Taraji P. Henson to become a sports agent — at least on film
Packed with athlete cameos, Henson’s new comedy is on time with #MeToo, equal pay — and the blossoming of black women in Hollywood
ATLANTA — At Porsche Cars North America’s new $100 million headquarters — at the northeast corner of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — some of the luxury sports car manufacturer’s interiors have been converted into a big-deal sports agency. There’s an adjacent high-speed test track, an off-road course and a gallery of classic Porsches.
There’s a virtual putting green setup and there are countless extras — mostly young, strikingly good-looking black men — dressed to the nines before 9 on a Sunday morning, awaiting further instruction. Strategically placed throughout are basketball hoops and a larger-than-life football helmet.
And then there’s Taraji P. Henson. She stands out in this crowd with a short bob and a smart houndstooth suit jacket paired with a black pencil skirt. She’s one of the lone women who will appear on this scene — in this entire movie, really — because the world of sports agency is a man’s world.
Ahem — the world is a man’s world. Any world. Everyone’s world. And the premise of this film is built around that very notion. Henson’s character is fighting to be heard, and to break past the glass ceiling that’s keeping her at bay. She’s a brilliant sports agent, but she believes she’s being held back and looked over — and importantly, not heard or listened to — in favor of men.
Triggering. “I loved everything about the script,” Henson said later in the day. “The subject matter … is very poignant. Art imitates life, and the subject matter we’re dealing with [in this film] is actually a lot of the things we’re dealing with in the world today, as far as equal pay and being treated fairly and with the Me Too movement. It’s good when you’re doing work that is beyond just you getting a check. It’s actually helping people … forcing conversations that need to be had. I tend to gravitate towards scripts like that.”
This film — an early trailer drops today, but the film doesn’t debut until the top of next year — comes at a time when Henson’s platform is at its most amplified. Seventeen years after gifting us Yvette in John Singleton’s classic Baby Boy, Henson is a magazine cover star, she doesn’t hold her tongue about social justice issues, and frankly, the Academy Awards telecast feels empty if she isn’t presenting, nominated or giving us a GIF-worthy crowd reaction. After years of fighting to prove that she can carry a film, after years of being underestimated by Hollywood, Taraji P. Henson is at her most powerful.
“All of the hard work I’ve put in for over 20 years,” said Henson, “it’s finally paying off.” In What Men Want, she’s directed by Adam Shankman, who, among other résumé highlights, also directed Jennifer Lopez in perhaps her best film, 2001’s The Wedding Planner. Henson is flanked by Emmy-nominated actors Max Greenfield and Tracy Morgan.
But this film is Henson’s. And she’s killing it. And What Men Want feels parallel to the fight and victory the Howard University-educated Henson is now having in her career.
“My name can greenlight projects. Every actor, I believe, dreams of that day,” she said. “You just gotta keep working and keep proving yourself. And it’s always a fight, and when you know that, you don’t become bitter. I love to watch people eat crow, and I’ve built a career watching a lot of people eat crow. It’s not even an ego thing. It’s, ‘All right, well, I guess I just gotta prove you wrong again.’ I’m a fighter.”
The film finds its inspiration from the 2000 Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt film What Women Want. In it, a freak accident gives Gibson’s chauvinistic advertising executive the ability to hear what women are really thinking, which he uses, of course, for corporate gain. In that romantic, fantasy comedy, the character arrives at a place where he understands how his toxic masculinity has impaired his view of the world. Most of this comes from the love and respect he develops for Darcy Maguire, brought to life by his co-star Hunt.
But there will be no male saviors in What Men Want — and if she can help it, that goes as well for Fox’s Empire, in which she portrays Cookie, the character that earned her a Golden Globe and propelled her career into hyper-orbit.
“I was interested in making sure we didn’t make it like, ‘Oh, she found love [and everything else] because of a man!’ It was also something that … Adam Shankman, our director, was very particular about,” Henson said. “Scenes where he felt it was leaning that way, he’d rewrite it or adjust it … so she got her power through her own arc, not because of a man.
“Sidebar: Empire did that. They wanted Cookie to get back with Lucious. And I was like, he’s gon’ have to work for it. Because I’m the type of woman, in real life, where you do me wrong one too many times, you’re cut. Cookie’s tough. Why would she keep taking it over and over? I have women out there that look up to Cookie. They look to Cookie for answers, so I can’t be weak. Cookie can’t become weak now. So that’s something that I’m going to stick up for anyway.”
In What Men Want, there will be plenty of lessons — they’ll be wrapped in comedy — and there’ll be no captain coming in to save Henson’s character from herself. There’s a love interest, of course — Aldis Hodge (Leverage, Straight Outta Compton) is a widowed single father of an adorable little boy — but he is unlikely to play cleanup man in the end.
“We understand the advocacy of films,” Hodge said. “The representation is great. I love the dichotomy between her trying to navigate through an overly masculine world … and having to overcome those hurdles. We get to have fun on all levels, but it’s really just an exploration of herself in a world that she commands, and how she commands it.”
Rings true, perhaps, to Henson’s life, moving through Hollywood.
