Taraji P. Henson Breaks Down Her Bombshell Audition for ‘The Color Purple’

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Photo Source: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

In filmmaker Blitz Bazawule’s new adaptation of “The Color Purple,” based on the Broadway reimagining of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Taraji P. Henson blows the roof off as Shug Avery. Originally portrayed by Margaret Avery in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation, Shug is a free-spirited jazz-blues singer who offers a hint of hope to downtrodden dreamer Celie (Fantasia Barrino) in this story of heartbreak and hope in early 20th-century Georgia. 

On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, Henson joins us to discuss the arc of her career so far, from dragging a rack across the stage in a college production of “Dreamgirls” to earning Oscar buzz for “The Color Purple.”  

From her earliest days in acting, Henson knew she had to give every role her all.  

“It’s not even that I make it a point that I'm gonna stand out. That’s not how I approach my work. I approach everything the same. I don't care how big or small [a role is], how many lines, or how many scenes I'm in. Once I say yes, I'm all in and that character gets all of me. It's very spiritual, what we do as actors, because we're lending our vessels to the lives of these characters. I understand the weight of that. Somebody out there needs to see themselves. I don't care if it's one line, I don't care if it is me crossing stage left to stage right pushing a rack. That's somebody's job. They need to see themselves.”

Henson had to put her history aside to audition for “The Color Purple.”

“I had to check my ego. I really did. Because I did feel a way, I'm not gonna lie. I worked my ass off to prove to this town that I'm worthy of whatever you throw my way. But there was nothing out there that had me singing like this, so I didn't mind going in [to audition]. But then I was like, ‘I gotta dance and they want the whole thing?’ I said, ‘OK, well, watch this.’

I'm theatrically trained. I know how to walk in as the character. I found a dress. I had the perfect Shug sexy dress that I could move in and dance and do all the things that the dress I wore in the movie did. I put that famous red lip on, I got me some character shoes. I don’t wear real fur, so I found my faux-fur stole. I threw that over my shoulders and I put a flower in my hair and I said, ‘I'm gonna run this Shug up the flagpole.’ I kicked that door open so fierce-style. I walked in the room—I’ll never forget—Blitz said, ‘Oh! Shug Avery is coming to town!’”

Taraji P. Henson

Henson treats her body as a well-tuned acting instrument. 

“When a horn player sits down to hit A flat, they don’t have to think about it. It's automatic. They've been playing that instrument so much, they can do it with their eyes closed. They don't have to read the music. It's in them. So that's how I treat my body. The boom mic guy doesn't have all day to hold that boom while you squeak out a tear. It is your job to get to that set and be able to hit your mark, find your light, and give the director everything he or she needs. That's your job as an actor. We don't have all day to wait around for you to conjure up these emotions. You're supposed to show up ready. That's what we get paid to do.” 

Henson relishes the chance to portray the novel’s queer romance between Shug and Celie, which was largely left out of the story’s 1985 film adaptation. 

“Back then, that wasn't a topic we could really talk about freely. Thanks to the advancement of humanity, allowing people to love who they want to love, we were able to really crack that open a little bit [in this version]. That's why it'll be so exciting to see what happens 30 years from now. We have to pass the baton to the next group who want to tell this story. Because this book is so vast we only keep dealing with little parts of it each time.”

Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with Henson.