The powerhouse actress and star of What Men Want (who has gone by the name Cookie both on Empire and IRL) is a walking master class on surviving and thriving no matter what.
In What Men Want, you play a woman who is able to hear what men are thinking. Do you actually want to know what men are thinking?
I don’t want that. I have too much shit rattling around in my head already. We shouldn’t need that anyway. If men were just honest and put their shit on the table, we wouldn’t need no voodoo. We need more communication. Once you start talking, you realize that men and women want the same goddamn things: They want someone they can trust with their heart, they want protection, they want security. That’s what we all want as humans. It’s not deep.
The movie’s premise is that men think they know everything about women, but we actually have no idea. So what do guys not know about women that we should?
Women get emotional or upset when we’re pushed. It doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s provoked. Just because I’m emotional doesn’t make me crazy. Men have to own their part in that. You have to listen, listen, listen to your woman. It goes both ways: When my man drives me up the wall, I try to think about what happened and what I did to add to it. You’ve got to be a grown-up to be in a relationship. It can’t be “I love you as long as you’re doing right by me.” Love is “I love you even when you fall. I love you even when I hate your ass. You piss me off, but I made dinner for your stank ass anyway ’cause I love you.”
You’re getting married this summer to former NFL player Kelvin Hayden. Are you ready?
I’m still learning how to be ready. Every day I’m learning how to be better in a relationship. I just found out, in our therapy sessions, that men have fewer words than women. I didn’t know that. They run out of words. Because women are emotional, we want to talk through everything. Of course we have more words; we’re the communicators. Kelvin, he thinks he’s a comedian. Anytime we’re in a disagreement or I’m like, “We need to talk about this,” he’ll look at me and say, “Baby, I done ran out of words.” He’s joking, but I’m starting to accept that it’s true.
Speaking of listening to each other, your next film, out in April, is The Best of Enemies, in which you play civil rights activist Ann Atwater, who forms an unlikely friendship with Klan leader C.P. Ellis. Did making this movie make you want to leave your bubble?
Atwater couldn’t be more physically different from you. What was the biggest challenge in that transformation?
I knew I had to be padded. When I came in for my fitting, the suit they gave me had these perky little tits. I was like, “Um, I don’t know if this is gonna work.” Physicality is very important to me, especially when I’m taking on somebody who’s real. I needed big breasts, the kind that change the way you walk and that you have to think about when you sit. I mean, the boobs on this suit, they were like my boobs. I was like, “Can you all please call Tyler Perry and ask him what Madea got in her boobs?” All the pictures I’ve seen of Atwater, this woman looked like she ate pork chops, ribs, corn bread, smothered chicken, fatback, neck bones. When she sat down for a meal, those titties got to rest on the table.
Just because I’m emotional doesn’t make me crazy. Men have to own their part in that. You have to listen, listen, listen to your woman.
Is there anyone in the world right now you wish would just shut the hell up?
You know who I wish would shut the hell up. He wears a wig and does way too much tanning. [laughs] Just be quiet, just shhh, take a nap. Just put his finger in a muzzle so he won’t tweet anymore. Do they have finger muzzles? [both our phones start blaring] Holy crap, is that the president? Oh my God! [checks phone and sees it’s an Amber alert] Oh shit, I was about to freak out. I seriously thought that was the president telling us to stop talking about him. I was about to change my name and move somewhere. That is funny as hell. I know they’re spying on us. On our phones, on everything. Sometimes I’ll say something and Siri will just come alive, and I’m like, “Bitch, I didn’t call for you!” I’m going to become Amish, that’s what the fuck I’m going to do. Just get all this technology out of my life.
You grew up in a rough part of Washington, D.C. Did you ever feel unsafe, or were your parents able to shield you?
It was what it was. You acclimate to your surroundings if you want to survive. My mom was robbed twice, and I was with her both times, once when I was six and again when I was seven. I’m sure she was petrified. It definitely traumatized me. But her strength is what made me feel safe enough to leave the house again and not be afraid. She didn’t give me a choice. The next day, she woke me up and said, “Come on, let’s go. Time for school.” I couldn’t believe it. There she was, getting ready for work with a black eye, trying to cover it with makeup, combing over the bald spot where the guy had pulled out one of her plugs. That’s strength. She instilled that in me.
