This fall, Academy Award nominated actress Taraji P. Henson is joining forces with show creator/executive producer/writer Jonah Nolan and executive producer J.J. Abrams for the highly anticipated CBS drama series Person of Interest. Centered on ex-CIA hitman John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and a scientist named Finch (Michael Emerson), who team up to prevent crimes before they happen, Henson is the perfect foil as Detective Carter, a woman trying to discover the mysterious identity of Reese, once they cross paths. Along with the new series, Henson also has a role as the next door neighbor of Tom Hanks’ character in Larry Crowne (out in theaters on July 1st), about a man who’s laid off from work and decides to head to his local college to start over.
During a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Taraji P. Henson talked about what drew her back to television, how much she’s enjoying working on Person of Interest, having someone as talented as Jonah Nolan writing for her, how exciting it is to be on one of the Fall’s most anticipated new series, what it was like to get a call that Tom Hanks wanted her for Larry Crowne, and how she’s always looking for roles she’s never done before. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you get involved with Person of Interest? Were you actively looking to do another TV series, or was it specifically this project?
TARAJI P. HENSON: It was specifically this project. I really wasn’t looking to do television. I prefer doing feature films. But, I heard about it and I got the script, which was so top secret that it was intriguing. Jonah Nolan called me and said that he wanted to work with me. He explained that my character wasn’t really written up in the pilot, but he promised me that there was going to be more for my character to do. He seemed so passionate about the project that I read it and I really, really liked the script. I got it, right away. Then, I finally saw the pilot and thought it was amazing. I forgot I was in it. I was watching it and was like, “Oh, that’s right, I am in it.” It’s really, really good.
What can you say about the show and how your character fits into the story?
HENSON: Like every superhero film, there’s always an inspector, a detective or a police officer trying to figure out who the masked man is. Although Jim Caviezel’s character doesn’t wear a costume or a mask, when I first meet him, he’s homeless, so he doesn’t look like how he’s going to look throughout the series. So, when I first meet him, I have this women’s intuition that something is up with the guy, but can’t put my finger on it. I go and try to run his prints, and when I come back, he’s gone. He’s vanished. So, I guess I’m going to spend the series looking for him, trying to figure out who he is and what he’s doing in my town.
How will the dynamic work with her and these two guys?
HENSON: I don’t even meet Michael Emerson’s character, in the pilot. I don’t even know that he exists. I don’t know anything about him. I only meet Jim Caviezel’s character, Reese, in the pilot. That’s the only person that I’m aware of.
Coming into a show where you’re establishing a character from the beginning, do you get any input into who she’s going to be, or do you leave it up to the writers to establish that?
HENSON: Well, Jonah has been very open and wanting to communicate, but since he’s the primary writer, I don’t have to know everything. It’s just him. On other shows that I’ve done, there have been several writers and that’s where I sometimes don’t know who my character is because one writer sees her one way while another writer sees her another way. The great thing about this is that Jonah is pretty much the writer of the show. I’m just excited, as to what he’s going to come up with. I said to him, “I’m a character actress. I’ll go undercover. I’ll do whatever. You can write the craziest stuff.” What’s so great about this is that, when you have an incredible writer who just wants to pow wow with you and write for you, it’s amazing.
This is a drama series, but are there elements of comedy in it as well?
HENSON: I’m sure. I’m going to try to add little bits of comedy in what I do. Of course, there will be elements of humor. Art imitates life. Even in drama, you have moments where you can chuckle.
Did you do any research into female detectives for this role?
HENSON: Well, my first time on television, I played a detective for three years, on a series called The Division on Lifetime. I played another detective in Date Night. So, I’ve done enough cop stuff. Once a cop, always a cop. You live to serve and protect, and you live by the lie, unless you’re a dirty cop. The rest is backstory. What kind of cop she is and where she comes from is what you do for all of your characters.
What’s the dynamic like between Detective Carter and John Reese? Is she always in pursuit of him, or will you also have interactions together?
HENSON: Yeah, in the pilot, all she interacts with is him. She’s trying to figure out who he is. She interrogates him when she first meets him, and that’s what peaks her interest. And, when she comes back to question him further, he’s gone.
Will you be getting in on some of the action?
HENSON: I’m sure because this television show is action-packed. There are lots of stunts.
Is that something you enjoy doing?
HENSON: I enjoy all aspects of acting. Whatever it is, I just love it. The more props, the merrier.
People have come to expect a certain level of writing from Jonah Nolan. Are there things about this show that makes it uniquely his?
HENSON: Yeah, because he’s a very intellectual writer. He’s a smart writer. All of that is in there. He’s intertwined technology into it, with the cameras and big brother always watching. He has so many different pieces to the puzzle. He doesn’t just write one way. There are so many layers, and you feel that right away. As soon as it comes on, you feel that.
What was David Semel like to work with, as the director of the pilot?
HENSON: I love him! I hope he directs more episodes. He’s a dope director. I’d never worked with him before. I don’t really watch television that much. I knew that he’s incredible and I knew that I was in good hands, but he was so savvy. It was almost like he sat down with Jonah and helped create it. He really knew the script and the characters, so it was great working with him. It felt like I was in a feature film, but it’s TV.
