The powerhouse actress and star of What Men Want (who has gone by the name Cookie both on Empire and IRL) is a walking master class on surviving and thriving no matter what.


PLAYBOY: In What Men Want, you play a woman who’s able to hear what men are thinking. Do you actually want to know what men are thinking?

HENSON: I don’t want that. I have too much shit rattling around in my head already. We shouldn’t need that anyway. If men were just honest and put their shit on the table, then we wouldn’t need no voodoo. We need more communication. Once you start talking, you realize that men and women want the same goddamn things. They want someone they can trust with their heart, they want protection, they want security. That’s what we all want as humans. It’s not deep.

PLAYBOY: The movie’s premise is that men think we know everything about women, but we actually have no idea. Help us fill in the blanks. What do guys not know about women that we really should?

HENSON: Women only get emotional or upset when we’re pushed. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, it gets provoked. Just because I’m emotional doesn’t make me crazy. Men have to own their part in that. What did you do to take me here? Just because you don’t want to deal with it, you can’t say, “She’s crazy.” You have to listen, listen, listen to your woman. That goes both ways. You can’t stay stuck in mad. When my man drives me up the wall, I try to think about what happened and what I did to add to it. What can I own in this? You’ve got to be a grown up to be in a relationship. It can’t be, “I love you just as long as you’re doing right by me.” Love is, “I love you even when you fall. I love you even when I hate your ass. You piss me off, but I made dinner for your stank ass anyway cause I love you.”

PLAYBOY: You’re getting married this summer to former NFL player Kelvin Hayden. Are you ready?

HENSON: We’ll find out.

[Laughs.] I’m still learning how to be ready. Every day, I’m learning how to do this, how to be better in a relationship. I just found out, in our therapy sessions, that men have fewer words than women. I didn’t know that. They run out of words. Because women are emotional, we want to talk through everything. Of course we have more words because we’re the communicators. Kelvin, he thinks he’s a comedian, any time we’re in a disagreement or I’m like “We need to talk about this,” he’ll look at me and say, “Baby, I done ran out of words.” [Laughs.] He’s joking, but I’m starting to accept that it’s true. Men don’t always have the words. You can’t fight against that. When I have things that I need Kelvin to focus on, I don’t tell him at the end of the day. Because I know he’s run out of words. But as soon as he cracks those eyes open, I’m gonna be like, “Baby! Saddle up, it’s time to talk!”

PLAYBOY: Speaking of listening to each other, your next film—out in April—is The Best of Enemies, where you play civil rights activist Ann Atwater who forms an unlikely friendship with Klan leader C.P. Ellis. Did making this movie make you want to leave your bubble? Do you want to find a guy with a MAGA hat who wants to build a wall and really get to know him?

HENSON: I do it through my art. That’s why this movie is so important. Me talking to one person is not going to be as effective as the movie. Cause it takes a big ol’ mirror and says, “Hey America, look at yourself.” Although Atwater was on the right side of history, she had the same intolerance as that man. They were both really radical in their beliefs. They had to sit across from each other, look each other in the eye, to really see themselves. We all need to get to that point with each other. We need to look at the people we disagree with and say, “You ain’t better than me. We’re the same person.”

PLAYBOY: Atwater couldn’t be more physically different than you. What was the biggest challenge in that transformation?

HENSON: I knew I had to be padded. So when I came in for my fitting, the suit they gave me had these perky little tits. I was like, “Um, I don’t know if this is gonna work.” Physicality is very important to me, especially when I’m taking on somebody who’s real. I needed big breasts, the kind that change the way you walk, and you have to think about them when you sit. I mean, the boobs on this suit, they were like my boobs. I was like, “Can you all please call Tyler Perry and ask him what Madea got in her boobs? Cause that’s what I need.” All the pictures I’ve seen of Atwater, this woman ate pork chops, ribs, cornbread, smothered chicken, fatback, neck bones. When she sat down for a meal, those titties got to rest on the table. [Laughs.]

