Taraji P. Henson stars in gender-norm-flipping sports film 'What Men Want'

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Taraji P. Henson plays a sports agent who gains the ability to read men’s minds in “What Men Want.”

Boxing was a shared love for Taraji P. Henson and her father, Boris. The two verbally sparred over reach, weight class and which fighter deserved the champ belt -- official rankings were just a formality.

After her father died in 2006 from liver cancer, Henson kept his memory and the sport close to her heart. In the romantic comedy, "What Men Want," which releases widely on Friday, Henson plays sports agent Ali Davis (the name is an homage to the original GOAT) who is not only navigating a male-dominated industry but rather, fighting to own a piece of it.

"When you're a woman in that position, you've got to fight for what's yours," said Henson, who recently received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "I've been a fighter all my life, so I didn't have to research that."

The film showcases a woman working to feel seen, heard and understood. In a unique happenstance, Ali gains the ability to hear what men are thinking, a skill she utilizes to gain equilibrium in her personal life and workplace. 

espnW talked to Henson about the movie, the legacy of Muhammad Ali, honoring her father's memory and the battle for pay equity in Hollywood.

espnW: Do you and Ali Davis draw any personal parallels?

Taraji P. Henson: I identify with her fighting for what she believes she deserves. I mean, that's me in every contract deal, every negotiation for all the projects that I do. Men get paid more than women. That's just across the board. It's a fight I understand.

espnW: Did you model Ali after anyone in your personal life?

TPH: My agent, Tracey Jacobs over at United Talent Agency (UTA). She was the first woman to sit on their board. But, you know agents -- at any kind of agency there are a lot of men. So, I talked to her a lot. 

espnW: Did your agent give you any advice on how to position the role?

TPH: No, not at all. I mean, when you're a woman in that position, and you've got to fight for what's yours, that's a no-brainer. You get to fighting, I've been a fighter all my life, so I didn't have to research that.

espnW: There's a scene in the film where WNBA legend Lisa Leslie has to run her stats and exert her dopeness to get center placement for a magazine cover. Have you ever had to run the resume, just to remind the room?

TPH: Always. In my field, it's like, come on, "you're trying to pay me that?" Look at all I've done. Look at all the movies I've done. Like, come on, stop it. But, once you can prove the numbers game, numbers don't lie. When you put that down, they've got to pay up.

espnW: Your name is Ali in the film, is Muhammad Ali a source of inspiration in your personal life?

TPH: Muhammad Ali has always inspired me, I have the entire Andy Warhol suite of his paintings. Ali, [the boxer], was always significant in my life because my father was a huge boxing fan.

People think boxing is just about bashing and the brawl, but it requires real thought. That's one sport I do love. I've never been to a live Vegas boxing match. That's on my bucket list. Other than boxing, I don't stay up on many other sports. I'm engaged to a former-Super Bowl champ, [Kelvin Hayden]. So, I know some football.

espnW: The film also explores the concept of women breaking the cycle of defining or associating their worth with a man's approval or desire for them. How are you hoping to inspire women to find self-worth from within?

TPH: Well, I try to teach through my work. And one incident in particular on "Empire," you know -- the back and forth with Lucious and Cookie (the role Henson plays on the show). And finally, when Lucious (Henson's love interest in "Empire," played by Terrence Howard), was coming back into Cookie's life, they wanted her to jump right in, and I was like, "no, no, no. He has to work for this. I get that ya'll are trying to get that this is real love and sometimes relationships get stretched like a rubber band, and then sometimes you find yourselves back together, but he's got to work."

You can't. What message are we sending to women? I don't want that. That's not the message I'm trying to send, because that's not the woman I am. I don't do that. So, I try to teach that lesson through my work. And even with Ali in this film, I was like, "This can't be a movie about her finding her success through a man." She's going to change herself, find herself, love herself first. Then the man can come, and everybody agreed to that.

That's putting too much power in another human's hands. Why would you do that?

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