From a murdered homicide detective to a ruthless ex-con who doesn’t blink at ordering a hit,Taraji P. Henson has played a wide range of gritty parts in her busy career.
Now in its fifth season, television drama Empire has won particular acclaim for Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon, a hip-hop family matriarch who served 17 years in prison for dealing drugs.
That role earned Henson a Golden Globe Award, along with her usual bumper crop of accolades, but the character wasn’t exactly a day at the beach. “It’s this combination of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Mama Rose on crack meets Lee Daniels’ sister,” says Danny Strong, who co-created the show with Daniels. After all that cut-throat drama, Henson was yearning for a change of pace. “I’ve been dying to do a comedy,” says the 48-year-old actress.
She could hardly have imagined a more promising opportunity than What Men Want, the sequel to the romantic comedy What Women Want. It’s been nearly two decades since Mel Gibson schemed, lied and wooed his way into Helen Hunt’s heart as a chauvinist advertising executive who’s passed over for a promotion—only to get revenge on his female rival when an accident with a hair dryer gives him the magical ability to hear women’s secret thoughts.
What Men Want, which is directed by Adam Shankman, stars Henson as a sports agent who’s denied the promotion she deserves. After gaining the power to hear men’s thoughts, she scrambles to outfox her male colleagues in signing the next basketball superstar. But the sequel arrives at a very different cultural moment from What Women Want, a 2000 box-office smash directed by Nancy Meyers. From the #MeToo movement to the blue wave of women in politics, gender relations are volatile these days—and the movie tries hard to keep up with a fast-moving zeitgeist.
“There’s a heated debate between my character and her boss where he says, ‘If it weren’t for this #MeToo movement, I’d fire your ass!’” Henson reports. “So I say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fire me because I’m a woman?’ and he goes, ‘I didn’t say that!’ And I say, ‘So you’re not going to fire me because I’m a black woman!’ We go there, baby—we go all the way there! Audiences are not dumb, and I don’t want to be in a movie that’s not dealing with truth.”
Despite the fireworks, Henson ultimately sees the gender divide in gentler, more inclusive terms than many of the other fissures currently rending American society. “You get a lot of wisecracks about what men want, but I think men want the same things women want in a relationship,” she says. “You want trust; you want loyalty; you want to feel safe; you want unconditional love. Everyone wants a mate.”
Although the plot of What Women Want revolved around workplace competition, no one was surprised when the professional rivals ended up in each other’s arms. Since then, both times and tastes have changed, and Henson was determined to transcend the usual fairy-tale formula for the heroine’s transformation in the sequel. “Her strength and her metamorphosis don’t come from a man,” she explains. “She hopes to find a man, but it’s not like Prince Charming comes along and all of a sudden her life is better. Her change in becoming a better woman comes from her own process of learning from her mistakes and growing as an individual.”