I’ve recently had a lot of assignments that involve the craft of acting. The nitty gritty. The actual work that goes into helping you, the viewer, suspend belief for a half hour, an hour or three. I’ve also interviewed a lot of actors. A ton. Most of them. But it wasn’t until the last two years that I really got interested in exactly how they do what they do. I blame it on Vera J. Katz, a retired Howard University professor who specializes in directing and acting. (I’m also editing Katz’s memoir and instructional manual, so this whole experience has been an education.) Katz has tutored a number of actors out there on the scene, including Taraji P. Henson, who is Essence’s November cover star. That said, when I sat down and talked with Taraji, we had plenty more to talk about than for previous stories.
The continuum is pretty cool. We first chatted in 2009 for a joint cover with Taraji and Viola Davis for Ebony. Then I pitched a July 2011 cover featuring Tyrese and Taraji for the newly-created Sexy Singles cover that now runs annually in Ebony magazine. (I actually created the Sexy Singles franchise for Ebony while I was senior editor there.) So, for that second cover story, I spend time in Hollywood with Tyrese and Taraji – separately – so I could weave together their rags-to-riches stories that kicked off with everybody’s hood fav, Baby Boy.
Fast forward to 2014. Taraji is destroying TV as Cookie on Fox’s Empire. The show is a huge hit, so of course it makes sense for Taraji to cover Essence magazine. And, the shoot is in my hometown: Chicago. I loved that the editors decided to showcase the beauty of my city and some of the little known elements therein. The shoot was at a swanky helipad on the West Side. (The Real West Side, though the folks trying to rename it “west loop” and gentrify it are too new to Chicago to understand what they’re getting themselves into…)
Taraji surprised me with her discussion of the craft and of the various methods she has studied. People think that this stuff is easy, but it’s not. We talked a bit about “the moment before,” an acting term that means you have to visualize and believe in whatever just happened to your character before the scene begins. In term, if you do this right, your acting will be more believable, more like real life. And that’s what Taraji does.
You can read more about her “moment before,” why Lee Daniels stopped auditions after Taraji showed up and why she’s putting her career first in November’s Essence magazine.