It’s been a few years since fans saw Taraji P. Henson on the silver screen, though her memorable role as Cookie Lyon on FOX’s Empire still holds a place as one of the best characters on television in recent years.
In April, Henson returned to TV in her guest-starring role on the ABC hit show Abbott Elementary as Janine Teagues’ mother, Vanetta. The actress, who says she doesn’t believe in small roles, makes a meal out of her role as Vanetta Teagues.
“I don’t care if it’s one line or two words. I treat it as if it’s a leading role,” said Henson.
Although this was the first time viewers saw Vanetta, her presence loomed large as writers developed Janine’s background in seasons 1 and 2. Viewers found out Janine and her mother had a rocky relationship, with Janine often acting as the parent growing up. We learned that Janine’s mother was irresponsible, and instead of giving her kids attention, she was busy hitting the clubs. The role demanded a seasoned actress who could ground the character but still make her fit in the world of the laugh-out-loud comedy. So when news broke that Taraji P. Henson would step into this role, it felt like the stars aligned.
With her faux fur coat, Gucci bag perched, and bejeweled cell phone, Henson stole every scene she was in. One of the most notable scenes from her episode “Mom” was seeing her square off against Sheryl Lee Ralph. It’s a performance deserving of an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy.
Awards Radar spoke to Taraji P. Henson on her return to TV, the collaborative process on Abbott Elementary, and the looming SAG-AFTRA strike.
Niki Cruz: You’ve been in film and on TV, but what attracts you to television, specifically?
Taraji P. Henson: You reach more people. There are more eyeballs on TV because everybody’s not going to the theater, especially after COVID. It’s something to be on the tube, in everybody’s faces. I’m in Saint-Tropez right now, and people are coming up to me because of Empire. So that goes to show you how many eyeballs are watching you when you’re on television, as opposed to a movie. That’s the difference.
NC: You have that Empire syndication and a built-in audience from streaming alone.
NC: You’ve played different characters over the years, and they all have a sense of truth to them, no matter their personality, whether they’re bombastic or not. How do you find that truth within a character?
TPH: That’s my job as an actor. I have to make sure the audience can connect and that they can see themselves or see somebody they know in these characters that I’m portraying. How do I make this part real? How do I breathe truth into a role?
NC: And with television, whether it’s a mini-series or a network television show, they all have their own rhythm. Was it easy to jump into Abbott Elementary as a guest star?
TPH: Well, I’m a fan of Abbott, so I’ve watched from the beginning until up until it was time for me to join the cast. And I understood the rhythm. I’m a huge Office watcher, so I get the similarities, but also, what a lot of people may or may not know about me is that I was a substitute teacher before my career took off. So I was always interested in a show about teachers and what they go through, and thank God for Quinta [Brunson] because she nailed it.
NC: She did! And I’m sure you have stories galore about being a substitute teacher.
TPH: That’s a whole other conversation! [Laughs]
NC: The writers created this backstory through Quinta’s character Janine. Her relationship with her mother made her who she is. It made her a people pleaser. It made her someone averse to conflict. That’s some meaty material to work with.
TPH: It was all there, I promise. It was all on the page. I didn’t have to do much but suspend my disbelief and go there. I got it right away. When I went to my wardrobe fitting, they kept saying, “Well we don’t want her to clash with Quinta, with the patterns,” I said, “Well, do you realize she gets her dressing from her mother? It may be her version of it.”
Like you said, her mother is very loud and bombastic, even in dressing. So even though Janine’s more conservative, she’s still gathered that from her mother for sure, and they were like, “Oh yeah, I get it. I can see it!” This woman is something else. She’s not a quiet person. This is a woman who does not want to age. She’s fighting it because she became a mother at a young age.
NC: One of the most exciting aspects was seeing Vanetta with Barbara since Barbara is a maternal figure to Janine and a mother she probably needed or wanted to have. What was it like getting to act opposite Sheryl Lee Ralph?
TPH: It was great having a sparring partner. We would raise each other’s level and ability of acting because she would throw something at me, I would catch it, and I would throw it back at her. It was just beautiful. I enjoyed every moment with every character. They made me feel like I was a part of the family. I didn’t feel like an outsider. They immediately embraced me, and we just had fun.
NC: I love that it felt like a family. Things were open-ended for Vanetta and Janine. Are you open to coming back for more?
TPH: I would love to come back for more. Absolutely!
NC: Even though we’re talking about Abbott, and that’s network television, I was thinking back to the beginning of Empire and how much television has changed with streamers these days.
TPH: The days when I still received a residual check? Oh yeah, those days. [Laughs]
NC: And now we’re in a completely different time, and it’s a whole different story for creatives.
TPH: Yes, it’s different. We have to take a stand. People don’t realize that, as actors, that work lives on. You shouldn’t get to see my work free of charge. I should be compensated for it—that’s why the writers are striking, and the actors are soon, too. A lot of people survive off of residual income, and that has dissipated because of streaming. It’s just not fair. The difference between music and the TV/film industry is that we are unionized, so we can fight. The time has come.
NC: Streaming has been around for a while, so it’s about time they figure something out for the writers, actors, producers, and all of the creatives. Before I let you go, since Abbott is about teachers, what teacher made a difference in your life?
TPH: It started in Kindergarten. I don’t remember this teacher, but she knew that I was a special child. I was very rambunctious. I had a lot of energy, and she chose me to sing at the kindergarten graduation.
When I was in the fifth grade, Mrs. Lane I’ll never forget Mrs. Lane. I used to get in trouble a lot because I talked in class, but she knew how to channel it, and she put me in my first stage production. She was sewing the seeds. My seventh-grade teacher Mrs. Hawkins saw in me my talent and introduced me to Shakespeare.
When I re-enrolled in acting at Howard University, there was Dr. Henri Edmonds. There was Professor Katz. There was Mike Malone. There were so many professors that guided me and said, “This is what you’re supposed to do.” And this is why I am the actor that I am today.
[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]