As women around the world rise up, Taraji P Henson talks to Stylist about one of the most important female stories never told and why togetherness is key right now
Photography: John Russo
Katherine Johnson. Know her name? Probably not. But you really, really should. Because without the brains of this unknown mathematician and physicist, the USA’s success in the Sixties space race against the USSR would likely have never happened.
Now Johnson’s story is finally being brought to life by Taraji P Henson in the gloriously feel-good Hidden Figures, set at Nasa’s Langley research centre in Virginia in the Sixties when disadvantage and segregation were inevitable for African-Americans – there’s a particularly powerful subplot where Johnson must run half a mile across the campus every time she needs to use the ‘coloured’ bathroom. The story sees Johnson, a genius ‘human computer’, promoted into the all-white male-dominated Space Task Group, where her mathematical calculations ensured astronaut John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.
Johnson, who was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, isn’t the only unsung hero from this story. The film also stars Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Nasa’s first female black engineer. And then there’s Octavia Spencer, who has been nominated for her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan, Nasa’s first female black supervisor. The film resonates today in many ways – not least as audiences draw the unfortunate parallels with Donald Trump’s recent ambush on immigration in the USA. But ultimately this isn’t a story of race, rather a film of hope and unity.
Though these women haven’t been feted previously, their story has made more than £100 million at the US box office, beating the behemoth of Star Wars (the irony that it’s surpassed another film about space isn’t lost on Henson), and also picked up a SAG award – she’s preparing for the ceremony in LA as we chat – and a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards later this month. All of which begs the question, why are we only now hearing this story? It’s thanks to author Margot Lee Shetterly, who became intrigued by these women after hearing stories from her father, who also worked at Langley, and released a book of the same name about them last year.
Henson, 46, excels as Johnson (the only one of the trio alive today), bringing a quiet humanity and power. In many ways it’s worlds away from the role that brought her fame – the loud, uncompromising matriarch Cookie Lyon in TV smash Empire. While Cookie is the role that stopped Henson being a hidden figure herself, she’s been, in her words, “grinding” for years. After growing up in a poor part of Washington DC and studying acting at Howard University, she picked up a noted role in 2008’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button playing Brad Pitt’s adoptive mother (interestingly in her memoir, Around The Way Girl, she reveals she got paid “less than 2%” of Pitt’s salary).
That said, Johnson and Cookie do have similarities. “They’re both storms. One is a quiet storm and the other is the tornado,” muses Henson. “Cookie is going to come in like the Tasmanian devil. Katherine, her strength was quiet but she still got her point across.” We can probably all agree that right now, a story of a woman asserting her place in the world, regardless of who she is, is exactly the type of story we need front and centre...
Is this film what we all need at the moment?
The universe ordered this film. There’s a reason why it didn’t come out four or five years ago. We didn’t need it then – we need it now! The world is topsy-turvy, right? All upside-down, crazy. People are identifying with it in a way that they probably wouldn’t have even a year or two ago. You talk about making America and the world great, well, you do it by coming together. One group of people isn’t better than the other; we’re all human and God put us on this planet to get along. So we better figure it out.
There’s a strong sense of women fighting to have their voices heard in the movie, something we’re still fighting for...
I think what resonates is the sisterhood. Women stick together, we’re powerful in numbers and the power is in togetherness. As women we fight for our rights because there’s a force trying to keep us down right now, so we must come together or we’ll perish.
How did you feel when you first read the script for Hidden Figures – were you angry this story hadn’t been told before?
I was very upset. I felt like a dream had been stolen from me. There was an understanding when I was growing up that maths and science were for boys. I remember sitting in the back of my class going, ‘It’s not for me. Why am I here even?’ Then I find this out and it’s like, ‘Whoa, I could have dreamed a different dream if I’d known it was available.’ But then I was like, ‘I have to make it my mission so no other girl walks around thinking that.’
There’s a thought-provoking line when a Polish-Jewish male engineer encourages Mary’s dreams by asking, “Would you be an engineer if you were a white man?”
If you’re a white man, you’ve just got it. Until we come to some honesty in that statement, we’re not going anywhere.
Do you feel like your life could have gone a different way then, had your school experience been more equal?