Did growing up like that give you street smarts?
Not really. Listen, not everybody from the hood got street smarts. I know some dumbass motherfuckers in the hood, let me tell you. [laughs] What gave me street smarts was getting out of the hood. Every weekend, my mom took me to a predominantly white neighborhood in the suburbs to see my cousin Kim. I played with Mary Beth and Karen and Josh, all the kids with the suburban names. It made me well-rounded. You could drop me off anywhere, this little girl from the hood, and I could get along with anybody. That’s why I always tell kids, get out of your ZIP code. Education is getting to know other people and other cultures. Most inner-city kids never even get downtown.
Were you a rebellious kid, or did you follow the rules?
I followed the rules, because my mother didn’t play. She did not play. She put the fear of God into me. And that’s what you should do; if you fear your parents, then you ain’t going out in the streets acting an ass. The worst I ever screwed up was in seventh grade. I had some girlfriends over, and we started calling phone sex lines. It was a 999 number. We thought it was like 888—it’s free! So we called these numbers, and then a week later my mom got a phone bill for $600. That’s more than she paid in rent! I thought she was going to murder me.
You grew up idolizing comedians like Carol Burnett and Richard Pryor. What made their comedy so relatable?
I think it’s because so much of comedy comes from trauma. That’s what drives me sometimes. I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life. You gotta laugh to keep from crying. It just felt so important to watch this stuff when I was younger. I remember begging my father, “Please, take me to see Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip!” I was 11. He said, “Okay, but if you tell your mother, this never happened.” We got in there, and my dad had a beer and fell straight asleep. I’m sitting watching Pryor talk about dick and pussy. I was mortified. I had to process that shit.
On Empire you play a character named Cookie, which was also your nickname in college. How were you first christened as Cookie?
One of my dearest friends in the world, Guinea Bennett, and I started this group called Soul Nation, which later became the Dallas nonprofit theater Soul Rep. We were kids who came of age in the 1970s and were proud of it. When we were at Howard University, Guinea and I and all our friends bought our clothes at thrift stores and wore bell-bottoms. We gave each other new names, like Leroy, Tyrone, things that sounded like the 1970s. Mine was Cookie. The full name was Cookie Gwendolyn Jones. I don’t know why they picked Cookie for me. I think it’s because I reminded Guinea of her aunt Cookie, who was a spitfire. When I got the job on Empire, I called all my college girlfriends and told them, “You will never fucking believe this. I’m Cookie again!”
You moved to Los Angeles after college with an infant son and 700 bucks in your pocket. Was that as terrifying as it sounds?
It wasn’t really. In your 20s, you’re not scared. You feel invincible. I was an artist with a dream, and now that I was a mother I felt like it was do or die. Being a parent is what kept me focused. I didn’t go to the clubs, even though they say that’s how you’re supposed to network. I have common sense, and nothing about that seemed right to me. What networking happens at a club where people are inebriated? Tell me, what contracts are being signed? That’s stupid. I knew what I had to offer; I just had to find somebody to hear me. Anytime I felt scared, I’d call my dad.
What would he tell you?
He would be like, “Don’t you dare give up!” He would just be continuously sowing seeds. He used to tell me I’d get an Oscar someday for playing Diana Ross. [laughs] That was his dream. And I believed him. Not about playing Diana Ross, but being an actor. He knew I could do it, and he wanted it so bad for me. Just by example, he showed me that nothing can hold you back. He was homeless for a while, but he didn’t hide that from me. He’d drive by my school in the van he was living in, give me 50 cents and tell me everything was going to be okay. “Watch me, I’m going to bounce back,” he told me. “I’m going to get a motorcycle. I’m going to get a house with a garage in the back so I can work from home.” He was proof that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you fail, you just get back up. That’s what he did. And in the end, he got his house with the garage and his Harley.
Did he live to see your dreams come true?
