant in college, does not mean you have to stop. If anything, having my son motivated me to go to California and pursue my dreams, because if I didn’t, what am I teaching him?”

4. Taking A Leap A Faith Can Yield All The Benefits

“I came to Hollywood in 1996, and people said, ‘you’re too old and you got a baby.’ And to that I said, ‘Watch me work.’ I moved to California with my son, seven hundred dollars and Jesus.”

5. Don’t Just Have A Man To Have A Man

“I’m not going to have a man just to say that I have a man.  You want someone who is going to challenge you to be your better self. You don’t want someone who is just going to sit back and let you run the show.”

"I'm not going to have a man just to have man" @tarajiphenson #ABFF

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6. Avoid Jealousy & Bitterness

“After Baby Boy, I was intuitive enough to know that Tyrese’s career would take off before mine.  People were like, ‘you know John Singleton makes superstars.’ And something deep down inside me was like, ‘that’s not going to happen.’ I felt it.  And the first thing Tyrese booked, I think was ‘Fast & Furious,’ and I was just like, you see?  It’s a man made world. I’m the trained actress and look.  It just made me stay grounded, and not get ahead of myself while recognizing it for what it was. I knew it was going to take some time, but that was OK.  I just did not want to be bitter. I knew so many actors who let this industry dictate who they are and they become bitter. I wasn’t going to do that.  I said, ‘I’m going keep my grace and I’m going to keep my wits about me, and one day, they will come around.’ So I prayed to God and asked for longevity.  I saw that I was going to have to make a lane for myself. You have to remember, when Halle Berry hit the scene, there was no lane for her either.  So I asked for longevity, but I also asked to do the kind of work that people would talk about long after I was gone. I was very clear.”

7. Be Confident

Who said @tarajiphenson isn't sexy enough?! #ABFF

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8. Money Shouldn’t Be Your Motive

“I’m not greedy because I feel like if I keep doing the work. God’s got me. So I’m clear on that. I think people who are filthy rich aren’t the happiest people. Biggie said it best, ‘mo money, mo problems’. Money is not my driving force; awards don’t get me to do jobs. If I’m not passionate then I won’t do it.”

9. Have Higher Standards

“My advice to you is to stop thinking [about being] in front of the camera. My advice to you is to start thinking about heading studios. You need to start thinking as decision makers, the people who make opportunities.”

10. Don’t Let People Put You In A Box

And the church doors are closed!

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