If there's one thing that will tap into the fears of audiences, it's a thriller movie with a premise based in reality.
In her new movie No Good Deed, which she produced and stars in, Taraji P. Henson plays Terri, a stay-at-home mother who ends up with an injured man at her doorstep on a rainy night. She's faced with a dilemma: does she help? We'd like to say that the answer will always be "yes" when someone ends up depending on you for assistance. Why wouldn't we help? But there are many other factors involved for Terri. First, there's a gender dynamic at play—she's small compared to Idris Elba's Colin's muscular frame, and he could easily overtake her. Second, Terri's husband isn't home, but her two children—a toddler and a newborn—are. So what to do?
She takes on the risk and becomes a good samaritan, then pays the price for it; hence the phrase where the movie gets its title from: No good deed goes unpunished. We talked with Henson about playing Terri, facing off against Idris Elba, and the real tears she cried to get him to play a villain.
Interview by Jason Duaine Hahn (@JasonDuaine)
Complex: One of the things that feels terrifying about No Good Deed is that it seems like it could happen in reality.
Taraji: Absolutely. You find yourself being a good samaritan, and then you find out that the person’s cuckoo. I don’t open doors for strangers. First of all, my door is like two stories downstairs, so if I don’t know who you are I will answer the intercom but I’m not coming downstairs if I don’t know you.
Do you have camera security set up as well?
They’re installing those now! (Laughs)
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve done something good and it backfired on you?
Yeah, but not to the degree of fighting for my life. But you know, it was more like doing something nice for a friend or something, and they’re not appreciative. So I realized I couldn't be that person’s friend anymore.
as a producer—now that I’m producing—that’s what I want to see. I want to see nice and fresh and I want to present “fresh.” New faces, or new combinations of talent.
We don’t see a lot of thriller movies with black lead actors, but this is one of them with two black lead actors.
The script was originally written for a different studio—and even though it doesn’t specify—it was with two white leads. Will Packer found it and brought it to me. When he brought me the script we were looking for a white lead, but we couldn’t get one. Then we started thinking and said, why don’t we just make it—I hate this phrase—a “black movie,” and get two black leads, and that’s when we started brainstorming and Idris was the best choice. We just pursued him. I had to beg him. I cried. That was the performance that got him to do the film, because he had booked Mandela at the time. I’ve had this script since before Think Like a Man, that’s how I met Will Packer. He brought No Good Deed to me, and then that project got put on hold because Think Like a Man came. They had the money and the cast ready to go, so that’s how I got into Think Like a Man: I was supposed to do No Good Deed first. But once Think Like a Man wrapped we started working on No Good Deed.
We already wanted Idris before then, but since that project was getting pushed and pushed, he booked Mandela. I was like c’mon, that’s the dream role. So No Good Deed went on his back burner. So I had to call him and spark that candle. I was like "No baby, you cannot walk away from this! You’re going to make a fabulous Mandela I’m sure, but before you go to Africa, you’re going to have to stop in Atlanta and do this movie because you promised me!"
If not Idris, did you have someone else in mind?
It was always Idris, because I had never worked with him. I had just finished working with Michael Ealy on Think Like a Man, I’ve worked with Morris Chestnut, all of the names we started tossing around I had already worked with. We thought Idris was fresh and new. And as a producer—now that I’m producing—that’s what I want to see. I want to see nice and fresh and I want to present “fresh.” New faces, or new combinations of talent. People would expect Idris and I to do a love story. This is totally opposite of what people are expecting. I’ve had people say "are you going to have sex with him? do y’all fall in love?" and I’m like "no, he tortures me throughout the whole movie." Watch it. (Laughs)
What do you think was the key to getting him to sign on?
I played the single mother card and said my son is about to go off to college, that he already promised to do it that I put this money to the side, and he couldn’t leave me floating in the wind like this! I totally guilted him into it. (Copying Idris’ British accent) All right, Taraji, all right!
It only took one phone call. But then the schedule is ruined because we had to hurry up and schew him out because he had to be in Africa by a certain time to star in Mandela. So literally, I wrapped on Person of Interest, jumped in the car, ran to the runway, jumped in a private jet, and went straight to Atlanta, got my hair done, and started work the next day. And we worked six days a week for a month, we only had Monday off. That’s the only way we could do it with Idris.
Is this your first time being a producer for a film?
Yeah. It was work, I’m telling you. It was a performance getting Idris to do it.
you wouldn’t want to kidnap me. I would kick and scream, I have a big mouth, I know how to reach far distances. I would kick, scream and claw. I’m a fighter.
From a producing stand point, what stood out about this script?
When Will bought it to me, I read it, and, well, there’s a wicked plot twist at the end that just blows you away. Before I got to that part in the script, I saw just so much of myself in Terri, she’s just such a fighter. A nice woman, caring, trying to be a good samaritan, and this guy gets into her house and she goes into protective mode. She has a family to protect—she has a toddler, she has a newborn baby—and she turns into mother bear. What I love is that she never plays the damsel in distress, you never see her cry. As soon as she finds out that he is cray-cray, she starts fighting for her life, from the beginning of the movie all the way until the end. She’s a fighter. That’s what I loved about it. A lot of the times you see women say "please, please don’t hurt me," but she’s a fighter. If I was him I would have left her alone—it’s just too much work! Lady, you just crazy, you and these kids, good-bye! And that’s how I would be in real life, you wouldn’t want to kidnap me. I would kick and scream, I have a big mouth, I know how to reach far distances. I would kick, scream and claw. I’m a fighter. And I totally identify with Terri.