I honestly believe I’m supposed to be an actor; it’s what I was good at. But maybe it would have got me better grades and I could have got a scholarship. Even now I’m an actor, maybe I wouldn’t have been so afraid of [playing] Katherine Johnson because I was comfortable with math. That part [of the film] scared the life out of me. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to fail at this, just like I failed in math.’
You studied engineering for a while though, didn’t you?
I did, because I didn’t get accepted into the high school of fine arts in Washington DC. My friend Candice was very smart and decided she was going to study electrical engineering and I thought that meant I could, too. So I followed her and I failed miserably. I called my dad and started crying and said, “I failed math and I’ve never failed anything in my life,” and he was like, “That’s what you get. I needed you to fall on your face because that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing. Now come back up here and take up acting like you’re supposed to be doing.”
So it was a blessing of sorts...
Oh, it was! I went back to acting with such a vengeance because you were not going to shut me out any more. I think that’s why I fight so hard in this industry because I was told I wasn’t good, but I know I am, so don’t you ever try to tell me that again. Don’t tell me black women can’t open a film! Don’t tell me black women can’t do this or that because I’m going to take it personally and work my ass off until I prove to you that we can.
Where does that self-belief come from?
I guess it’s coming from having to fight for everything in life. It’s not easy growing up in the ’hood. It’s a struggle, all the time. My parents have a great work ethic and I watched them work through all obstacles. My dad taught me to fear nothing. I have no fear because I believe truthfully in God... You’ve got to believe in something higher than human. Humans will let you down every time because they’re flawed. Because I believe in that so strongly, there’s no room for fear. Every day every human wakes up and you have to choose which side you are on. I choose faith, I choose love. My father named me: ‘Taraji’ means ‘hope’ in Swahili and my middle name ‘Penda’ means ‘love’. So that’s who I am. That’s the essence of me.
How was it to meet Katherine? Was she bitter her story is only just coming to light?
It was like being with a super-being. I felt that she levitated above on a consciousness that we can’t even fathom. But Katherine is just grateful. She can’t believe people are making a big deal about it. I asked, “How was it working in such a racial climate?” She said, “It was what it was. I just went to work and did my job.”
Did meeting her make you change the way you live your life?
That’s actually where I connected with her because I don’t sit around and complain like, ‘Oh, it’s hard for black women.’ What I’ve done is the work. You don’t complain about the problem. That’s not going to solve anything. You tell me I can’t open a film? OK. I’m just going to keep doing these supporting roles until I garner such a massive audience and, when I do get that number one position, you will know that I am someone to recognise. All I can do is stay in my lane, put my knuckles to the wall and work. I grind. I’m not going to be mad because I got to be number 15 on the call sheet. There’s a future coming and I see it.
Do you feel a social responsibility to educate and inspire?
I’m not the most political person – there’s too much red tape. But I know right from wrong and love from hate. I feel like to not speak on it is to be selfish. That’s not why God gives us gifts. You’ve got to share with the world. You see what greed can do: we’re watching it right now.
You have met the Obamas – tell us what they’re really like...
They make you feel like you’ve known them forever. The way that man respects that woman and understands there is power in her strength; that only makes him stronger and shine brighter. That’s why he was able to run the world with such grace. I think they’re tired now... All their hard work, all that effort and this is where we are!
You’re also a huge fan of Coco Chanel – what does that stem from?
It’s more than just a bag or jewellery. It’s her legacy. The fact that she came from nothing, I understand that story. She came from nothing and built an empire.
What’s the first Chanel piece you bought?
I had just started making some real TV money when I was on [crime drama] Person Of Interest. I was still frugal, but I bought a black Chanel bag with the chain round the side for $2,500. I was sweating when I handed over my credit card. But then when I didn’t get a call from my business manager asking, “What the hell are you doing?” I knew I was OK. That’s the bag that broke the seal. I can’t tell you how many Chanel bags I have now.
Let’s finish by going back to Hidden Figures. How do you want people to feel when they leave the cinema?
Be inspired to dream big. Bigger than you ever thought. Think outside the box and go out in this world and get it because it’s yours to have.
Hidden Figures is in cinemas nationwide from 17 February
Photography: NASA, Rex Features