During a trip to the set of new film Proud Mary, EBONY chopped it up with star Taraji P. Henson about the action-packed thriller. The Golden Globe winner dives into the complexity of hit woman Mary, how she prepped for the intense role and why it’s about time she gets the credit she deserves.
Interview conducted by O.J. Williams.
What made you want to take on this role?
It was just different from anything that I’ve ever done before and I love playing different characters. The challenge for me was how do you make a character that people can really hate likable. She does kill a lot of people, but for good reason.
How was shooting all the action scenes?
Fun! It’s like getting paid to play cops and robbers. We’ve all finger-shot our friends or played the hero, so it was like a dream come true for me. It’s the closest I’ve been to playing a Marvel character. Let me just put that in the universe [laughs].
What were some of the challenges in shooting this film?
The action stuff, actually. I really hurt my arm. When they first show you how the stunts should be done, you think to yourself, ‘oh, I can do that. It doesn’t look too dangerous.’ But one false move and you hit the wrong bone at the wrong angle, and you could seriously break something. I wear pads now, no matter how simple the stunt looks. I learned my lesson.
How did you get yourself into the mindset of this character?
I always found it interesting how a human could kill another human. I don’t know what that feels like, to want to kill someone else, to play God. I ended up watching a lot of YouTube videos on hitmen, and I kind of based Mary on one called The Iceman.
What I found most intriguing is, that’s just his job. He had a family, they celebrated Christmas, just doing what regular people do, he just killed people for a living. He’d go kill somebody and go back to the suburbs of Jersey and just be a father, and his family never knew until he got caught. He killed all of his friends, and the only one he didn’t kill was an undercover cop who turned on him. But he was such a “good guy,” charming, polite, everything. It helped me find the humanity in Mary, because a lot of these hitmen were gentlemen, gangsters, but also gentlemen. There was a certain code.
Does Mary live by certain code?
Absolutely. She doesn’t kill women and she doesn’t kill children. When you meet her at the beginning of the film, she’s at a crossroads because she’s done one of these two things, and has to come to terms with it.
How do you turn that off? Playing a conflicted hitwoman and then just going back to your regular life?
I have played a lot of deep, heavy characters in my career, and I just have a switch. People are actually amazed by it, because I can snot-face, ugly cry and then they yell ‘cut!’ and I’m like, ‘so girl, did you hear woo woo woo [laughs]?’
Early in my career, emotional scenes wore me out because I was working for the tears. As a trained actress, you learn it’s not about the tears, it’s about where you are mentally and what’s on the page. If you commit to that and do the work, all of the tears will come.
I people watch, I’ve played enough characters and I know my instrument, so I know when to turn it on and turn it off. I’m not that actress you have to call by the character’s name during breaks. As a matter of fact, I hate that I’m just ‘Cookie’ to so many people now. People will call me that on the street and I cringe. I still have to be me, because otherwise you go mad. It’s just a job!
Does playing this lead role make it scarier for you than working as a supporting or ensemble cast member?
It’s just interesting as a woman. If I were a man, the headlines would’ve read, ‘Taraji P. Henson’s No Good Deeds is No. 1 at the box office.’ I was also executive producer on that, as a matter of fact, I put that film together. Now, I’m not taking away from Idris Elba’s EP credit, because he deserves that, but why is the headline reading, ‘Idris Elba’s movie?’ That hurt my feelings.
And ya’ll know I love women, I celebrate women, but with Hidden Figures, the movie was about all three women, but it was Katherine’s story. If I’m number one on the call sheet, that’s my movie! I just want my credit. Headlines would’ve read differently if I was a man.
They gotta give me my credit now [laughs]!
Proud Mary hits theaters Friday, Jan. 12.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.