The 'Empire' star plays real life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in the upcoming movie.

By Tim Stack
September 02, 2016 at 05:14 PM EDT
Hopper Stone
  • Movie

Taraji P. Henson only takes projects that scare her. Empire gave her that feeling and so did Hidden Figures, this winter’s film about real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who helped launch John Glenn into space. “Katherine Johnson scared the hell out of me,” says Henson “I failed math!”

She’s not joking: Henson originally went to college to be an electrical engineer but flunked mathematics. So to play Johnson she had to go back to a very personal place of fear. “I had to learn math,” she says. “You don’t understand. Math gives me — I break out in hives. It reminds me of a failure.” Henson says that while playing louder than life Cookie can be exhausting, portraying the more soft-spoken Johnson was equally challenging. “Even though I’m not exerting as much energy, I still am ’cause it it takes a lot for me to sit on all of this energy I have. So even with Katherine, I went home feeling drained.”

Now, awards-buzz has been building with the release of Figures‘ first trailer (the film is not yet on the calendar for 2016, set to release wide in January, but a late-year qualifying run has been rumored). But Henson says that’s not what she’s focused on. Says the actress, a previous Oscar nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, “Is Katherine gonna be happy? That’s all I care about. Will she be proud? Will she be proud of the work that I did? All of these women went unnoticed in history and that is crazy to me. That is crazy. Hell no. That makes my blood boil.”

To continue reading more on Taraji P. Henson and Empire, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Hidden Figures hits theaters on Jan. 13, 2017.

  • Movie
  • PG
release date
  • 01/06/17
  • 127 minutes
Complete Coverage