PLAYBOY: This is our Freedom of Speech issue. Is there anyone in the world right now you wish would just shut the hell up?

HENSON: You know who I wish would shut the hell up. Shit, I don’t even got to say it. He wears a wig. And he does way too much tanning. [Laughs.] Just be quiet, just shhh, take a nap. My mama didn’t raise me to be disrespectful, so I’m not saying his name. But you know. Everybody knows. Just put his finger in a muzzle so he won’t tweet anymore. Do they have finger muzzles? [Both of our phones start vibrating and blaring with an emergency alert.] Holy crap. Is that the president? Oh my God! Oh my God! [Checks her phone. It’s an AMBER alert.] Oh shit, I was about to freak out. I seriously thought that was the president, telling us to stop talking about him. I was about to change my name and move somewhere. That is funny as hell. I know they’re spying on us. On our phones, on everything. Sometimes I’ll say something and Siri will just come alive and I’m like, “Bitch, I didn’t call for you!” I’m going to become Amish, that’s what the fuck I’m going to do. Just get all this technology out of my life.

PLAYBOY: You grew up in a rough part of Washington, D.C. Did you ever feel unsafe, or were your parents able to shield you from that?

HENSON: It was what it was. You acclimate to your surroundings if you want to survive. My mom was robbed twice, and I was with her both times. Once when I was six and then again when I was seven. I’m sure she was petrified. I know I was as a child. It definitely traumatized me. But her strength is what made me feel safe enough to leave the house again and not be afraid. She didn’t give me a choice. The next day, she woke me up and said, “Come on, let’s go, time for school.” I couldn’t believe it. There she was, getting ready for work with a black eye, trying to cover it up with makeup, combing over the bald spot where the guy had pulled out one of her plugs. That’s strength. She instilled that in me.

PLAYBOY: Did growing up like that give you street smarts?

HENSON: Not really. Listen, not everybody from the hood got street smarts. I know some dumbass motherfuckers in the hood, let me tell you. [Laughs.] What gave me street smarts was getting out of the hood. Every weekend, my mom took me to a predominantly white neighborhood in the suburbs to see my cousin Kim. I played with Mary Beth and Karen and Josh, all the kids with the suburban names. It made me a well-rounded kid. You could drop me off anywhere, this little girl from the hood, and I could get along with anybody. That’s why I always tell kids, get out of your ZIP code. Education is getting to know other people and other cultures. Most inner city kids never even get downtown. If you’re afraid to leave your ZIP code, you’re never going to become part of the world.

PLAYBOY: Were you a rebellious kid or did you follow the rules?

HENSON: I followed the rules. Because my mother didn’t play. She did not play. She put the fear of God into me. And that’s what you should do. If you fear your parents, then you ain’t going out in the streets acting an ass. The worst I ever screwed up was in seventh grade. I had some girlfriends over, and we started calling phone sex lines. It was a 999 number. We thought it was like 888. It’s free! So we called these numbers, and then a week later my mom got a phone bill for $600. That’s more than she paid in rent! She’s already struggling to make ends meet, and now here’s a phone bill she can’t afford because her daughter thought it’d be funny to call a sex line. I thought my mom was going to murder me. The fact that she didn’t lay hands on me is a miracle. Obviously, I had no idea how bad it would be. Why would I call a phone sex line if I knew the end result could be death? My death! Why would I kill myself? Why would I do that? I had too much to live for. I had dreams and aspirations.

PLAYBOY: You grew up watching and idolizing comedians like Carol Burnett and Richard Pryor. What made their comedy so relatable?

HENSON: I think it’s because so much of comedy clearly comes from trauma. That’s what drives me sometimes. I had a lot of trauma in my life. You gotta laugh to keep from crying. It just felt so important when I was younger to watch this stuff. I remember begging my father, “Please please take me to see Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip!” I was nine. My father said, “Okay, but if you tell your mother, this never happened.” He warned me that Richard could get a little explicit, and I was like, “Oh Daddy, but he’s funny! He’s going to make me laugh!” We got in there and my dad had a beer and he fell straight asleep, and I’m sitting watching Pryor talk about dick and pussy. I was like mortified. I had to process that shit.

