Taraji P. Henson Talks Meeting—and Playing—the Black Woman Who Helped Put the First Man in Space

Photo by Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Henson stars in 'Hidden Figures' as astrophysicist Katherine Johnson, the Black woman who helped bring Apollo 13—America's first space excursion—home

Walking onto the set of Hidden Figures in Atlanta, a woman wearing black-rimmed, cat-eye glasses and super-tight, pinned-curled bangs approaches. She’s coming for a wide embrace, and keeping in mind my southern good manners, my arms open up wide while I try to place her.

The hug is tight and familiar, and when the woman steps back and says, “Prince...I still can not believe it,” my mind finally catches up to the familiar voice. It’s Taraji P. Henson who’s unrecognizable dressed as sixties housewife. She’s in character as astrophysicist Katherine Johnson, the Black woman who helped bring Apollo 13—aka the USA's first space excursion—home.

“I was so amazed by the many women who had a part in getting men into space," said Henson. "I never knew that at all. All the footage is of men smoking in a room, and who knew? Let alone [that] Black women [played a major part in it].”

By next January, everyone will know Johnson’s impact on history when Hidden Figures, the epic story of the three Black women who worked at NASA as “computers” in the early days of the space program, arrives in theaters. The film, based on the upcoming book by Margot Lee Shetterly, also stars Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as supervisor Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson.

“These women had degrees and masters in a field where they wouldn’t allow them to spread their wings and fly,” says Henson, on a break while filming at Atlanta’s Old Emory Hospital. “In this film, you get to see these women finally getting their wings. Their figures won’t be hidden anymore.”

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Henson recently met with the real-life Johnson, who was awarded the National Medal of Freedom in 2015.

“She’s still very aware and her mind is very sharp," Henson said. "She remembers everything like it was yesterday. She told very vivid stories of her time spent with NASA. She has an incredible sense of humor.”

Also, according to Henson, Johnson has a penchant for sequined hats. “I saw about eight of them hanging up. That’s her thing. She’s a Virgo, like me."

Henson was grateful for the opportunity to play Johnson because it was a clear departure from the role she's perhaps most famous for playing, the over-the-top mama bear Cookie on Empire.

“I think the world should see me in another light,” says the Golden Globe-winner. “I hate to use the term 'nerd' but Johnson’s an introvert where Cookie is an extrovert; she’s loud. This role is really a workout for me because I’m bigger than life. I’m so exhausted when I get home because I sit on all of that energy and Cookie would speak out and say something but Katherine doesn’t.”

Check out the trailer for Hidden Figures here:

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