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Taraji P. Henson is coming on strong

She's landed her biggest role yet in 'Benjamin Button'

Henson has been on TV and in other films, but after her role in ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,'' which opens on Christmas, people may actually know her name. Henson has been on TV and in other films, but after her role in ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,'' which opens on Christmas, people may actually know her name. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 21, 2008
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On a recent weekday afternoon, Taraji P. Henson was having a laugh with two handsome men (let's call them Hair and Makeup) in a downtown Boston hotel suite. They had an easy camaraderie that suggested real-live showbiz chemistry, with Henson serving exuberantly as the star of their show.

When a visitor sat down to meet her, she introduced herself as The Diva. And with Hair and Makeup looking on, she swung her body to one side of an armchair, threw one leg over another, tossed her head back, and ran a hand sensuously up and down her neck.

She confessed her enthusiasm for a certain major movie star (Leonardo DiCaprio, please call this woman) and in 10 amusing seconds managed to combine about three generations of entertainment into one vamp. Her shtick was parts Lena Horne, Diana Ross, and Beyoncé. Her soft, bouncy bob (yes, it's her hair!) added a fresh layer of glamour.

If Henson weren't in the process of building a significant film career, she could easily host "The Taraji P. Henson Variety Hour." In the meantime, she's landed a meaty part as the woman who raises Brad Pitt in David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which opens on Christmas Day. In the film, Pitt reverse-ages from ancient to infant; Henson matures in the normal direction, which called for her to wear heavy prosthetics for the movie's latter stages.

Her getting the part amounts to one of those "I never thought I would get this part" stories. But as those stories go, Henson's is a good one.

"I was actually getting ready for my huge, blowout garage sale," she said. "I was making tags. I was buying racks. I was setting everything up. I transformed my garage into a boutique. Seriously, I turned my Tae-Bo kicking bag into a mannequin. And I thought, 'I'll prepare for the audition, then I'll go back to the garage sale.' "

Henson didn't yet know that a few years back, casting director Laray Mayfield had called Fincher from a movie theater. She was watching "Hustle & Flow," in which Henson played Shug, the very pregnant, very sweaty Memphis hooker who belts the Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."

Henson received a copy of what she calls the "Ben Button script" and thought, "Oh, wow. Whoever gets this is going to be so happy."

"I'm like, 'OK, this lady is nuts. She needs her medication now!' " Henson said. When the audition was over, Henson returned to her sale preparations, certain someone else would get the role. A few of her better-known friends, like Sanaa Lathan, were up for the part, too. The night before the garage sale, Henson got a call from Mayfield, who wanted her to come in and read for Fincher. "I was thinking, 'Are you kidding? It's Saturday. I have a garage sale! You are wasting my time. They're not gonna want me!' " Henson recalled.

After she read for Fincher, he asked what struck Henson as a curious question: "He wanted to know if I'd ever been in heavy prosthetics before, and I thought, 'Is he telling me I have a job?' " She didn't let herself get carried away, though. Like a lot of actors, she'd heard it all before. Her phrasing is actually better: "I know better than to count my chickens, before the ink dries."

But the ink did dry, and Henson landed in a movie with Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who plays the ballerina Ben Button loves. (As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Henson was still beside herself with disbelief.)

Her character runs an old-folks' home in early-20th century New Orleans, and sleeps in the home's dank basement, and Fincher wanted her to be assertive with the white residents in the house. Still, when the script, by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), uses a name like "Queenie," an eyebrow arches. Henson's certainly did.

As a woman 80 years removed from that time, she didn't want to condescend to the part. She wanted to stand on the character's shoulders and those of women like her - to emphasize Queenie's humanness as opposed to leaning on another movie mammy caricature.

One of her strategies was to give the character a sensual side. Another was to rethink that name. "I didn't think 'Queenie.' I thought 'Queen.' When I talked about her posture and how she would walk, she would carry herself like a queen."

Henson remembers being struck by how death was so much a part of this woman's life. "All she smells is decay," Henson said. "And this baby" - Benjamin is left one night at her doorstep - "represented life. She didn't pause. She saw that baby, and thought, 'This is my chance' " at life.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, all this "Benjamin Button" business is not an overnight thing for Henson, a Howard University graduate and single mom in her 30s. She struggled for years to get good acting work. "I have been steady climbing and fighting. I've worked so hard for this." Her movie career began seven years ago with a memorable part in John Singleton's drama "Baby Boy" as Tyrese Gibson's baby mama, Yvette. But Henson says the part that means the most to her is Vernell, the sparkplug she played in "Talk to Me," Kasi Lemmons's underrated 2007 film about the late AM talk show host Petey Greene. Frankly, she stole the movie from its stars, Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and in putting the film in her purse, she gave us a sense of how a Taraji P. Henson variety show might go.

This year she has managed to do something no actor has done: appear in a Fincher movie and a Tyler Perry movie ("Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys" was a hit in the fall). That tidbit cracks her up. But that fact is also a testament to what a protean actor she is. "It's funny because some people are often surprised that I'm the same person who played Shug and Vernell. I'm not sure who they're expecting to meet but I'm a pretty normal girl by comparison."

Henson's modesty is sincere. A few beats after she turned into a diva and talked about having DiCaprio call her, she dropped the character and cracked up at herself: "He probably doesn't even know who the hell I am!"

Give him time, Taraji. Give him time.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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