PLAYBOY: You play a character named Cookie on Empire, which also happened to be your nickname in college. How were you first christened as Cookie

HENSON: One of my dearest friends in the world, Guinea Bennett, she and I started this club called Soul Nation, which later on became a non-for-profit theater in Dallas. We were kids who came of age in the 70s and proud of it. When we were at Howard (University in Washington, D.C.), Guinea and I and all our friends bought our clothes at thrift stores and wore bell bottoms. We gave each other new names, like Leroy, Tyrone, things that sounded like the 70s. Guinea, her name was Juanita. My best friend Tracy, her name was Suge. Mine was Cookie. The full name was Cookie Gwendolyn Jones. I don’t know why they picked Cookie for me. I think it’s because I reminded Guinea of her aunt Cookie, who was a sassy spitfire. When I got the job on Empire, I called all my college girlfriends and told them, “You will never fucking believe this. I’m Cookie again!”

PLAYBOY: You briefly gave up acting to study electrical engineering. How far did you get?

HENSON: Not far. I was just panicking cause I auditioned for a performing arts school and didn’t get in. So I thought, ‘That’s it, I can’t act. I gotta find something else to do with my life.’ I was hanging out with very smart girls, and my girlfriend Candice said she was going to pursue electrical engineering. And I’m like, “I’ll do that too!” Just because I knew I had to go to college. And ooooooh baby, it was bad. I failed with flying colors. You have to know your weaknesses and your strengths. Math is not a strength. I still count like this. [Uses her fingers to count.] I’m not going to be an engineer. My brain doesn’t work like that. When I told my dad I’d failed precalculus, he was like, “That’s what your ass get! You know damn well you ain’t supposed to be an engineer.” [Laughs.]

PLAYBOY:  You moved to Los Angeles after college with an infant son and seven hundred bucks in your pocket. Was that as terrifying as it sounds?

HENSON: It wasn’t really. In your 20s, you’re not scared. You feel invincible. I was an artist with a dream, and now that I was a mother I felt like it was do or die. Being a parent is what kept me focused. I didn’t go to the clubs, even though they say that’s how you’re supposed to network. I have common sense, and nothing about that seemed right to me. What networking is happening at a club where people are inebriated? Tell me, what contracts are being signed? That’s stupid. I knew what I had to offer. I knew I had the acting chops, I just had to find somebody to hear me. Any time I felt scared, I would call my dad.

PLAYBOY: What did he tell you?

HENSON: He would be like, “Don’t you dare give up!” He would just be continuously sowing seeds. He used to tell me that I’d get an Oscar someday for playing Diana Ross. [Laughs.] That was his dream. And I believed him. Not about playing Diana Ross, but being an actor. He knew that I could do it and he wanted it so bad for me. Just by example, he showed me that there’s nothing that can hold you back. He was homeless for awhile, but he didn’t hide that from me. He’d drive by my school in the van he was living in and give me fifty cents, tell me everything’s going to be okay. “Watch me, I’m going to bounce back,” he told me. “I’m going to get a motorcycle, I’m going to get a house with a garage in the back so I can work from home.” He was a metal fabricator, so he could work anywhere, anytime he wanted. He was proof that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He showed me that through his actions. If you fail, you just get back up. That’s what he did. And in the end, he got his house with the garage and his Harley. His dreams came true.

PLAYBOY: Did he live to see yours come true?

