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Taraji P. Henson memoir reveals many challenges before big break

Taraji P. Henson as the formidable Cookie on

Taraji P. Henson as the formidable Cookie on Fox's "Empire," a role she was hesitant about taking, but for which she was later nominated for an Emmy Award as outstanding lead actress in a drama series. Photo Credit: Fox / Chuck Hodes

Taraji P. Henson is one tough Cookie on the hit Fox series “Empire.” Now the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actress is showing that she’s also a smart cookie in her new memoir “Around the Way Girl” (37 Ink/Atria, $26), in which she relates her journey from the rough Washington, D.C., neighborhood of her childhood to fame and fortune in Hollywood.

Here are six things you’ll learn about Henson in her book.

A SINGLE MOTHER Henson was a junior at Howard University in 1993 when she became pregnant. She went into labor on Mother’s Day in 1994 with her son, Marcell.

A ‘MALCOLM X’-TRA While still at college, Henson sent her headshot to director Spike Lee when he did a workshop at her school. When she got a call to report to the set of Lee’s “Malcolm X,” Henson envisioned having a speaking role. Instead, she was merely an extra.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF HENSON’S PAYCHECK When Henson got her breakout role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) as Queenie, the caretaker of Button, she was only paid in the low six figures while her co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett made millions. Henson also had to pay all of her expenses — including three months of hotel bills — during on-location filming in New Orleans.

OSCAR CONSOLATION Henson did earn a supporting actress Oscar nomination for “Button,” but lost to Penélope Cruz. She leaned on Pitt and Angelina Jolie for support — and wine — that evening. The next morning, the only person she heard from was Tyler Perry, who called to see how she was doing and to offer her a role in his 2009 film “I Can Do Bad All by Myself.”

‘EMPIRE’ STATE OF MIND The role of Cookie didn’t initially appeal to Henson, who told her manager, “I’ve done this before: She’s street, she’s hood. I don’t need to do this again.” Eventually, she accepted the role, hoping she could get viewers to “see past her troubles and straight into her heart.”

A SPECIAL LADY Turns out Henson was a huge fan of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Henson’s love of the variety-show format led to her suggesting the idea of an “Empire” holiday special to Fox last year. Her goal, she writes, was “to bring Christmas stories, music and cheer, intertwined with a nod to pop culture and a distinctly African American flavor, to the small screen.”


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