In a career that’s already netted her an Oscar nomination, Taraji P. Henson has appeared in films about men who age backwards, a pimp who becomes a rap impresario, and a competition among assassins. Not long ago, though, a movie project caught her attention because the plot sounded so unusual — an African-American woman becoming coach of a men’s golf team. And it came from real life.
"That was the first thing that attracted me to this project," Henson said Monday night by phone from New York City. The resulting film, From the Rough, will be shown 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night at TPAC's Polk Theater as the opening attraction in the sixth annual International Black Film Festival of Nashville, which continues throughout the weekend with premieres, panels and parties at venues across the city.
In director Pierre Bagley’s film, Henson portrays longtime Tennessee State University golf coach Catana Starks. Originally a swim coach, Starks was asked to take over the TSU men's golf team in 1986. Finding only one black golfer on a squad without much promise, Starks traveled the world finding talent while building a highly competitive team over two decades. Some of her star players came from Australia, Hong Kong, France and the United Kingdom.
"The thing about her that's so amazing, and what I wanted to portray, was her determination to succeed," Henson says. "She attracted golfers who weren't black, but came from impoverished backgrounds and were able to excel. It is an amazing story."
Fact-based films often narrow an actor’s choices in a role, as they must decide whether to mimic the real figure or create their own interpretation. But Henson says she was given creative license on From the Rough by the subject herself.
"After reading the script I was even more intrigued," Henson says. "Then I met Ms. Starks when she came out to the set. I was trying to pattern my gestures and walk after her and she told me not to be concerned about that. She said you just take those words and do what you do best."
Henson's co-stars include Tom Felton, Michael Clarke Duncan, LeToya Luckett, Henry Simmons and Robert Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, Henson, now filming the CBS drama Person of Interest in New York, won't be able to attend Wednesday's screening. But she is hoping for strong audience reaction, and says more funding is being sought for an expanded national advertising campaign before the film's February 2012 wide opening.
A Howard University theater arts graduate, Henson has become one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses over the past decade. She's won acclaim for roles in such films as Baby Boy, Hustle & Flow, Four Brothers, Talk To Me, Smokin' Aces, the blockbuster remake of The Karate Kid, and The Family That Preys. She's also starred in a host of television shows, among them The Division, Boston Legal, Eli Stone and the current Person of Interest, with Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson.
But it was her performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the surrogate mother to Brad Pitt’s backward-aging protagonist that earned her an Oscar nomination and widespread fame in 2008.
"Brad Pitt had never seen any of my work before Benjamin Button," Henson recalls. "The first scenes we did together, after we finished [director] David Fincher said he came to him later and asked, ‘Where did you find her?’ By the time we did more scenes together, he told me, ‘I've seen all your films. Angie and I watched them all.’
“He wasn't just blowing smoke either. He could remember lines and scenes whenever I would ask him about any of them. He is just a wonderful, incredible person. With all those children and all his projects, he had really taken the time to sit down and see all my films. That whole experience was something truly special. The other thing that was so great about that was when Angie came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘We've got to work together.’ "
Henson also has plenty of praise for media impresario Tyler Perry, who featured her in I Can Do Bad All By Myself. "He really valued my input, and that's the kind of situation and environment that really suits me," Henson says. "He told me, ‘Don't worry about the words on the page, you take that character and do what you need to do to make her come alive.’
"The character is what always attracts me to a project," Henson explains. "I don't ever want to duplicate myself on screen. If the character is attractive, then the next thing is the script, because if you don't have the words down there, then you don't have a story. After that I look at the director and the cast, and if all that comes together then I'm really interested in getting involved."
Thus far her character on Person of Interest is a work in progress, something Henson says some of her fans don't understand. She plays NYPD detective Carter, who's trying to discover more information about the mysterious John Reese (Caviezel), a former spy. Reese works for an even more ambiguous figure, Mr. Finch (Emerson), a billionaire with surveillance seemingly over all New York. This pair tries to anticipate and prevent crimes, with Reese's CIA experience proving quite handy.
"[Co-creator] Jonathan Nolan called and asked me to participate in Person of Interest,” Henson says. "That was a thrill in itself. He explained to me that they were going to slowly build the character, add in layers and give me a lot of input and latitude in the process. We are going to eventually give her more time and space, but some of my fans are a bit impatient. I think if they're just patient and wait a while they will be very pleased by what happens."
Person of Interest received the highest audience test results of any CBS drama in 15 years. The network rated the show so highly they moved CSI out of the plum 8 p.m. Thursday slot it had enjoyed since 2000 and gave it to Person of Interest.
Henson has moved easily between film and TV, but cautions that while acting is always enjoyable, there are some significant differences that come into play stylistically between the large and small screen,
"Working in television is a much different process than film," Henson says. "With a film you shoot a page or two a day and you can take your time and build. On a TV show you do the entire thing in a matter of days and you've got to keep things moving. I enjoy working in both, and they call on you to do different things to make the character work in different situations.
"Acting is something I feel I was really born to do,” Henson concludes. “When I came to Hollywood I already had a child, so I wasn't able to get out and explore the party scene. I was there to work, grow and become the best actress possible. That's still my goal. I have some things I'd like to do in the future. I would love to play a superhero and I would like to someday have a movie that's built and structured around me. But in the meantime, I just want to continue making quality films and doing good work."