HENSON: He saw Hustle & Flow happen, and he saw it get all these Oscar nominations. He was like, “You’re just getting started. You haven’t seen nothing yet.” He was gone by the time I sang (the Oscar-nominated song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”) at the Oscars. He died just two weeks prior. And I was with him in the room when it happened. He was spitting up blood, and then he died. So that was fresh in my head, and I didn’t really have time to process it. I compartmentalized that pain, and sort of numbed myself out. I went through the motions. It was surreal, being at the Oscars and looking at all the faces out there, Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman. And I’m up there singing about bitches and hoes, trying not to think about my father’s face. [Long pause, her eyes begin to water.] As soon as it was over and I went backstage, I just turned off. I had nothing left. They were trying to take me to parties but I was like, “No, just take me home.”

PLAYBOY: Why do you keep the middle initial in your name? Is the P meaningful to you?

HENSON: My publicist used to tease me about it. She was being a smartass. “Not to be confused with Taraji S. Henson or Taraji C. Henson.” I was like, “Shut up!” Most people feel like their middle name doesn’t mean anything, but mine actually does. The P is for Penda, and together with Taraji it means “hope and love” in Swahili. How could I not keep it? In this world of hate, we need more hope and we need more love. Plus, my dad named me. I’ve got to keep it. I’ve got to keep my whole name. I’m the only one with that name. There might be a few more now. People are telling me all the time, “I named my baby Taraji!” So I guess there are a lot of little Taraji’s running around out there.

PLAYBOY:  Is it easier to play a character you recognize or somebody you aspire to be?

HENSON: It doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a scientist or a surgeon or a prostitute or whatever, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to find a way to recognize the humanity in all of them. I don’t judge my characters. I don’t care if she’s a mass murderer or a child molester. You’ve got to find their truth. Not my truth, their truth. You can’t go into art with selfish reasons. If you’re doing it right, all of your hang-ups go away. What you would say or do in that circumstance, it ain’t got shit to do with you. This ain’t your story. And if it works, if you do your job right, it can break down barriers. An audience can see themselves in people they never would’ve thought to identify with. If I do a girl from the hood in a way that shows her humanity, people who might’ve driven past someone like that and sneered, “Look at that nasty ghetto bitch,” maybe they’ll look at her differently now.

PLAYBOY: What’s the nerdiest thing about you?

HENSON: I’ve always been a nerd for theater. When I went to school, it was all I did. I didn’t go to clubs or hang out. I was the nerd who was reading Shakespeare or doing plays every weekend. I was immersed in it. Even in my summer breaks, I worked in theater. That’s all I did. It made my heart pump, made me forget about my surroundings. It allowed me to think, ‘I’m bigger than this place I live in.’ Art is so important and I’m so grateful I was able to experience it in public school. It doesn’t exist now. Not as much anyway. That’s why these kids today are running around crazy. They don’t have no way to express themselves. They’ve forgotten how to have an imagination.

PLAYBOY: We can’t think of another actress more deserving of her own superhero movie. Have you ever been tempted?

HENSON: Oh my God, yes! I want to do that so bad! Do you know anyone we can call? There’s got to be somebody reading this who can make it happen, one of those superhero movie producers. Hello, I know y’all read Playboy. [Laughs.] I don’t care what the character is, I’ll take it. Just give it to me. I don’t give a shit what she looks like. She don’t have to be sexy, she can be the bad girl. I don’t have to be the hero. I played a lot of heroes, all my characters are heroes. Cookie is a hero, she’s tough, she says the shit you can’t say, she stands up for everybody. So I wouldn’t mind playing a bad person. Like the Joker. They’ve had like six guys play the Joker already, time to give a female a chance at it. I would be an amazing Joker. Come on, Hollywood, let’s do this! You’ve got to hurry up, though, I’ve got a bum knee. I won’t be able to do this action shit much longer. [Laughs.]

PLAYBOY: Have you ever had a role that looked easy on screen, but pulling it off nearly killed you emotionally or physically?

