'Empire' actress Taraji P. Henson inspires Syracuse students with rags to riches story

During 'A Night with Taraji,' the actress talks her rise to fame, her upcoming 'Saturday Night Live' gig, and offers many words of wisdom.

Fans of Taraji P. Henson have seen her on screen as an NYPD homicide detective, a loving caregiver, and most recently, the ex-wife of a hip-hop mogul, but in an intimate evening at the Schine Student Center's Goldstein Auditorium, Syracuse University students were able to see her as just Taraji.

Wearing minimal makeup and her hair pulled back for "A Night with Taraji," no topic was off limits to Henson as she shared her life story and secrets to her success with the audience.

"Come to college to make a career for yourself. Then, when you meet someone special someday, build an empire together."
- Taraji P. Henson

After being rejected from a performing arts high school and failing pre-calculus as an electrical engineering major at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Henson turned to her father who encouraged her to transfer to Howard University to pursue an acting degree.

With $700 in her bank account, Henson moved to Los Angeles to chase a dream that has since earned her a decorated acting career in Hollywood.

The 44-year-old actress has starred in "Boston Legal" and "Person of Interest," plus had roles in "Baby Boy," "I Can Do Bad All by Myself" and both installments of "Think Like a Man." She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and got an Emmy nomination for the TV movie "Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story."

Back in 2005, Henson played the love interest of Terrence Howard's character in the independent film "Hustle & Flow," and now ten years later, the two have taken television by storm together in FOX's new hit show "Empire" where Henson plays Cookie Lyon, the ex-wife of Howard's character Lucious Lyon.

With rising viewership for ten straight weeks, "Empire" capped its first-year ratings performance with over 17 million viewers during the finale alone and a demo delivery not seen by any broadcast series in nearly six years, according to Variety magazine.

Describing "Cookie" from Empire as her "alter ego," Henson admits she has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the outspoken and sassy diva character.

"I love Cookie," Henson said, "I just hate that she's stolen my identity!"

Although Henson plays characters for a living, she is perhaps one of the most real actresses in the industry. She connected with the audience on a level that many have never seen from the many speakers that have come to SU. At one point during the night, Henson was practically lying on the stage in her Michael Kors jumpsuit just to take a picture with a fan and at another point in the night, she greeted a fan with the warmest hug and kiss on the cheek, as if they had known each other for years. 

From sex to school, Henson left the audience with five main takeaways that have helped shape the woman she is today:

1. Don't mix business with pleasure

From Brad Pitt to Idris Elba, Henson has worked with some of the most recognized and perhaps best looking actors in the business, but she keeps her relationships with co-stars strictly professional.

"If you sleep with them," Henson said. "They'll never have the need to work with you again."

Henson went on to attribute some of her success to the fact that she has carried this philosophy of self-respect with her throughout her career.

"I studied the craft of acting," Henson said. "If I can't rely on my talent, then why am I doing this?"

But, perhaps most importantly, Henson chooses not to sleep with her co-stars for the sake of her son.

“How can I raise my son to respect women if he doesn’t respect his own mother?” Henson said.

2. Choose your side

"You have light versus dark, love versus hate, life versus death," Henson said. "Which side are you on?" 

Henson admitted that although she is not religious, she is spiritual and "knows there is a God."

"He didn't give me anything that he didn't also give ya'll," she added.

3. Have a vision and dream big

The loudest scream of excitement during the night came from Henson herself talking about her upcoming gig as host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live." As someone who faced a tremendous amount of adversity and struggles during her early career, Henson believes she epitomizes a strong belief in the popular saying "dreams do come true" and she is a "living testimony" of just that.

"Get a clear vision of your dreams," Henson said. "All you have are dreams. You hold on to them. You have the power to make them come true. Dream big. Don't put limits on your dreams because when you put limits on your dreams, you put limits on yourself." 

4. Don't go to college for your "MRS." degree

'Come to college to make a career for yourself," Henson said. "Then, when you meet someone special someday, build an empire together."

Throughout the night, Henson stressed the importance of getting an education and women empowerment to the mostly female audience.

"To my sisters, we are so much more powerful when we come together," Henson said.

5. A secret to success as an actress

While admitting her 2007 film "Talk to Me" with Don Cheadle has been her favorite movie to date, she admits she does not have a favorite character.

"If I had a favorite, then I would be done," Henson said. "There's so many more characters that I want to accomplish."

Henson went on to add that she still hasn't played a man, but no matter what role she gets, there's one thing she never does with her characters.

"I don't judge them," Henson said. "I play them as people, not stereotypes, because there's somebody out there who is that character in life."

Looking back on her journey to success and when asked what she would tell her younger self, Henson said she "wouldn't change a thing."

"At the end of the day," Henson said, "I have a story to tell because I worked for it."

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