On a sunny Georgia morning in June, Taraji P. Henson is having some trouble. There are 10 more shoot days left on her next feature film, What Men Want, and a pivotal scene is being shot at a luxury car company’s headquarters. The setting is the sports agency where Henson’s character, Ali Davis, is hard at work. A phalanx of suits march on command as the cameras roll, capturing the sea of testosterone that Davis is trying to make waves in. By all accounts Henson is the consummate professional, but she’s stumbling over one line in a scene with Josh Brener, who plays her assistant Brandon.
“We were f*cking amazing and on time,” she says more to herself than the crew after a hiccup. The cameras roll again and the phrase "poppy seed bagels" trips her up. “See what happens?” She laments after the previous flawless take. She fumbles one more time. “Fuck. Sorry.”
Filmmaking is a grueling exercise in repetition, which is why you need patient and tenacious personalities to make it work, and Taraji is just that.
“Putting Taraji in the Mel Gibson role is just fantastic and making her kind of a Jerry McGuire character makes it more fun,” says director Adam Shankman (Step Up, Glee, Hairspray). “What makes Taraji so brilliant is that she is funny in a way I could never have hoped for. If Lucille Ball and Sandy Bullock had a little Black baby, it would be Taraji Henson."
“Taraji is one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met,” adds co-star Jason Jones, who plays ‘“sports douche” Ethan Fowler. “I go Taraji, my children, then Barack Obama, then my wife. In that order, as the nicest people I know.”
As pleasant as Taraji is, her character, Ali Davis, is far from it—at least at first. The hard-nosed sports agent was raised by a single father who trained boxers (hence the name) and her mantra is to hit hard and hit first.
“Ali, she’s strong, but it’s not that she’s even trying to. It’s just how she was raised,” says Henson. “Her father is a single dad, mother left, so she has issues there with being soft and feminine. She was raised around a lot of boxers, her dad owns a boxing gym so she comes with a lot of testosterone. She’s a fighter, metaphorically speaking and in real life. I identify with that fight in her. I feel like I’m always fighting in life and this industry.”
While it is billed as an R-Rated comedy, the themes that run throughout What Men Want are timely and honest. Times have changed a lot since the 2000 original starring Mel Gibson, both in film and in the real word.
“It’s very poignant,” says Henson. “Everything we’re talking about in the industry, across the globe, whatever career you’re in, there’s always that question of whether I’ll be paid the same amount as a man even if I’m doing the [same] work or excelling in my position. It’s unfortunate that we’re still having this conversation, but I feel empowered when I have scripts that hit on subjects that we’re dealing with in life. Because art imitates life. And a lot of times people get their life-changing messages through film, visual art they see. You never know how art is gonna effect someone, and that’s why I take what I do seriously. I like picking projects that can help change the course of mankind for the better.”
Henson’s Davis is having as hard a time in love as she is at work and is trying to close another deal with a single father named Will, played by Aldis Hodge.
“They gave me a list of guys and [asked] who do you want to work with, I saw Aldis’ name and right away I said him,” she says of her Hidden Figures co-star. “He’s charming, he’s charismatic, he just has what it takes to play this character and make him believable and likable.”
“It’s awesome. The first time we worked together, we weren’t able to work as closely or in the same space,” says Hodge. “So the thing that I love about this is that we actually get to square off one-on-one and it’s been a blast. They both teach each other something about love and relationships at the end of the day.”
Rounding things out both on set and in the film in a way only he can is Tracy Morgan, who plays Joe “Dolla” Barry. If you hear any music playing on set it’s probably Morgan with his boombox, and he definitely helps to keep things on beat.
“My character is loosely based on that guy Lavar Ball. He’s a hustler and is all about his brand. I know people like that. My uncle is like that. He’s all about his brand.”
While Barry gives Ali a hard time in the film, Morgan echoes his cast mate’s sentiments about working with Henson. “Working with Taraji, she’s a fearless leader, and I like that. She gives you encouragement and given me someplace warm and safe to work. I feel protected here.”
What Men Want is shaping up to be a career-defining moment for the veteran actress and no one sounds more enthusiastic about its outcome than her.
“I was just blown away that Paramount thought of me for this film, for the remake. I’ve been dying to do an actual comedy and lead a comedy, so this was like godsend. [What Women Want] was one of my all time favorites, it’s a classic. When they talk about remakes, that was one that was always in the back of my mind. ‘How would that film would turn out if a woman could [hear men’s thoughts]?’ It’s interesting what you put out into the universe. Be careful, because it can come back to you.”
What Men Want from Paramount Studios will be in theaters January 11, 2019.