In that regard, do you feel this movie will connect with mothers and parents?
Absolutely. Any mother could identify with Terri, that’s what you do distinctively as a mother, you go into protection mode. My son is 20, and I still am like that about him. I’m very protective of him. And he’s almost a grown man! Pretty much. But like my mother with me—once you become a mom you’re always a mom. And that kid is something that you always have to protect because they come from you. Twenty years, I can’t just let that go. Twenty years of hard work—that boy owes me money! (Laughs)
Was most of your energy playing Terri driven by your maternal instincts?
I’m a nurturer anyway, in real life that’s just what I am. So I actually bring that to a lot of my roles. But I still had to do work. It wasn’t like oh I’m just going to be Taraji. I’ve never been a district attorney, I don’t have two kids, I only have a boy, I don’t know what it is to have a girl, you know? And I’m not opening the door. Her house is on some dark road and it’s raining outside, I probably would have never opened the door.
But, if I did, and I saw the man there with blood coming from his head, I couldn’t leave him out to bleed on my doorstep. Even though I know I wouldn’t, I could understand why she did.
So this was your chance to open the door.
Yeah, my chance to live vicariously through her.
Is this script one of the first thrillers to be passed your way? Are there not a lot of thriller scripts written with black actors in mind?
This is the first time I’ve got a thriller script. I’ve never got a thriller script before. I don’t really think about it like that, I just think about characters I haven’t portrayed before, but this is a different genre for me. People are used to seeing me in dramatic roles. But it’s not a thriller like gory, it’s more of a head game. A suspense thriller, because he’s playing with my mind.
One of the creepiest things that I noticed in the movie’s trailer is Idris taking a shower while he’s in your house. He’s extremely comfortable holding someone hostage.
That scene is something else. That’s like my favorite scene in the whole movie. You talk about a head game, but he totally fucks me mentally in that scene. You’ll see.
We were like fighting for real in that house. He hit me in the mouth one time with a gun, he blamed me for hitting him too hard, but you know the adrenaline gets going and you kind of lose yourself.
What challenges did you go through for the role? Any research?
There wasn’t really much research necessarily, because it’s a contemporary piece. There was no history to research. Her being a D.A., that’s what made her such a fighter. She’s a district attorney, she put a lot of bad guys in jail. She’s a fighter anyway, so it was just getting into her head and why she didn’t lay down and take it and become a victim. Her being a D.A. had a lot to do with the fight in her. A lot of the research and the back story I make up, and as long as you commit to it people will believe it. But you have to do it, though. I wouldn’t call it research, but that’s my homework. Her back story. How did she end up here? Why did she open the door? The things to make it all work.
You put a lot of thought into Terri's life—what did you learn from playing her?
Don’t open the door! (Laughs) Don’t open the door for strangers, didn’t your mama ever tell you that?!
Why did you choose Atlanta for the location of the film?
Well the way the story goes is that Terri used to be a district attorney in New York, but she got married and she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. So she moved with her husband to the suburbs to be a stay-at-home mom and go to the PTA, but when you meet her she’s not really happy, because she lost some of her self. So I think, for me, what I chose as an actor, that’s the reason she opened the door—her husband’s out of town, this man shows up and he’s hurt and she can’t leave him outside to bleed—you know what, it’s good to have adult conversation. She’s always with these kids. So I understood why she opened the door. There’s not a lot going on in her life.
But we had a lot a lot of night shoots. We started with an incredible fight scene that took us three days to shoot.
You two go toe-to-toe?
There was a lot of choreography—I felt so sorry for that house—I thought we were going to drop through the floor. We were like fighting for real in that house. He hit me in the mouth one time with a gun, he blamed me for hitting him too hard, but you know the adrenaline gets going and you kind of lose yourself. I've never done a fight scene before, and I didn't know that so much went into it. I kind of knew, because in Person of Interest there's a lot of action in that, but I'm never in it. I watched Jim do it. It's like dancing, it's totally choreography. I'll tell you, I took musical theater so I did a lot of dancing, so I'm a quick study. I pick up real quick. Our main thing was safety. They used stunt doubles when they had to, but Idris and I both wanted it to look real, so, for the extra dangerous stuff we used the doubles, but face-to-face it needed to be us. We did a lot of it ourselves. Except when he cracked me up against the bookshelf and it broke, that's when they used a double.
You’ve worked with Tyrese, Morris Chestnut, Idris, that’s kind of like the dream combination—
I haven’t worked with Denzel, I haven’t worked with De Niro, still a lot of people I still need to work with.
Is there anyone one of the men you've worked with that you had more chemistry than the others?
I have pretty good chemistry with all of my leading men, but I would have to say Tyrese, because we started together. There’s a special connection between us. And we’re actually good, dear friends to this day. I’m good friends with all of my leading men, but with Tyrese it’s different. We were both kind of virgins to feature films together, so we shared that, we did the whole getting nude together, we have a lot of firsts together.
Check out No Good Deed in theaters today, and become one of Taraji's 2.8 million followers on Twitter here.