Cookie Lyon may no longer be on our screens, but Taraji P. Henson is still here for us. The Golden Globe winner has been spending the pandemic providing a free teletherapy service through the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, her nonprofit that aims to shed the stigma around mental health treatment in Black communities, and launching Peace of Mind, a Facebook Watch talk show that discusses mental illness with guests. She also found time to secure an Empire spinoff series with her new production company TPH Entertainment, host the 2020 American Music Awards, and expand her hair-care line, TPH by Taraji, which just launched a new collection of deeply nourishing products (including a quarantine-friendly conditioning mask and twisting cream). After years in Chicago filming Empire, Henson is currently living in her home in Los Angeles. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a typical (pandemic) morning:
I’m usually up around 7, no later than 8 a.m, and of course, I wake up and give thanks for another day. I’m COVID-free, my family’s COVID-free, so I gotta give thanks for all of that. Then I make my water with sea moss and lime juice; it’s warm, and I drink that every morning. I substituted that for coffee, because coffee was a problem for me for so long. I started doing it long before the pandemic hit. About two years ago, Chakabars from Fruits N’ Rootz started sending me incredible packages, and he sent me sea moss. That was at the beginning of the craze when everyone was like Ooh! You need some sea moss! Sea moss! Sea moss! I drink it every morning.
Then I’ll meditate, take my dog out, and I try to work out everyday … some days are better than others. I try to do my cardio, but I don’t always. I’m probably like a B+ student. Things got kinda crazy out here, so my trainer and I thought we’d be safe, so I work out at home. I have three different pieces of equipment for cardio: a NordicTrack treadmill, a Peloton bike, and I also have an elliptical. For Christmas, my assistant got me a Nexersys, the punching cardio equipment. So I have plenty of stuff out there, it’s just, you know … getting out there.
It’s easy. I have people. [Laughs.] They orchestrate my schedule and send it to me, and I follow it. I have Zoom meetings and calls, but I’m a creative person, and right now, I can’t create my normal way with stage, or theater, or even film and TV. I can’t do any of it at the moment, but I have my own salon that’s next to my house. I come out here and create — nails, hairstyles, wigs, I color my hair … I done changed my hair color about three, four times. I’m just out here creating. I have to exercise that muscle in some kind of way.
I’ve had the salon as long as I’ve had this house, but I haven’t lived here in over six years because I’ve been in Chicago filming Empire. I never pushed them on finishing the salon, because I was never here, but I eventually got tired of doing my hair and makeup in the dining room, so I pushed them to finish it, and thank God I did, because by the time I got back for the pandemic, I had a full-on salon out here. I just took my time filling it up with the stuff that makes me happy. They thought I was pretty weird at UPS, because they kept having to unbox all these dolls heads for wigs, and hands and shit for practicing manicures. I’m sure they were like whoa, what’s going on in here …
On managing stress:
How do I manage stress? I have a therapist. [Laughs.] Working out also helps. When my thoughts and brain are really wound up, working out before I go to bed usually gives me a good night’s rest. Also, meditation, and walks, and hikes. That’s the great thing about L.A., there’s a hike around every corner. I have this really great overlook bluff in my backyard that oversees downtown L.A, Griffith Park, Burbank, the Valley. Sometimes I just sit out there and take in the view, calm my brain, then come in the house, and go to sleep.
Another way is just sitting on my brand new sofa down in the family room, which used to be the billiards room, but I had to take the pool table out because no one plays it. So I’ve acquired a new room, a family room! And it has a big ol’ sleeper sofa in it! I’ll just get on there and I’ll drink my tea. I have a chamomile tea by Dr. Sebi that will put you out. I’ll usually start sipping there before eventually going to bed.
Since the wintertime came in, it gets dark earlier, so I mean, shoot … there are some days I’m in bed by 8, and I’m not embarrassed to say that. What do you want? We’re sittin’ on our asses all day! And then there are other nights, like last night, when I couldn’t go to sleep. I was up until 2 a.m. And the thought is, Well, I don’t have to get up and go nowhere tomorrow, so … guess I’ll just stay up!
On dealing with criticism.
I come from the old school: A bitch say it to my face. Now, these kids, these people, these bullies, these thumb thugs, they just get real bold behind these screens. Most times, I don’t let it affect me, because I know what it is, but then, you know, I have a human moment where I have to clap back, and I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to let people know, mmm, you can’t just come over here saying any little thing to me. But does it take away from my self-confidence? No, because I’m doing something right. You like to take time out of your day, to take your little thumb, and type this longwinded message, telling me about my life, that I love living? It’s sad. So when I think about it like that, I really do feel sorry for the aggressor. Because I know who I am.
On character acting:
It’s not as easy as people think. It’s more intricate and much more complicated than just saying lines, getting in front of the camera, and being able to cry on cue. It’s deeper than that. It’s character breakdowns. I studied the craft. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I wanna be an actress.” I actually went to school for this, like a surgeon does. [Laughs.] I have a degree in it. Acting is almost like a possession; it’s almost like a transformation. You have to leave yourself, because these characters you portray have nothing to do with you. It’s not your job to judge these characters and say, “Oh, I would never do that …” Yeah, you wouldn’t! Because you’re not the character.
On experimenting with your hair:
I have to say, I loved the red. The red actually made a big splash. Not to say that I made everybody go red, but, I started noticing a trend afterward … and then I didn’t feel fresh anymore so I changed it. I’m an only child, I can’t help it!
I just started putting color in my own hair a year ago, right before the pandemic. I also cut it short again, so now I can really play. Right now it’s a fuchsia, violet, raspberry blend? Some concoction I put together. I can do anything I want to my hair because now we have wigs. Whatever character I need to be, I can just make a wig for it. Don’t mess with my head though; this is me!
I’d tell my younger self: Never give up on yourself, and believe in yourself. You’ll get a lot of noes before you get yeses, but you have to believe in yourself first. How are you going to sell yourself to anybody if you don’t believe in yourself? And don’t compare yourself to others — that’s a death trap. What’s meant for you is yours, and what’s meant for someone else is theirs. Don’t go looking at the greener grass, baby, because it might be Astroturf!