Interview: Taraji P. Henson of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ on Playing Brad Pitt’s Mother

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CHICAGO – It turns out that skipping a “blowout” garage sale she was planning paid off for up-and-coming actress Taraji P. Henson after all, she told’s Adam Fendelman in a Chicago interview. Not being there netted an even grander sale for her acting career: Henson was cast as Brad Pitt’s surrogate mother in the Oscar-buzzing film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button star Taraji P. Henson in Chicago on Dec. 5, 2008
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” star Taraji P. Henson in Chicago on Dec. 5, 2008.
Photo credit: Adam Fendelman, Oscarman Rating: 4.0/5.0
Rating: 4.0/5.0

The film, which was adapted for the screen by Eric Roth and is based on the 1920s short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, stars Brad Pitt opposite Cate Blanchett with Taraji P. Henson and Tilda Swinton. It’s a curious film indeed about Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) who ages backward. He’s born old and grows youthful.

For Henson, auditioning for the part of Queenie (Benjamin Button’s surrogate mother) was as long of a shot for her as the Earth is to Pluto. But prior to the audition, the film’s casting director already had her in mind based on Henson’s 2005 performance in “Hustle & Flow”. That film won her a Black Movie Award for her supporting role as well as a Black Reel Award for the same. She won a BET Award in 2006.

Even if the industry still hasn’t recognized Henson for her “Hustle & Flow” performance, her 18 episodes of “Boston Legal” from 2007 to 2008 as Whitney Rome or her role in 2007’s “Talk to Me” with Don Cheadle, Henson says after this press tour and upon release of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” “you will surely know me now” and know how to pronounce her Swahili name, too.

Matthew Henson, by the way, is the co-discoverer of the North Pole and is Taraji P. Henson’s great great cousin. She jested: “That’s where I got my survival skills.” Henson has been talked about as a potential nominee for the upcoming Academy Awards in a relatively weak category for actresses in a supporting role.

Once Henson overcame the incredulity of landing a role she viewed as a moon shot, she describes the adapted script from Eric Roth (who also wrote “Lucky You,” “The Good Shepherd,” “Munich,” “Ali,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “Forrest Gump”) and the direction from David Fincher (“Zodiac,” “Panic Room,” “Fight Club” and “Se7en”) as having come to fruition through “bold choices”.

“It was very bold for Eric Roth to choose to make Queenie an African-American woman who was the surrogate mother to Benjamin Button – a white character – which would have been very unusual at the time with what was happening in the country with race,” Henson said.

Taraji P. Henson (left) stars as Queenie and Brad Pitt (right) stars as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Taraji P. Henson (left) stars as Queenie with Brad Pitt (right front) in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.
Photo credit: Merrick Morton, Paramount Pictures

She added: “It was a bold choice for David Fincher, too, as it was something very different from what we’re used to seeing him direct. It was even a very bold choice for Brad Pitt in that it’s a not-so-glamorous role for him (even though some how he pulls it off).”

“That’s what intrigued me most,” Henson said. “I consider myself an artist who takes chances and risks in my work. I like to surround myself with people who do the same. I honestly didn’t think I had a chance to get this film.”

Taraji P. Henson stars as Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Taraji P. Henson stars as Queenie in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.
Photo credit: Merrick Morton, Paramount Pictures

Her “serious” garage sale had jewelry and racks of clothes with hangars she bought to hang up the garments. Henson even turned her tae bo kickboxing bag into a mannequin. While she initially was upset about having to stop what she was doing to audition for a role she thought she’d never get, after the audition Henson learned the film’s casting director had her in mind for this character from the beginning.

Still, she thought Fincher wouldn’t take her seriously, and even if he did, the studio certainly wouldn’t and would want a “bigger star”. Henson describes the all-too-common situation of a film and its studio seeking choices that’d most likely lead to financial gain for the picture rather than riskier choices that can help to assure a quality film.

“I’ve been in this game for a minute now. I’ve been down this road before. Big feature film. Big names. Big director. They want big names all across the name. They think I don’t have an audience because I haven’t been in a big blockbuster film. There are people in the industry who aren’t so creative. They’re number crunchers.”

She added: “You have not-so-creative people making creative decisions. I didn’t think I had a chance because I know the industry doesn’t consider me to be a name and I don’t have box-office draw.”

In describing the work ethic of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and her conversations with them between takes, Henson said she didn’t talk much with them about work. She added: “We’re all parents and we live in between takes. We talked about normal stuff then like kids and life. We didn’t talk about our acting processes.”

In terms of Henson’s preparation for her role, she said she didn’t do much research.

“I already am a mother and have always been a nurturer. Even when I was a child, I never played with Barbie. I couldn’t stand Barbie because she had too much,” Henson said. “But I liked playing with the baby dolls and being the mother. The animatronic baby I’m acting with in the beginning of the film was right up my alley because I was doing that as a little girl. It took three puppeteers to operate it.”

Star27-image slideshow for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

StarMore writing from critic Adam Fendelman.

In terms of why we’re seeing so many adapted movie scripts these days based on beloved stories and fewer original screenplays, Henson again tags the reason as one that’s “safer” financially.

“They feel safer with best-selling books – like ‘Twilight’ and the Harry Potter films – because they already have an audience. They’re already seeing audience money. It’s harder for an original idea,” she said.

Henson added: “They don’t see money because it hasn’t been done before. You have to go in the back door and be the little engine that could to prove it – like ‘Hustle & Flow’.”

In retrospect, the opportunity cost of Henson’s audition paid off in spades. She concluded: “Thank god I canceled that garage sale.”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which is directed by David Fincher and was adapted for the screen by Eric Roth based on the 1920s short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and Tilda Swinton. The film opens on Dec. 25, 2008. editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman


© 2008 Adam Fendelman,

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