There’s no blueprint or timetable for success. It arrives rapidly for some, while others put in years worth of work before it pays off. After nearly two decades in Hollywood playing an array of roles, Taraji P. Henson’s career turned a corner earlier this year thanks to Empire. As the brilliant and fiery Cookie Lyon, she’s the best part of—hate it or love it—the year’s most entertaining show. Its popularity placed her performance on the largest stage, exposing her to an audience previously oblivious to her panache. 2015 may be the year Henson finally scored the recognition her talent warrants, but it shouldn’t be considered her "arrival." She’s evolved over time, like Hollywood's version of 2 Chainz. She’s been in the game—others are just catching onto her.
Henson’s best work is defined by her dashes of flair. Entering a room wearing nothing but a fur coat and lingerie, then flashing her ass on the way out? That’s the drama-student personality the D.C. native cultivated at Howard University shining through. In a 2005 Washington Post profile, her former professor Mike Malone praised that ability to slap her imprint on everything she does:
"She had a knack for milking a moment out of nothing," he says. She'd begged him for a role in "Dreamgirls," a production that was slated to tour Hong Kong. Yes, begged. So he tossed her a walk-on part. Her role: to move a clothes rack from stage left to stage right during a rehearsal scene in the musical.
"Honest to goodness, she made a whole play going across the stage," Malone says, laughing at the memory. "She dropped the clothes, ran into someone, etc. You couldn't pay attention to anyone else except for Taraji. And it was really funny.
"That was emblematic of Taraji. Whenever I think of her, I think of that."
Following Henson’s relocation to Los Angeles in 1996, that aptitude led to her first acting break: a 1997 episode of Smart Guy. Even in the small role of Monique, she made her presence felt. Guest spots on '90s sitcoms were filled via a revolving door of performers, many of whom did little to stand out or make an impression, save for the occasional funny line here and there. In that one episode, Henson managed to make an impact on every scene she appeared in.
In addition to two more episodes of Smart Guy the following season, Henson also earned small roles on Sister, Sister, The Parent 'Hood, ER and Felicity. The bit parts eventually amounted to her big-screen debut in John Singleton’s Baby Boy.
In the 14 years since its release, Baby Boy has become somewhat of a cult classic due to BET re-airings and the dynamic between her and Tyrese. As Yvette, she was the perfect counterpart to Tyrese’s Jody. The comedic element is what’s most memorable about their scenes, but even in her first film, she captured Yvette’s nuances. That includes her desire to see Jody grow up, as well as her own immaturity. The argument that preceded the infamous sex scene was pure childishness, and Yvette instigated it. Baby Boy was a larger showcase for Henson’s talent that made her a recognizable face and voice, opening the door to different roles.
After returning to TV for a three-season stint on Lifetime's The Division, Henson was cast as timid prostitute Shug in Craig Brewer’s dive into the world of southern hip-hop, Hustle & Flow. (Singleton’s role as a producer helped her land an audition.) Where the role of Yvette required her to dominate scenes, she channeled the opposite end of her acting repertoire to play meek. Submissive for the bulk of the film, Shug’s breakout—belting out the hook for pimp/drug-dealer/aspiring rapper DJ’s manifesto, "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp"—was Hustle & Flow’s most pivotal moment.
Henson captured the range of subtleties present in the timorous Shug’s moment of assertion, showing her range as an actress in the process. Ten years later, it’s almost impossible to picture another actress in the role, but Henson barely got it. Terrence Howard, her eventual Empire co-star, envisioned another actress in the role.
"Initially, I wanted Meagan Good; that was the picture of the little girl that I had," Howard told the Post. Conveying her persuasive powers through performance, Henson had to prove she was the right actress for the job. "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.'" Her refusal to be overlooked paid off.
Hustle & Flow was the avenue into more substantial work. The same summer it was released, she reunited with Singleton and Howard again in Four Brothers. Subsequent appearances in Something New, Smokin’ Aces, and Talk to Me, and work on shows including House M.D. and Boston Legal established her as a solid character actress, but her performance in a modern adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald classic literally placed her in a category with some of the best actresses working.
Just a few years removed from fighting for her role in Hustle & Flow, Henson was cast in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, but Henson also scored an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Button’s pseudo-adoptive mother, Queenie. Because the film spans several decades, she was forced to play Queenie at different ages. In a 2008 interview with Variety, Henson explained that watching her own grandmother during a family visit before filming took place sculpted her portrayal of Queenie.
"There was a woman there to portray every age I was going to act in this film, so I just sat there and watched them all," she explained. In the same article, screenwriter Eric Roth praised Henson's interpretation of the character. "She layered the thing and articulated the character better than I had written it," he told Variety. "I thought the performance was pretty startling. The danger of the thing is going into some stereotypical character, and I thought she gave it a separateness and a dignity."
She received the highest possible recognition for what’s arguably her most impressive work, but that remains less talked about than her performing “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” with Three 6 Mafia at the Oscars in 2006. Empire’s ratings-machine status is the major factor, but her Oscar nomination being discussed less than this year’s Emmy nomination inspires ambivalence. That just emphasizes how underrated she was previously, as well as how much noise she’s made as Cookie Lyon. What's funny is that she nailed the role it seems like she was born to play by completely distancing herself from it.
In Henson's Variety interview, she talked about "[Getting] out of the character’s way." "[Gag] and bound Taraji because she has nothing to do with the character," she said. She may have Cookie tendencies, but removing herself from the equation and drawing from another inspirational source allowed her to bring the passion that makes Cookie Lyon feel so real. According to Henson, Cookie is inspired by her late father, Boris.
"Actually, Cookie is my dad," she told The Hollywood Reporter in June. "He was a very straight, no chaser. He said it like it was, and nine times out of 10, he was right. You either loved him or you hated him because he was speaking truth, straight truth right at you." That's definitely Cookie Lyon, and this method was learned over the course of a long career that was underappreciated until now.
On "My God," Pusha T made a bold proclamation about the start of his solo career: "This is the end for all my unrecognized greatness." That lyric applies to the current state of Henson's career, as 2014 was the last year she'll fail to receive the praise she deserves. She’s transitioned from sitcom guest-star, to Oscar nominee, to one of the most engaging actresses in television and cinema. Moving forward, she’ll no longer be known as "Yvette from Baby Boy," and no one should get comfortable referring to her as "Cookie from Empire." Everyone is now aware that Taraji P. Henson is one of Hollywood’s biggest talents.
It’s about fucking time.