Actress Henson's hustle led to role in 'Benjamin Button'
Taraji P. Henson, right, plays the woman who mothers the title character in "Benjamin Button." Henson received a Screen Actors Guild Award supporting actress nomination for the role.
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As Queenie likes to say: "You never know what's coming for you."
That holds true for Taraji P. Henson, the actress who plays Queenie in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," opening on Christmas and also starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
The 38-year-old native of Washington, D.C., didn't know that a role as a pregnant prostitute in "Hustle & Flow" would lead to acting honors, the chance to perform "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" on the Oscars, a part on TV's "Boston Legal," a role alongside Don Cheadle in "Talk to Me" and another in "Benjamin Button," about a man who ages in reverse.
Benjamin's mother dies in childbirth and his grief-stricken father recoils when he sees the newborn. He abandons the baby on the steps of the old-age home where Queenie works and lives in a room under the stairs.
Queenie, an African-American stranger, takes to the wrinkled infant who comes into this world with the infirmities of old age -- cataracts, arthritis, the loss of elasticity in the skin. "You are as ugly as an old pot, but you still is a child of God," Queenie tells the baby.
For Henson, it's important that Queenie falls in love with Benjamin the moment she sees him. "Because if Queenie didn't do it, then the audience wouldn't have been able to do it," Henson said in a recent phone interview.
"I spent a lot of attention on that, why and what was her need and what was driving her. She was just surrounded by death, she was used to taking in people that nobody else wanted.
"Unfortunately, that's what happens to a lot of elders, they get passed off to these homes but no one comes and visits them. That's what she does, she understands that every human soul deserves love, and, unfortunately, all the ones that are coming to the house are dying, so Benjamin Button represents life for her. She's able to look beyond race and how funny looking he is," and give him unconditional love.
Making "Benjamin Button" proved therapeutic for Henson, whose father unexpectedly died at age 58.
"I actually needed to do this film because I lost my dad a year before we started filming and sometimes ... we build these defense mechanisms just because we have to, we have to get through it and this film forced me to deal with it because Queenie is surrounded by death," she said.
"That's a common thread for us humans, we're all dying. I have a newfound respect for life. You can't spend your time regretting."
So her life-affirming philosophy is: "Love as often as you can. Dance like nobody's watching. Travel. Eat. Try new foods because, like my character says, you never know what's coming for you and when it's time to let go, you got to let go."
Playing a mother came naturally to Henson, who has a 14-year-old son.
"Once you're a mom, you're always a mom. I mother my friends, they're like, 'Get away from me, you're not my mother.' That's something I am, I didn't have to do much research on that."
A lifelike animatronic baby doubles as the infant Benjamin. "I remember thinking, God, why couldn't they have baby dolls like this when I was growing up? It was so real, with silicone skin, the weight of a baby and it moved, and they would make it wink."
It took three puppeteers to make baby Benjamin fuss or cry, however.
"As he got taller, they hired three different actors to play the three different sizes. Very good actors, I might add," with blue socks on their heads (faces cut out and eyes visible) that functioned like blue screens on which Pitt's head later was digitally attached.
The pasting is seamless although as Benjamin grows, Pitt assumes both Benjamin's body and face. In fact, at one point, Blanchett's character says, "My God, look at you, you're perfect!" and he pretty much is.
The movie, directed by David Fincher, is very loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has been substantially changed, from its setting to details about Benjamin's upbringing. The story is a scant 24 pages and features no one named Queenie, although a woman named Nanny makes a late, brief appearance.
"I just thought that was really, really bold to make the mother [figure] African-American. Initially when I got the script, I thought there were bold choices across the board."
Although "Hustle & Flow" garnered critical acclaim for Henson and, especially, star Terrence Howard, it could have been a bold or risky gamble for the actress.
She doesn't see it that way. "I don't judge my characters. I can't because if I do, then the audience will," and she realizes no young woman says she wants to be a prostitute when she grows up. It had been Henson's role as Shug that stuck with Fincher's casting director, Laray Mayfield.
"She saw my performance in 'Hustle & Flow' and she always remembered that every time I was not on the screen, she missed me, and that's the feeling you want for a mother. You miss me. Wow. You just do the work, you don't know how it's going to affect people. I'll think about it from now on."
First Published December 21, 2008 12:00 am