He saw Hustle & Flow happen, and he saw it get the Oscar nominations. He was like, “You’re just getting started. You haven’t seen nothing yet.” He was gone by the time I sang [the Oscar-nominated song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”] at the Oscars. He died just two weeks prior. I was with him in the room when it happened. He was spitting up blood, and then he died. So that was fresh in my head, and I didn’t really have time to process it. I compartmentalized that pain and sort of numbed myself out. I went through the motions. It was surreal being at the Oscars and looking at all the faces out there, Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman. And I’m up there singing about bitches and hoes, trying not to think about my father’s face. [pauses as eyes water] As soon as it was over and I went backstage, I just turned off. I had nothing left. They were trying to take me to parties, but I was like, “No, just take me home.”
If people get offended by my characters, I did my job. But don’t beat me up.
Why do you keep the middle initial in your name? Is the P meaningful to you?
My publicist used to tease me about it: “Not to be confused with Taraji S. Henson or Taraji C. Henson.” I was like, “Shut up!” Most people feel like their middle name doesn’t mean anything, but mine actually does. The P is for Penda, and together with Taraji it means “hope and love” in Swahili. How could I not keep it?
It’s hard to think of another actress more deserving of her own superhero movie. Have you ever been tempted?
Oh my God, yes! I want to do that so bad! Do you know anyone we can call? There’s got to be somebody reading this who can make it happen, one of those superhero movie producers. Hello, I know y’all read Playboy! I don’t care what the character is, I’ll take it. Just give it to me. I don’t give a shit what she looks like; she don’t have to be sexy. She can be the bad girl. I don’t have to be the hero. I’ve played a lot of heroes; all my characters are heroes. Cookie is a hero. She’s tough, she says the shit you can’t say, she stands up for everybody. So I wouldn’t mind playing a bad person—like the Joker. They’ve had like six guys play the Joker already. Time to give a female a chance at it.
How are you similar to Cookie? Is there a part of you that could bust up a studio with a baseball bat if somebody crossed you?
My clothes are too expensive, honey. I’m not breaking my nails for that. No, if I’m that mad, I’ll see you in court. Or better yet, bye. Just bye. I’ll start new and fresh. I don’t need the drama. But there’s a lot about Cookie I can relate to: I understand her fight for her family. I understand her love for her boys. I have a son. If someone tried to hurt him, I would find the strength to knock you through a brick wall.
Your son has struggled with depression, and your dad had depression and PTSD. What gets you out of the emotional quicksand?
I get depressed sometimes, but for me it’s not excessive. It’s the normal amount of sadness, I think, when there are some days you just can’t deal. When I feel it coming, that’s when I need to attack my craft. I deal with so much in my performances. Some actors lose themselves in their characters and use it to cover up what they’re really feeling. But for me it’s just the opposite. Every role, I’m constantly dealing with me, with my issues. It’s how I relate to these characters and make them more truthful. It can be very therapeutic. After 20 takes of the same scene, when I’m dealing with these things that are troubling me, it lifts those dark clouds. You go, Wow, I think I’m over that now. I used it and dealt with it, and now it’s good. I can move on.
Have you ever had a role that nearly killed you emotionally or physically?
I can already tell that the hardest one I’ll ever do is playing Emmett Till’s mother, and I haven’t even finished reading the script yet. John Singleton wrote it, and it’s just brutal. Every page is making me ugly-face cry. What’s so daunting is you know the outcome. The way John has magically and beautifully written his story, you get to know this kid, and that makes it worse. Why did they have to do this to a child? What threat was he that they had to mutilate him like that? What’s so hard is that it gets me thinking about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and that nine-year-old kid in Brooklyn a white woman accused of touching her ass. That’s what got Emmett Till killed! We’re in 2018 and that shit is still happening. I don’t know if people are ready for this movie. I don’t even know if I am.
Do you worry about cultural responsibility? Even if a role is meaty, what if it’s perceived as insensitive to the African American community?
What if it’s too “hood” or “ghetto”? Yeah, I get that. I worried about that with Cookie when I first got offered the part. I was scared of her. I was like, “What are people going to say?” You have to put the judgment aside. When that fear comes up, it’s usually judgment. Everybody may not like these images up on the screen, but, baby, they exist. We didn’t pull it out of the sky. If you feel moved by it, go do something. Go to the hood, donate your time so maybe we can start seeing some changes. If people get offended by my characters or feel they’re reflecting something back at them they don’t want to see, I did my job. I did it so well that it hurt your feelings. [laughs] But don’t beat me up. Don’t kill the messenger.