This fall, Taraji P. Henson has two high-profile projects on her plate. For one, she’ll be reprising her role as the inimitable Cookie Lyons when Empire returns on Sept. 21. And secondly, she’ll be telling the story of Katherine Johnson in the film Hidden Figures, chronicling the African-American mathematician’s work at NASA in the 1960s. The two are vastly different women, but according to Henson, she had a little trouble switching between the two.
Sitting down with EW at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Henson revealed that after months of shooting as Cookie, she had trouble shaking her Empire character’s outlandish personality, especially in one scene where a man tells Katherine that he didn’t realize NASA had women working as computers.
“Because I had not properly deconstructed from Cookie, I was trying to be Katherine but still handling him like Cookie but trying to keep it together,” Henson recalls. “That scene, I didn’t nail, and the Virgo in me would not let me sleep, would not let me eat. I literally started throwing up my food.”
Henson added that the reason she was so concerned about getting that scene right was because she felt she owed it to the real Katherine Johnson, who’s still alive.
“I love awards, I love accolades, but that’s not why I got into the business,” Henson explains. “For me, it’s how will she be moved? Is she going to be proud? All that other stuff I didn’t care about. It wasn’t about an award. Like, I don’t care. It’s about Katherine. Will she feel and see herself in that moment?”
Fortunately for Henson, Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi could tell that something was up, and before he could ask if she would want to reshoot the scene, she asked him if they could do a reshoot. This time, with a little less Cookie.
Hidden Figures hits theaters on Jan. 13. For more on Henson’s role in the film, head here to see Henson talk about the real-life Katherine Johnson.