Screen Rant was invited to Atlanta, GA earlier this year to visit the set of Paramount's What Men Want, a new comedy starring Taraji P. Henson that's a re-imagining of 2000's What Women Want with the genders reversed. The film is produced by Will Packer and James Lopez (Girl's Trip), is directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray), and also stars Tracy Morgan, Aldis Hodge, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Richard Roundtree.
The first trailer was released earlier today, and in it, audiences got their first look at Henson's character, Ali Davis, a sports agent who struggles to get ahead in her male-dominated field but gains the upper hand when she develops the ability to hear men's thoughts. Ali has spent her whole life around men, raised by a single father, a former boxer (Roundtree), and that's where she is most comfortable. However, being a woman in a man's world isn't always easy, and having worked twice as hard for half the reward, she's become a little bitter. After she's passed over for a well-deserved promotion, her frustration leads to a wild and strange night out with her friends. When she wakes up the next day, Ali discovers that she's developed the power to hear men's thoughts - every single one.
While on set, we spoke with Taraji P. Henson about her role, how excited she is to be headlining her first comedy ("The fact that I was thought of... I'm honored... I've done comedy, I haven't done a comedy."), and how important it is for women to be given more opportunity when it comes to roles, not less:
"I'm kind of a workaholic. I've worked so hard to get to this place in my career where my name alone can greenlight a film and here we are. It just seems like the work is picking up, which I like this representation for women, especially women when we get a little older. They send us out to pasture but men - I was talking to Adam, actually, the director and he was like, 'Men's value, even in dollar value, goes up as they get older.' Why does ours decrease when we start to look better as we get older? That's what I fight for and that's why I work so hard, because I'm trying to break down barriers, make it easier for the girls coming up. So they don't feel so rushed like, 'I only have this 10-year span to do what I need to do.' That's not true."
Playing a character like Ali is a great opportunity for Henson, and What Men Want is a movie that producer Will Packer says "falls right in to Taraji's sweet spot," adding:
"She's so good at physical comedy, at comedy that is at the same time big but also emotional, like she's got depth. And she's been doing dramas for so long. One of the earliest conversations I had with her when we were talking about this movie, she was like, 'I wanna laugh. I have been Cookie for so long. And in my movies I have been, like, the distressed single mom with something horrible happening to me. I just wanna have some fun.'"
As Henson rightly points out, she isn't really known for her comedic work. Her biggest roles are often dramatic, like her work in Hidden Figures or her role as Cookie on Empire. But Henson studied musical comedy while at Howard University, and she actually came to Hollywood with dreams of landing a role on a thirty-minute sitcom. Still, she maintains she always tries, "to put funny in everything because such is life. You laugh one minute, you're crying the next."
Packer wasn't worried at all about Henson handling the comedy. "Everybody knows how incredibly talented she is," he told us, before adding, "I think people forget how funny she is." What Men Want is certainly the chance for Henson to remind audiences of funny she can be, and Packer explains it all comes down to her timing: "To see the comedic timing. I can't stress that enough about a comedy. The timing and the rhythm and the way it all comes together is so important."
And actually, it was Henson's name being floated as a potential star that got Packer interested in producing the film in the first place:
"When he [the new head of Paramount Players, Brian Roberts] came to me, the first thing he said was What Men Want. The second thing he said was Taraji. And I was like, oh my gosh, I was like abso-come on-stop it-I hung up with him and called Taraji. This is so pitch perfect, tonally perfect, like on point with kind of like where we are in society. Of course you do this version, with Taraji; with a woman at the center and that woman being Taraji. It just really felt like... and look, I get pitched a lot of bad remakes and ideas of how to revamp stuff. But sometimes you get one that kind of feel likes, 'Y'know what? Okay that's got a reason to be.' And that's what this feels like."
Henson knows she can bring the funny and she's excited for audiences to finally get to see her in that way. "They knew I was funny, but they did not know I had the physical, the physicality of comedy," she says, discussing a visit she received from the studio execs ("You know your movie's good when all the execs fly out. I've been doing this long enough to know!"). Henson went to explain:
"There's funny, and then there's Jack Tripper funny. The slapstick, falling over the chair, I don't think people knew that. So that's what's going to be most surprising to my fans. Yeah they know I'm funny, but the physical comedy, you can't really teach that."
Director Adam Shankman absolutely believes Henson has what it takes to do physical comedy, stating adamantly that, "Taraji is one of the best physical comedians I’ve ever worked. Period. End of story." According to Shankman, Henson uses her body in ways that mimic the "golden age" of comedies, and that his only advice to her was simply:
"Honey, I’m just going to put you in a pencil skirt and heels and the rest will happen. That’s what makes the funny. The higher the heels, the tighter the pencil skirt, the funnier it’s going to get. It’s that restriction that women put themselves in, they’re trying to move through life and it’s sort of like whatever fashion or sexy does, whatever you’re battling in life, it isn’t great armor."
Get ready to laugh when Taraji P. Henson rocks that pencil skirt and heels in What Men Want, releasing January 11th, 2019. And stay tuned to Screen Rant for more from our What Men Want set visit!