HENSON: I can already tell that the hardest one I’ll ever do is playing Emmett Till’s mother. And I haven’t even finished reading the script yet. John Singleton wrote it and it’s just brutal. Every page is making me ugly-face cry. What’s so daunting is you know the outcome. (Till was a 14-year-old black teenager killed by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.) The way John has magically and beautifully written his story, you get to know this kid, and that makes it worse. Why did they have to do this to a child? What threat was he that they had to mutilate him like that? What’s so hard is that it gets me thinking about Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and that 9-year-old kid in Brooklyn who a white woman accused of touching her ass. That’s what got Emmett Till killed! We’re in 2018 and that shit is still happening. I don’t know if people are ready for this movie. I don’t even know if I am. Just thinking about it gets me emotional. John keeps calling me and asking, “Are you done with the script?” I’m like, “John, you act like this is some Disney movie. We ain’t trying to find Nemo! This script has fucked me up! Give me a minute to process it, okay?”

PLAYBOY: Do you worry about cultural responsibility? Even if a role is meaty, what if it’s perceived as insensitive to the African-American community?

HENSON: What if it’s too “hood” or “ghetto”? Yeah, I get that. I worried about that with Cookie when I first got offered the part. I was scared of her. I was like, “What are people going to say?” You have to put the judgment aside. When that fear comes up, it’s usually judgment. Everybody may not like these images up on the screen, but baby they exist. We didn’t pull it out of the sky. If you feel moved by it, go do something. Go to the hood, donate your time so that we can eradicate that. You know what I mean? So maybe we can start seeing some changes. If people get offended by my characters or feel like they’re reflecting something back at them they don’t want to see, I did my job. I did it so well that it hurt your feelings. [Laughs.] But don’t beat me up. Don’t kill the messenger.

PLAYBOY: How are you similar to Cookie? Is there a part of you that could bust up a studio with a baseball bat if somebody crossed you?

HENSON: My clothes are too expensive, honey. I’m not going to break my nails for that. No, nuh-uh, if I’m that mad, I’ll see you in court. Or you know what? Better yet, bye. Just bye. I’ll start new and fresh, I don’t need the drama. But there’s a lot about Cookie I can relate to. I understand her fight for her family. I understand her love for her boys. I have a son. If someone tried to hurt him, I would find the strength to knock you through a brick wall. I’m a mother! That drives Cookie in everything she does, and I understand that.

PLAYBOY: Your son struggles with depression, and your dad had PTSD and depression. What keeps you out of the emotional quicksand, or is depression always lurking around the corner?

HENSON: I get depressed sometimes, but for me, it’s not excessive. It’s the normal amount of sadness, I think, when there are some days you just can’t deal. When I feel it coming, that’s when I need to attack my craft. I deal with so much in my performances. Some actors lose themselves in their characters, use it to cover up what they’re really feeling. But for me, it’s just the opposite. Every role, I’m constantly dealing with me, with my issues. It’s how I relate to these characters and make them more truthful. It can be very therapeutic. After twenty takes of the same scene, where I’m dealing with these things that are troubling me, it lifts those dark clouds. You go, “Wow, I think I’m over that now. I used it and dealt with it and now it’s good.” I can move on.

PLAYBOY: You love cooking and making meals for friends. Your pal Mary J. Blige is apparently hooked on your chili. What’s so special to you about food?

HENSON: It’s how you show people that you love them, by cooking for them. There’s so much that goes into cooking. You’ve got to go to the store and pick out all the ingredients, then clean it, prepare it, cook it, serve it, and wash the dishes. That’s love! I come from a southern family, and everybody in my family can cook, even the boys. We get together and everybody cooks. That’s how I was raised. I think you learn something from people by cooking for them or letting them cook for you. When we did Hustle & Flow in Memphis, one of the neighbors, this woman who lived next door to the house we were shooting at, she came over and was like, “I want to make y’all some peach cobbler!” The whole cast, we gave her money and she went and bought all this food and cooked it up, and we went to her house and sat down and ate with her. We all felt like family at that moment.

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Playboy magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.)