Henson is being celebrated for her work on the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which aims to eradicate the stigma around mental health in the Black community. The actress founded in 2018 in her late father’s memory.
“I suffer from depression,” Henson says. “My anxiety is kicking up even more every day, and I’ve never really dealt with anxiety like that. It’s something new.”
Henson sat with Variety for a wide-ranging interview about her foundation, women in the entertainment industry, and pay inequality.
Read excerpts from the interview below, which was conducted prior to charges being dropped against her “Empire” co-star Jussie Smollett.
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You started a foundation that works to eradicate the stigma with mental health issues, and you are revealing that you actually suffer from anxiety and depression. How do you deal with that?
I talk to someone. I have a therapist that I speak to. That’s the only way I can get through it. You can talk to your friends, but you need a professional who can give you exercises. So that when you’re on the ledge, you have things to say to yourself that will get you off that ledge and past your weakest moments. It’s a professional — someone who studies the human mind, and someone who has no stakes involved. Their job is to make sure you’re mentally sound, whatever that is and telling you the truth, which might hurt. Sometimes your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. If I’m going to change for the better, I need honesty, and sometimes your friends and family don’t have it in them to be brutally honest.
Do you see a therapist regularly?
I talk to someone regularly. It has to be regularly, and that’s what I learned. It gets frustrating because you’re waiting for them to fix you, but it’s not that easy. I had to go through several therapists that I felt comfortable talking to, or that I felt was moving me forward and that I was making some progress with, and that takes time. I remember the first time I went, I was angry, because I was like, “She didn’t tell me nothing! She didn’t tell me anything!” You’re not going to figure it all out in one sitting.
So aside from ridding others of the shame associated with therapy, you’re saying people need to really focus on their meetings and put the time into finding the right mental health professional?
Going and talking to all these different therapists, that’s a craft. You’ve got to keep going until you find the right one. It’s like a relationship. I’ve got to feel comfortable because that’s the only way I’m going to keep coming back to you. To keep dealing with this ugly stuff, I have to feel totally safe. I need to feel like even though I know we don’t have all day, you’ve got to make me feel like we have all day.
We live in a 24/7 world today. How has social media impacted your mental health?
I turn off everything. This [picking up her phone] had become a problem. You get on here to check messages and next thing you know, you’re on social media. Social media is good and it’s bad. It plays a doozy. Even if life is good for you, you can still get on there and become depressed because people are filtering pictures and living these false lives, and it makes you second guess yourself – not intentionally, it just does. That’s what this does. It makes you compare yourself. If you just stay in your lane and mind your business…that’s why I put that away. It was affecting my mood. I’d wake up in a good mood and I’d see something on there. I can control that — just don’t look at it! Because that thing can depress you. It can knock you off your game.
Has your lack of privacy led to your depression and anxiety?
It wears on me. It does. I have to be conscious about everything. Everything. Every move I make, everything that comes out of my mouth. I have to go over it. That’s not living. That’s not just being. Living is being in the moment and saying whatever the f— you want to say and that’s what it is. But I can’t do that. And once upon a time, I could. It’s depressing. I feel myself changing, and I don’t want to. It’s making me a little hard in a way. It’s making me a little agoraphobic, and I’ve never been, but I have anxiety sometimes when I just want to go outside, and I can’t. Somebody’s got to go with me.
Social media has obviously been a huge part of your increased lack in privacy, but did it really all change with “Empire?”
Yeah. “Empire” changed everything. People recognized me before, but it made me international. I go out of the country and people yell, “Cookie Lyon!” in other languages. It’s almost like I became an overnight sensation, which is so far from the truth, but it felt like that. I had done other things, like “Hustle & Flow,” but there was just something about Cookie that propelled me to superstardom. It just took me from one level to the next. But look, you have to take the good with the bad. This is what I wanted. This is what I worked my ass off for my entire career. I’m not complaining, but things are just different now. I wouldn’t change a thing.
How has the Jussie Smollett case impacted you?
We’ll never be the same. No one will ever be the same. Forever changed. And it’s sad.
You’re the matriarch on “Empire.” How did you deal with being a leader on set during a time of crisis?
You’ve just got to be strong because the devil wants you weak, and the devil wants to catch you in a vulnerable moment and make you believe things that aren’t true. I just stay strong. I know what side I’m on: I’m on faith’s side. I’ve got God, I know I’m a good person, so I just stay in that lane because powers that be and other sources from the outside can make you think things, but when you know what you know, you stay there right where you know what you know. I just hold onto my truth.
Even being Taraji P. Henson, with all of your success and fame, do you still find it challenging to navigate the world as a woman of color?
Let me put it this way. Where I live in Chicago, there are not a lot of black people. It’s a rich area, and there are not a lot of black people in my building. Now, everyone in the building knows who I am, so this doesn’t happen anymore, but before I got Cookie, I remember I walked into the elevator. I own in this building – I was not renting. I own. And I was wearing Chanel head-to-toe. Very classy. This older white couple gets on, and it was very uncomfortable. I felt that nasty stare from the husband, so much so that the wife went into damage control. He looked at me, as if I should be dead, like, “What the f— are you doing in this building?” The wife felt it. That’s how tough it was. Now, they will never treat me like that because they know who I am, but people who are not Taraji P. Henson deal with that every day. And I don’t like it because I don’t know who I’m dealing with – are you being nice to me because I’m Cookie or because you really like me?
You’ve been vocal before about pay discrepancy in the industry, specifically with your role on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
I want to make this very clear – I’m not saying that Brad [Pitt] or Cate [Blanchett] shouldn’t have gotten what they got. They put asses in seats, so give them their money. They deserve it. I’m not saying they shouldn’t get what they’re getting. I was just asking for half a million – that’s all. That’s it. When I was doing “Benjamin Button,” I wasn’t worth a million yet. My audience was still getting to know me. We thought we were asking for what was fair for me, at the time.
And you didn’t get a half a million for that movie, like you asked?
No! They came in at $100,000.
Were you able to negotiate up at all?
$150,000. That was it. But, if I let ego get in the way…
You wouldn’t have been nominated for your first Academy Award.
That’s right. You’ve got to check your ego. I mean, I’m a black woman, so I knew it was going to be a fight.
How about now? Is it still a fight to negotiate for your pay?
Still a fight. I don’t get paid if I don’t fight.
Read the full interview here.
To read more about Henson’s foundation, click here