What makes this a character that you were interested in playing for what could be a number of seasons?
HENSON: It’s not that I was excited about playing a cop, but it was the company that I’m in and the writer. I know he’s going to give me good stuff. I told him that I’m not interested in playing a generic cop, or being a pretty girl with a gun. I said, “You hired me for a reason, so use me.” And, he was like, “Oh, yeah!” I was very specific about that.
Is it exciting to be a part of a series that is one of the most anticipated shows of the Fall season?
HENSON: Oh, yeah, it’s so exciting. I so felt it at the Up Fronts. I had never been to the Up Fronts before. When I joined Boston Legal, it was already a successful show that had been on for several years, so I never knew what the Up Fronts were. It’s nuts. You can’t even really explain it. It’s just something you have to experience. It was exciting. I was on a high. It’s just amazing! To know that you are with a project that stands out, it’s like, “Yeah, all these shows got picked up, but this one is pretty f-ing amazing.”
How did you get involved with doing Larry Crowne?
HENSON: Tom Hanks’ office called me and said they would be honored for me to be in the film. I was like, “Okay, how do you say no to Tom Hanks?” I didn’t even care if he wanted me to play a rock. I said yeah before I ever read the script. So, I read the script and it wasn’t a huge role, but I don’t believe in small roles. All I know is that I worked with Tom Hanks, and I can say that I’m in a movie with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Pam Grier.
Who do you play in the film?
HENSON: My character is his next-door neighbor, and I’m married to Cedric the Entertainer. We’re his kooky next-door neighbors. We’re his support team. The story is that he loses his job and doesn’t know where he’s going to go. He doesn’t have a college diploma, so finding a job at his age is pretty much impossible. He has to go back to school, and he goes to community college. He actually gets the idea from my husband, played by Cedric the Entertainer.
What’s it like to work with someone like Cedric? Do you have to always be on your toes?
HENSON: No, because I know Cedric. I worked with him before, in another movie called Talk to Me. I’ve seen him out and around town, and I get his humor, so it’s basically like working with a friend.
Every actor has moments in their career where they were struggling and dreaming of working with big stars and directors someday, but now you’re at a point where you get a phone call and Tom Hanks wants you in a movie. Is that always surprising and surreal?
HENSON: It’s always surprising! I’m still waiting for Steven Spielberg. I’m waiting for that call! It’s all exciting. I just can’t wait for the phone to ring, to see who’s next.
What was the experience of being directed by Tom Hanks like? What kind of a director is he?
HENSON: Well, he’s certainly an actor’s director because he’s been on both sides of the lens. It’s always better when you’re directed by someone who’s also been in your shoes because they know how to communicate to you, as an actor. It’s done with ease. Because he is who he is, he has a nurturing way about him. He’s just really good. We’re going to get more films directed by him, I’m sure.
Did you find that he made the transition between actor and director pretty easily when he was on set?
HENSON: It was so effortless. I didn’t see him change from one to the other. He was always Tom. He’s very even-kiltered with a funny joke. He’ll come in and tell you what he wants, and then he says something funny on the way back to video village. It was always one tone. It was never like, “Okay, now I’m the serious director,” or “Okay, now I’m going to crack a joke because I’m the funny acting guy.” It was always one guy.
What do you learn about the craft of acting when you’re working with someone like him?
HENSON: He has this subtlety and he’s just uninhibited. There’s something about the ease of acting with him. I can still feel myself getting nervous sometimes. Watching him, I never saw that. In my mind, I was like, “I wonder if he ever still gets butterflies or is nervous.” I wanted to say to him, “Do I make you nervous, Tom, like how you make me nervous?”
When you look back at your career and see all of the great work that you’ve done, do you feel really lucky, or has it been more planned than a lot of people realize?
HENSON: I couldn’t have planned this myself. I’m not this brilliant. I think all of it is fate, but we all have choices. I could always have made the wrong choices. There were plenty of times in my career where I could have let ego take over. This is a narcissistic, egotistical industry that I’m in. I could have read the Tom Hanks project and said, “Why would I want to do this? I’m an Academy Award nominated actress, and I’m only in two scenes? No.” Or, I could have done that with the pilot of Person of Interest. But, when things come to me, and specific people that I admire and look up to pick up the phone and call me, you’ve gotta do it.
You’ve always done such interesting characters and given memorable performances, in really varied projects in film and television. Are there things that you look for, when you’re deciding which projects you want to get involved with?
HENSON: Yeah, I just look for something that I’ve never done before. I’m always interested in challenging myself and pushing and seeing how far I can go. I don’t ever want to feel complacent. I don’t ever want to get boxed in, playing the same characters, over and over again. That’s why I prefer features over television. I just want to continue to grow in my craft.
Do you have a dream role that you’d love to do?
HENSON: I would love to do a biopic of a famous singer, like Diana Ross or Donna Summer, or an old jazz story that we haven’t seen before. I would love to do that! I would love to play Diana Ross ‘cause she’s an icon. I’m salivating to do that.