Taraji P. Henson and Jeffrey Wright Bond Over Conquering All Genres: ‘If It Doesn’t Scare the S— Out of Me, I Don’t Want to Do It’

As Jeffrey Wright and Taraji P. Henson sit down to discuss their acclaimed performances — as cantankerous novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in “American Fiction” and sensuous singer Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” — Wright is eager to address one topic first: their shared hometown. It turns out both acting titans hail from Washington, D.C. “I’m wondering if we might be family,” Wright, an Emmy and Tony winner, jokes. But he’s truly curious about how growing up in the nation’s capital has informed Henson’s acting. She credits the city’s “tough audiences” — and her hard-earned diploma from Howard University — with giving her the thick skin she needed to create an iconic character like Cookie on “Empire,” as well as for her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

TARAJI P. HENSON: I’ve been a student of your work for a very long time. You are absolutely one of the top in the game, one of my favorites. When people go, “You want a career like …” or “I want to do work like …,” it’s usually the same sex. But it was always you and Don Cheadle. I remember watching “Basquiat,” and I was like, “That’s the work I want to do.”

JEFFREY WRIGHT: Wow.

HENSON: After that, I watched everything you did like this. [She leans in.]

WRIGHT: Oh, don’t look too close at it.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

HENSON: You’re humble. That’s great. I get it. But I just wanted to give you your flowers. Because I know how it can be in the industry.

WRIGHT: I appreciate that. Thank you.

HENSON: You knock it out of the ballpark every time.

WRIGHT: Sometimes. A couple of foul tips here and there, but I make contact.

HENSON: It comes with the territory.

WRIGHT: It does. I watched “The Color Purple,” and I’d forgotten it’s based on the musical. It’s an iconic book, iconic film, iconic performances. That’s very challenging, to come back and reinvent. It was so beautiful and so dynamic. You studied musical theater at Howard?

HENSON: I started off as just regular drama. Then I went to rehearsal for “Dreamgirls,” and when they started singing, I was like, “Oh, my God! I want to do this.” I switched my major and was very successful in the musical theater department. But then I got pregnant my junior year. Now I’m a mother, time is ticking, and I can’t stay in college forever. Music theory is like math; I suck at math, so I switched back to drama.

WRIGHT: You were great at math in the movie [2016’s “Hidden Figures”].

HENSON: I’m good at acting because I failed pre-calc.

WRIGHT: Fake it till you make it.

HENSON: I love that you get to show your comedic chops in “American Fiction.”

WRIGHT: When I was in college, I was a political science major, but I started acting my junior year. This first teacher we had had gone to Yale drama school, and I asked if he would write me a letter of recommendation. I said, “I want to apply to Yale, and I think I want to be an actor.” He said, “Oh, you might be an Eddie Murphy type, but I don’t think you would be a serious actor.”

HENSON: He said that?

WRIGHT: It was ridiculous. I love Eddie. Eddie’s one of the baddest ever. But it was also because I used to cut up with everything. We could be doing Chekhov, and I would try to find the humor. So I’ve always done comedy, particularly onstage. But I’ve never really, for whatever reason, in film. This was nice because it’s sharply tuned and smart and topical. It’s funny, but it’s not a comedy.

HENSON: Absolutely.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

WRIGHT: The social commentary and the satire is wrapping for the gift that is this story of this man who all of a sudden is left with his thumbs in the dike of this family that is coming apart. That was what drew me and what I understood emotionally and personally. Because we reach that age where all of a sudden everybody’s looking at you to be the adult in the room. My mom actually passed away not too long before I got this script.

HENSON: Oh, I’m so sorry.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Our director, Cord Jefferson, had similar resonances with this story of this guy trying to be the caretaker of the one who was his caretaker. I love the comedy elements of it and the irony. We had a ball with it. But the real heart of it was the story of this crazy, loving, weird — as they all are — family that happens to be Black folks. It’s really the most subversive element of the story.

HENSON: That’s interesting. You say that comedy was your thing in the beginning of your career, well before you became “Jeffrey Wright, the serious dramatic actor.” That’s true for me too. When I moved to L.A., I thought I was going to book a sitcom because I was a single mother and I needed that schedule. I was like, “Good, I can drop the kid off, go to work, and I’ll be there to pick him up. This is perfect for me.” Then I booked “Baby Boy,” and after that I was this dramatic actress. I was like, “But I’m funny!”

WRIGHT: You have that energy about you. Because sometimes the funniest stuff is in the most dramatic films.

HENSON: The best dramatic actors are the comedians because they tap another level that maybe the most serious dramatic actors miss — and that’s the humor. We will laugh at the same thing that makes us cry in that same breath. How do you pick roles?

WRIGHT: The thing for me has always been the words on the page — the script. But also it’s the people I work with, the collaboration. There are two movies that I was most personally aligned with in terms of characters — this movie and “Basquiat.” They’re similar stories about artistic identity and that attempt to be one’s authentic, artistic Black self: “This is who I am. If you don’t get it, that’s not my problem.” Some things just choose you.

HENSON: Yeah, some just fall right in your lap. When “The Color Purple” went to Broadway, [composer and lyricist] Stephen Bray reached out to me to play Shug. And I was like, “Oh, no. Not this throat.” Singing, that’s your instrument, and I don’t practice every day. It’s something that I can do when I have to do it.

WRIGHT: Broadway is a different story.

HENSON: Look, I knew better. And I was like, “Nope.” So like you said, if it’s meant for you, you can’t run from it — because years later it came back.

WRIGHT: Have you ever done other pieces where you sang like this?

HENSON: In college. But there’s nothing out in the universe that shows me singing like this. “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” [from 2005’s “Hustle & Flow”] wasn’t singing. Anybody can do that; you sing it once and they loop it. Shug is challenging vocally. She’s the only one in the film that sings all the genres — gospel, jazz and the blues — and that’s not easy. Acting, I’m strong in, because I practice every day. That’s something I can do with my eyes closed. In my sleep. Singing, I really have to focus on. I’m not as confident in it; I second-guess myself a lot.

WRIGHT: You act like you’re confident. Not only the singing, but the movement — it was just full on. Anybody can sing, but can you reach down?

HENSON: That’s where the acting helps. Because whenever I couldn’t get a note, they were like, “Just imagine yourself …” And as soon as I had to use my imagination, I would get it.

WRIGHT: But that’s wonderful, right? Because you’re what, 23 years old?

HENSON: Actually, 25. Thanks.

WRIGHT: It’s wonderful at this age to be able to discover new challenges.

HENSON: That’s actually how I pick my roles. If it doesn’t scare the shit out of me, I don’t want to do it. Because I feel like if I’m challenged, then that means I have to change or transform. And if I’m changed and transformed, then the audience will be.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Variety Actors on Actors is presented by “American Fiction.”

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