Empire starlet Taraji P. Henson is featured in the October 2016 issue of Redbook.
Taraji P. Henson is, quite amazingly, snuggled on a couch grabbing a catnap at Redbook‘s cover shoot, oblivious to the pumping music and 20-plus people whizzing around her. When I tiptoe past, I spot two tattoos: a short phrase on her inner arm and a tiny heart with a name next to it on her wrist.
A week later, when we meet at her publicist’s office to chat, she gives me a closer look at them and two other tattoos. The phrase spells out The Truth, which the 46-year-old actress says defines the way she has chosen to live her life. On her lower back is a phoenix rising from the ashes, a symbol of the struggles she has overcome; a pair of pretty angel wings on her back shoulder is a grateful reminder of the freedom she has found. Finally, next to the heart on her wrist is her 22-year-old son’s name, Marcell. As Taraji explains her ink — and her often-precarious path from childhood in a dangerous Washington, DC, neighborhood to superstar actress — I realize that the same character trait that allowed her to snooze soundly at the photo studio is also what underlies her success. She has an uncanny ability to tune out the inner voice we all have that whispers “Not possible,” about everything from sleeping through chaos to realizing an unlikely dream.
A little taste of her superpower at work: In 1996, the newly minted college grad moved to Los Angeles with $700 in her pocket, a baby on her hip, and no plan besides “Make it as an actress.” By Hollywood’s standard of “making it” — the number of major award recognitions you’ve received — she has. So far, she’s been nominated for an Oscar, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and three Emmys, two of them for her role as the deliciously devious Cookie Lyon on Fox’s smash hit Empire, for which she also won a Golden Globe.
Along the way, Taraji has inspired legions of fans who, when they meet or write her, often ask for advice on staying strong when the odds are stacked against you. It is for them that Taraji says she wrote her new memoir, Around the Way Girl. “God didn’t give me anything more than he gave anyone else,” she says. “We’re all born with a deck of cards and no instructions on how to play them. All God gave us was choice. You can choose to wake up sad or to wake up happy. I chose not to live in fear and to make the best of my life. You can’t put your happiness into anybody’s hands but your own.”
On holding out for the right kind of romantic relationship: “If I was going to get married, it had to be for love, because I wanted [my son] Marcell to see that real kind of love — the kind I yearn for. That old couple crooked and bent over but still holding hands. I know that kind of love exists and I’m not going to stop until I have that.”
How being overprotective of children isn’t doing them any favors: “These days we’re so busy protecting our kids, when we really should be pulling back the blinds and showing them that we live in a world that’s not always fair and moral. Sometimes we try to protect our children so much that when something doesn’t go right in their lives, they’re unprepared to deal with adversity. I don’t think that does our kids any favors.”
On being a single mother and feeling the pressure to do it all: “It depends on what women equate success with. I think we try to do our best. And yes, we can do it all, but I wouldn’t wish being a single parent on my worst enemy. It is not easy.”
Why she’s not afraid of aging: “I grew up watching women in my family embrace getting older and I think that’s healthy. You ought to see my grandmother: She is 92, looks great, still travels, and dates a younger man. I’m 46 and I’m proud. Men don’t lie about their age, so why should women?”
The season premiere of Empire airs September 21 on Fox.
Photo Credit: Yu Tsai for Redbook