Starting as a single mother in Washington, D.C., to moving to Los Angeles with $700 in her pocket and becoming the ‘it-woman’, to now having 20 years under her crown, Henson’s inspiring story showcases why she is of the industry's finest.
The Hollywood ‘filmstress’ explores the dynamics of What Men Want, a flip of the script from Nancy Meyer’s What Women Want (2000), which starred Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson. In the movie, Henson (48) plays Ali Davis, a self-assured sports agent whose world is rocked when she gets passed over for a big promotion. Seeking to regain her stride, she visits a psychic -- played by our beloved Erykah Badu -- who gives Ali a special tea that allows her to hear men’s thoughts.
Henson sat down with InStyle’s Sarah Cristobal and gave us sip upon sip about becoming a Hollywood headliner.
On getting a chance to flex her musical-theater-trained muscles as the lead in a full-fledged comedy:
“I’ve always been the funny girl. Not that I was pigeonholed. They were all great dramatic roles, but I’ve been dying. I just felt so honored and grateful to get a comedy where I could let it all hang out. My best friend was like, ‘Lord, they don’t know what they have unleashed.’ ”
On how, despite having major roles in Oscar-nominated films Hidden Figures and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she has never had a movie studio bring her overseas to do press. Yet, TV network Fox has -- for her role as Cookie Lyons on the high-profile drama, Empire.
“Hollywood executives would tell me that I don’t have fans all the way over there. “I said, ‘You’re lying because they can reach me any time. I’m a finger tap away, and they let me know every day.’ Then we go to Paris [to promote Empire], and it’s standing room only in a room with 1,500 seats.
I cried. If you believe what people tell you … you can’t let people tell you shit.”
As an only child until age 17, the product of a Vietnam War vet father who battled PTSD and alcoholism and a mother with an endless drive and passion, Henson’s roots grew into a strong sense of self.
“I was like the Punky Brewster of the hood. I was a well-rounded kid, but I could also scrap if necessary. But I wasn’t that hard. I still had Strawberry Shortcake wallpaper in my room, and my friend Tracie and I were doing Shakespeare in the Park … and we were in the f—ing hood.”
After failing out of math at North Carolina A&T while studying to be an engineer, the Think Like A Man actress called her father Boris to tell him the news and get his advice. To her surprise, he answered….
“Good! Get your ass back up to D.C. and enroll in Howard’s drama department. Do what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Art is powerful, and now that Henson has more weight in the industry, she is selecting projects that are impactful -- like The Best of Enemies, a film about civil-rights activist Ann Atwater and her unlikely friendship with C.P. Ellis (portrayed by Sam Rockwell), a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. She is also starring in and producing a movie about Emmett Till, the teenager who was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.
“I don’t care if you’re young or old or what color you are, art is so powerful. You can show things to people you’ve never met and you broaden horizons. I don’t take for granted what I have, and I try to use it in any way I can, positively.”
There’s no secret about the pay gap or lack of diversity in Hollywood, but speaking on important industry issues is quite different than following through with common-sense action. Here’s Henson's take:
“Here’s the deal: When you talk about money, don’t you want to make money? I want every walk of life [in my films]. If I could put an alien in, I would. I want their money too. Come on, it’s what the world looks like. That’s what people want to see, representation. That’s all. You can make money doing it. It’s a no-brainer.”
In the name of her beloved father, Henson established the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which encourages African-Americans with mental health issues to seek help.
“My white friends have standing appointments with their therapists. I was like, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’ In our culture, it’s taboo. The black men stepped up. Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, Tracy Morgan, Chance the Rapper all stepped up. I called, they answered. Snoop told me, ‘Baby girl, that’s important. What you’re doing is important.’ Tyrese said, ‘You’re making it cool to seek help.’ ”
After dating him under the radar for three years before he proposed last Mother’s Day, Henson is engaged to former NFL cornerback and Super Bowl XLI winner Kelvin Hayden, who now runs his own gym. The two plan to wed in a private, low-key ceremony.
“I’m not going to go through 10,000 dresses. How does it fit? How do I feel? Does it complement me well? Let’s just go with this one. I know what looks good on me. I’m not going to spend 10 hours on a fitting. I hate that.”
While filming The Best of Enemies, Henson made the switch to veganism after suffering massive stomach pains. After speaking with a doctor from Macon, GA, she now opts for a healthier lifestyle.
“It took a doctor in Macon, Ga., to say, ‘If you don’t change what you’re doing, you’re going to get stomach cancer.’ I said, ‘Say no more.’ So I switched everything up out of necessity. I want to live. Thank God, because I feel so much better.”
Now on top of the world, the starlet has no plans to slow down -- she wants to grow and expand her repertoire.
“The older I get, I want to work smarter, not harder.” She’ll answer that superhero hotline if it rings — “DC, Marvel, you all can call me!”
With a flourishing career and ever-growing legacy, there's no doubt that Henson is on top of her game. Mother to now 25-year-old son Marcell, an aspiring rapper and music producer, and K-Ball, a miniature French bulldog, Henson is in the perfect position to break down more barriers and shine the brightest light where it matters most.
By the time she's done, Henson will retire as one of the greatest to ever step foot in Hollywood. And as she paves the way for little brown girls and women to come, I salute Henson, as I adjust my own crown.