Capping off her second visit to South Africa and a whirlwind 5-day press tour, Fox Africa on Friday evening held an invite-only, exclusive dinner event for the American actress Taraji P. Henson where she talked about embracing change, Hollywood's gender pay disparity and how she always plays her iconic character of Cookie on Empire with "the why".
During the dazzling 3-course dinner for the star of Empire on FOX (DStv 125 / StarSat 131 / Cell C black 201), the 143 invited guests - mostly women - listened as Taraji P. Henson talked about a wide-range of topics in front of the Fox Networks Group Africa executives and other top TV execs, top press and media celebrities, as well as bright rising South African female media stars.
Due to the high-profile nature of the event, access control was extremely tight - it was invite-only with names extremely carefully curated for the guest list for what was 2018's last South African TV party of the year.
Fox Africa's event dubbed "A Night with Taraji" was held at The Shed at Steyn City in Fourways, Johannesburg, where after red carpet arrivals, guests mingled with appetisers and cocktail drinks, followed by opening remarks from FNG Africa boss Evert van der Veer and FNG Africa marketing boss Khosi Khanyile.
Taraji P. Henson, asked how she go to be where she's now, implored guests to embrace change.
"The only way is to go out and do it. If I was scared to leave Washington D.C., would I be in South Africa? Change is scary because - it is scary. Because change is what you change to. You are not going to be the same. And that's scary."
"But if you embrace it, if you embrace the grey areas - I think we're so afraid of the grey areas. You want everything to be black and white and sometimes it's just not that."
"And as much faith as you have - how happy you are when everything is going right - you've got to have that same kind of faith when everything ain't going right because one day everything is going to go right."
"And when you find yourself in that dark tunnel, you've got to turn that light on," said Taraji P. Henson.
"You've got to be that light, and you also have to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You've got to see where you're going. Be the light and see the light."
Showing the 'why'
About why viewers have connected so strongly with Cookie Lyons on Empire on FOX, Taraji P. Henson said it's because she doesn't just play the character as written, one-dimensionally; but she infuses the strong female character with "the why".
"Cookie is just a tricky character. She is crazy and she fights and she will slap. But if you play just that, no-one's going to connect. Then she's just a sassy black woman - a stereotypical, ghetto out-and-out black woman, right? But how you connect is, you have to play the why."
"You always have to play 'the why'. Cookie was in jail. People are not human in jail. They are animals, they fight all the time. There's a reason why Cookie was fighting. There's a reason why she sold drugs."
Explaining from Cookie's perspective, Taraji P. Henson said "She was from the hood. She grew up in the hood. When you're back is up against the wall and you're young; find yourself young parents - I'm not dismissing selling drugs, I'm not saying it's okay - but I can understand it from a human standpoint because we're talking about survival."
"You have three black sons and we live in the hood. What we're trying to do is not have them fall in our footsteps. So we want to take our boys out so these three boys don't become statistics. Was that the best way to do it? No. But it was a way to do it."
"And when it was time to serve her time, Cookie did it. She didn't run. She chose to go to jail. And the writers didn't see this. And this is where it becomes important for the actor to see beyond what they give you. They just give you the bones and you've got to find the meat and the good stuff, right?"
"I said, 'Isn't it interesting that in the flashback you saw her come out the drug house with lots of money, she got in a car - she and Lucious and counting the money - so if it was a bust you know there was surveillance. You know they saw Lucious! So why didn't he go to jail? Because she took the fall," said Taraji P. Henson.
'Get around those who have your solutions'
From the many things her father used to say to her, Taraji P. Henson said the thing that she remembers most is "Get from around those people who have the same problems, and get around those who have your solutions. That's how I pick my friends."
"If you stay around people - especially if no-one is trying to come out of that situation, then all you do all day is complain, complain, complain about the circumstances. It's like crabs in a barrel. Whose going to rise up out of this? It's that simple."
"If you're a F-student and you're hanging around F-students, chances are you're going to fail. But if you're an F-student and you stop hanging out with the clowns in the back of class and go hang out with the A-students in the front of the class, chances are you might not have an F."
Hollywood's gender pay disparity
Taraji P. Henson also shared her insightful experience about doing the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which she got an Oscar nomination as Best supporting actress, and won Best actress at the BET Awards.
"I had to swallow my pride, I had to keep my ego in check. At this point in my career I haven't done a lot of big films, but I was making my way. And all I was asking for was $500 000. Now let me put this into perspective because some might go 'ooh that's a lot of money'."
"I believe if memory serves correctly, Brad Pitt was getting his $20 million quote. And I'm not taking anything away from Brad Pitt. Brad had worked his butt off all his career. He earned that. Cate Blanchett earned her quote - I believe it was $11 million. And again, why is she getting half? But whatever. I was just trying to get my $500 000."
"So it went $20 million, $11 million - to what they offered me: $150 000."
"It sounds like a lot, but 30% goes to my team, and 50% as tax goes to Uncle Sam. You do the math, how much is left? And I have the whole rest of the year to provide food, pay for my son's education, and pay for everything else with the rest of that money - gas, clothes, we have bills."
"But had I not checked my ego, I would have lost the moment. Because we're replaceable. 'Oh, you don't want it? Next.' That's what would have happened. Because the Taraji P. Henson then, is not the Taraji P. Henson now."
"Now I have Empire, I have audience, I have fans. So now I'm in the position where if that ever happens again, I just walk away."
Below is the opening remarks of Evert van der Veer, Fox Networks Group Africa vice-president and general manager:
Below is Khosi Khanyile, marketing director of Fox Networks Group Africa, sharing a personal anecdote and story about Taraji P. Henson:
Below is a short clip of Taraji P. Henson talking about embracing change in your life:
Editor's note: TVwithThinus did do a sit-down interview with Taraji P. Henson as well about her life and her character of Cookie and no questions were off limits. FOX asked for that to run around March 2019 in print when the second half of the 5th season of Empire starts on FOX, so check back for that revealing interview in two month's time.
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