“She was always playing the woman in distress or the single mom. She was looking for something refreshing. She said, ‘I just want to laugh.’ [And now] she’s in such an interesting place,” said Will Packer, one of the film’s producers. “I love the fact that she’s getting the level of acclaim and notoriety that she’s getting now and that audiences around the world call her ‘Cookie.’ She’s got so many levels, and depth. … I just like that she can do what she wants to do. That’s real power — and that’s real empowerment. It’s not about you doing something that I think you should do, or that somebody else thinks you could do, it’s you having the power to control your image, the way you want to do it, and make your own choices. She’s at that point in her career. She doesn’t have to do anything that she doesn’t want to do.”
In most circumstances, sports is the great unifier, but a film with this type of subject matter could have been set in any industry. The world of professional athletes gives an additional layer to this story.
“It is so traditionally patriarchal,” director Shankman said. “That actually puts more pressure on Taraji’s character. … In the Gibson [movie] it was advertising, and it was him appealing to women who he disrespected. And what’s interesting about this is that Taraji’s character truly disrespects [men]. … She sees them as obstacles in her way to winning. Coming out on top is a very male idea … punching your way to the top is a very male idea. And that’s where she’s at.”
What Men Want is peppered with sports cameos — and it’s not just male athletes. Gabby Douglas, Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker appear in the film alongside guys such as NBA greats Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
“[Her character] handles mostly female athletes. In order to get her to the next level, she needs the whale. She needs the big guy from one of the big leagues,” Shankman said. “These very important athletes are kind of waltzing in and out of this movie … and they seem happy to be here and part of this, and part of what it is that we’re doing here. I would be loath to say we’re making something important. We’re making something incredibly entertaining, and if we get to make people talk about something, it’s because we’re showing a world that people find not the norm.”
Henson’s character’s name is Ali — and surely that name and its spelling is an intentional homage to Muhammad Ali and a metaphor for her character’s fight. But the emphasis in this film is on the fun, as if the plan isn’t to beat its future viewers over the head with a crash course on sexism correction.
“I just want to present what this might look like,” said Shankman, “in a fable, in a fairy tale. The most fun way possible, and then have people walk away going, ‘Oh, that was kind of interesting.’ I felt the same way when I made Hairspray, actually. It’s sort of like look at this fun romp, and then they were like, ‘Wait a second, this s— happened?!’ It’s a spoonful of sugar. I’d rather do it that way. There are other people out there who can be beating the drum in a different way.”
By now, the cast and crew are hours into their day. It’s day 26 of 36 shooting, and everyone appears to be comfortable. The energy is right where it needs to be.
Shankman is pleased with some of the ad-libs happening in this one particular scene: Henson is moving quickly up the stairs — floating, really — and is flanked by a former employee and her current assistant — both white men. In the span of about 12 seconds, we get that she’s a boss woman who is working to make an impact in this world while also having outside interests — a female friend she’s too busy to talk to is calling her assistant about upcoming bachelorette party plans, a party this on-the-go career woman doesn’t seem to have time to pull together.
“I was amazing!” Henson said after they finish filming the scene, poking fun at a slip-up.
“Let’s make this the last time, please, because I know we can do it better,” Shankman said before they go into doing another take. They run through several more takes until Shankman, and Henson and the cast, feel like they nailed it. It’s interesting, too, that race is downplayed in this film. It’s not “about” her being black or being a black woman. Other than the visual presence of Henson.
“This is the first straight studio comedy that is being headed by a black woman,” said Shankman. “[It’s] not a romance, that is just a pure comedy, and we are not dealing with race whatsoever. Race is not a factor in this film. We are setting it in Atlanta, we are setting it in world of sports, it is an interracial world. It is not a discussion. It is a purely interracial environment. But the fact that she is a black woman raises questions. And so it’s very exciting. But we don’t talk about it around here and we don’t talk about it in the text of the movie. It’s just … it’s visual.”
When everyone is back from lunch break — Morgan was an impromptu craft services DJ, playing everything from Chaka Khan to Color Me Badd to Bone Crusher to Nirvana while everyone feasted — the next scene features Morgan’s character as a LaVar Ball-like dad. His son is the big whale that Henson’s character badly wants to land. “He’s going all out for his sons and their brand,” Morgan said later, after wrapping his scene with Henson. “That’s how I feel about it. Like, I’m trying to put the Morgan name on the map. Same way. I thank God that he gave me a second chance after that accident, to do this again.”
Henson has changed. She’s wearing another power suit — this one in a chic blue. Hodge, her love interest, has worked with Henson before. They were both in 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures. He portrayed the husband of Janelle Monae’s character. There’ll be a few more hours before this day is done — a week later, there will be an interior shoot in the Gullwing Club at Atlanta’s Philips Arena VIP entrance at the tunnel, in which Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis will have cameos. And because it’s a comedy, Ali will have a few stumbles.
Yet, as for Henson herself? Her own real-life story is playing out exactly as it’s supposed to. And she’s not bumbling around in the slightest.
“She’s grounded in understanding exactly where she’s at. … She carries herself with grace and dignity. She’s just humble … cool. But she’s been in the game for a minute,” Hodge said. “If you track back, you’re like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, that was her?!’ You start to see what perseverance actually does. Her career is a blueprint and a testament to believing in yourself and going against all odds … When she was trying to do it, there was no one to point to. So she broke the mold and created a new one.”