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She steals the show from Brad and Cate

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by RM Vaughan, Globe and Mail (Canada)

tarajihenson1If you were a young actor suddenly thrown into a pivotal role in a blockbuster holiday film starring the formidable likes of Brat Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton, and directed by the same auteur who made Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac, would you a) hide in your trailer, b) bribe the editor not to cut all your scenes, or c) make like Taraji P. Henson and steal the show?

Playing Queenie, the title character’s adoptive mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which opened Dec. 25), Henson brings lots of life to David Fincher’s often-sombre meditation on life and death. She charges into every scene like an old-school Broadway bruiser, taking charge of the film’s intentionally meandering, dreamy emotional tone and giving it some sharp, no-nonsense vibrancy. When the film wanders away from Queenie and turns the spotlight wholly on Pitt’s Benjamin Button, one yearns for her return.

Although this is Henson’s biggest role to date, and certainly her most high-profile, she is hardly a neophyte. In the past decade, she has done an enormous amount of TV — including guest spots on ER, Murder She Wrote, House, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Boston Legal — and starred in the art-house hits Smokin’ Aces, Baby Boy and Hustle & Flow (for which she won both BET and MTV movie awards). She was last seen in one of Tyler Perry’s money-spinning comedies, The Family That Preys, wherein she played yet another tough-love type.

Reese Witherspoon, watch your back. You no longer have the steely-but-still-cute market cornered.

All the female characters in Benjamin Button understand that Benjamin’s strange life [the character is aging backward] is ultimately a curse, while the male characters only see the immediate, superficial benefits.

I don’t really think that Queenie looks at it as a problem. Queenie, in particular, is one of those people who take life, you know, life as “it is what it is.” I mean, what are you gonna do about it? I never got that from Queenie, that Benjamin’s life was a curse.

But she understands that his life will be difficult, to watch all his friends and loved ones grow old and die while he gets younger and younger.

Yeah, I mean, you know — it’s difficult, but then again, Queenie’s black, and being black in that time was difficult. So she didn’t make a fuss, she didn’t apologize for it, she didn’t look at it as a hindrance, it’s just reality. You still have to live your life. I thought she was amazing at finding the joy in everything — ’cause she could have kept Benjamin in a closet, but she didn’t. She gave him what he needed to go out into the world and be the man that he was.

There’s a long history in American sentimental movies of African-American characters being wise and stoic, and existing only to provide homilies to the white characters. But Queenie is a departure from that — she is not a saint.

Ha! Right! She is just a regular woman. I had one reporter tell me that he loved the fact that in American cinema, sometimes when you do a dated piece like this, the black woman is the nurse role, or the “mammy” kind of character, and that we didn’t go in that direction. We didn’t want to go in that direction, because she is a very proud woman. She doesn’t make any excuses for where she is in life. She just takes it as it comes, and still finds ways to smile, to find the beauty in everything, including Benjamin.

And she has a full life on the screen — a romantic life, a domestic life.

Absolutely, absolutely. I’m glad that they kept that in, and Eric Roth wrote that in, because it’s important. And for Benjamin, for his upbringing, he sees with Queenie what love is. He was able to love because of Queenie. If you don’t understand what love is, if you’re not surrounded by it, you don’t see it when you’re growing up, then how do you know what it is?

What’s it like to work with someone like Brad Pitt, whose life is constantly being scrutinized? Did it make you think about what kind of fame you want?

Yeah, because who does want that? But the way he handles himself … I was blown away by how normal he is, and not affected by it all. And I asked him — I was, like, “How do you do it? I don’t understand how you are able to live, when you got people camping outside of your house.” He said, “We just move around.” And I said, “Well, you’re not doing a very good job because they follow you wherever you go!” Ha! I didn’t know really what to expect with him, but because I am an actress, I do know there is that persona you see on the red carpet, and then there’s the real person. So I was looking forward to meeting the real person.

In the scenes with you and the baby Benjamin, who looks freakish, what did they use? CGI? A real baby with makeup?

It was pretty much a robot. It was an animatronic baby that required three puppeteers off screen to operate it. But it was silicone, so it felt real, and the weight felt real … and, you know, I’m an actress, so…. Ha!

You’ve got four films coming out in the next year.

Well, one of them is an independent film. Who knows when that will come out!

So, no more The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle for you.

Ha! I actually ended up on the editing floor for that. By the time they finished, all I could see was the back of my afro. But it’s in there! Ha! I still got paid! I still get a 15-cent residual cheque now and then!

PARTICULARS

Born

Sept. 11, 1970, Washington D.C.

Her double life

Studied electrical engineering at North Carolina Agric & Tech, but failed pre-calculus. She worked two jobs: in the morning as a secretary at the Pentagon; at night as a singing and dancing waitress on a dinner cruise ship. She graduated from Howard University in 1995.

Where do I know
that voice from?
Played the pregnant singing prostitute who lays down a demo (which went on to win an Oscar in 2006) with Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow.

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Written by Symphony

December 29, 2008 at 7:44 am

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