What Men Want is a new comedy starring Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Hidden Figures) that is releasing this February from Paramount. It’s a re-imagining of the 2000 Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt romantic comedy, What Women Want, and in it, Henson plays Ali, a sports agent who develops the ability to hear men’s thoughts and uses her new power to get ahead.
The first trailer for What Men Want showed how it is Ali gets her powers as well as how her mind-reading ability will work, but it’s the just-released, red-band trailer that really showcases the crazy stuff Ali hears in men’s minds. Tracy Morgan (30 Rock, SNL) plays Joe Dolla, a combative and controlling father of a promising NBA talent who Ali is looking to sign, and unsurprisingly, his thoughts are some of the wackiest. What Men Want also stars Josh Brener, Jason Jones, Max Greenfield, Pete Davidson, and Aldis Hodge – all of whose innermost thoughts are on full volume for Henson’s Ali.
When Screen Rant visited the Atlanta set of What Men Want earlier this year, Henson shared how excited she is to star in a comedy and what it’s been like working alongside her hilarious co-stars. She also elaborated on why she thinks roles like this are important for women, and how she’s looking forward to some of the conversations she hopes What Men Want will spark.
Are you really excited to be doing this?
I’m very excited. This is, like, one of my all-time favorite comedies. The fact that I was thought of when they decided to do the reverse of the story was pretty honoring, I’m honored.
When they tell you, ‘Hey, we want you to do this comedy role, that you haven’t done in awhile…’
Well, I have done comedy. I haven’t done a comedy. Think Like a Man was a comedy, but that’s about it.
A rom-com is a little different, though. What goes through your mind when you get that call?
Finally! I mean I studied musical theater so I think I know comedy. Actually, I really went to Hollywood with hopes of getting on a half-hour comedy show. Being a single mother, that would have been the schedule that best helped me, but here I was getting all these dramatic, one-hour shows. But, y’know, if you watch my work, I try to put funny in everything ’cause such is life. You laugh one minute, you’re crying the next.
When you get a role like this, do you think of it as a chance to re-validate how good of an actress you are? Because I think people forget how great you are.
I don’t really think like that. I don’t go, ‘This is the movie that’s going to make everybody go, yeah!’ Y’know? I just love work and I mean, hopefully, people get it. I don’t sit in some secret lab and go, ‘I’m going to do this movie and I’m going to do a movie like this.’ Life happens, the roles come, I either like them or I don’t, and I just do them. I’m kind of a workaholic, y’know? 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, so it just seems like the work is picking up, which I like. I like this representation for women – especially women when we get a little bit older, y’know? They send us out to pasture. I was talking to Adam, actually, the director, and he was saying that men’s value – even in dollar value – goes up as they get older. Why do ours decrease when we start to look better as we get older?
For me, 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.’ It’s not true.
Can you tell us how Ali relates to men before she gets her powers?
Well, because she was raised by a single father and she was around boxing all of her life, around testosterone all of her life, I think she feels most comfortable with men. Look at her life, it led her right to a career where she’s around men. I think she’s most comfortable with men just because of the way she was raised.
And what are some of the types of things that she overhears when she gets her powers that you think might surprise the audience?
Just the fact that men are just as insecure as we are. I think the women sit back and they wait for the sexual stuff. We know he’s going to talk about our t— or a–, but y’know, they are very smart in the things they put on men’s minds. This one guy I heard today talking about he should adopt a dog! I think you will be surprised just like I am at the things that go through men’s brains. Like, there’s this one guy, he’s an assistant to another sports agent, and his thought is, ‘Give me a raise, you prick!’ I mean, how many times are women saying that?
One thing I want to point out for the film, what I really do love and I appreciate about this film, what touches me is the visual that we’re putting out there for single fathers. I think when you think about men, you don’t think about them raising kids on their own, y’know? That’s usually the torch women have to carry, so I really love it. Particularly black men, I really love that my father raised me and I did well. Look at me, I’m a power sports agent. And also my love interest – that’s played by Aldis Hodge – is also a single father who is doing right by his son. So I just think that that’s a great image to portray right now for men.
There are a lot of conversations that are going to come out of this movie that are more serious, even though this is comedy. Is that something that attracted you to the role?
Yeah, absolutely, but then that’s art, though. I look for lessons in all of my–there are lessons in every script, I don’t care how funny, there’s always something to get, there’s always something to learn. So I think the unique, brilliant thing about comedy is that we teach you through laughter as opposed to hitting you over the head with the message, the message, the message. So you get to laugh but you also–it’s almost like watching a comedian, like a Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock. Y’know? They make you laugh, but they are hitting very poignant subject matters. I think that’s what this movie is going to be, more than just a comedy because it’s going to continue conversations that we have already started having.
How much physical comedy is in this?
The studio execs came to visit and you know your movie’s good when all the execs fly out. I’ve been doing this long enough to know. And I think that the general consensus was, yeah, they knew I was funny, but they didn’t know I had the physical–the physicalities of comedy. Y’know? There is funny and then there’s, like, Jack Tripper funny. Like the slapstick, the falling over the chair. I don’t think people knew that so I think that’s what’s going to be most surprising to my fans. Yeah, they know I’m funny, but the physical comedy, that’s, like, you can’t really teach that.
Everyone we’ve talked to today has mentioned you with such glowing praise, how much they’ve enjoyed working with you, and how much they also feel like they’re learning from you.
And the crazy thing about it is that most of the cast, they’ve done comedy! They have done comedy shows, I haven’t. I’ve been a guest star but that’s not–when people look at my career they don’t think, ‘Taraji, the comedic actress.’ So hopefully this will give me another 10 years.
So have you felt like you’ve learned things from them?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m always learning. I’m learning how witty that Pete [Davidson] is. God, he is just, I mean, it makes sense, he’s an SNL writer and, y’know, I’ve done that show before and you have to be quick-witted. Like, I don’t think I’m that quick-witted. It’ll take me two takes and I’ll be like, ‘Let’s do another one, I figured something out!’ And he’s just open-ended, he’s just, the floodgates just open and it just comes out. So I really love it–it’s hard because you have to stay in the scene but sometimes I find myself watching because it’s like, what are they going to say next?
Do you enjoy the ad-libbing or do you find that frustrating?
Oh no, I absolutely love it. I did improvisational theater, so throw something at me, please. Because after a while, you start repeating the same lines over and over, it gets kind of mundane. So we’ll be in this scene probably all the way up until lunch, so we’ve been working on this for what four or five hours? After a while, it’s like, ‘Please, say something different!’ So I really look forward to that and it’s easier to do in comedy, it’s much easier to do in comedy.
So a few years ago there was a big thing about “women can be funny”, but they were mostly centering that conversation on white women. Do you think that this is going to help usher in a new wave of “black women can be funny” conversation?
Absolutely! I mean, I hope they’re paying attention. Issa Rae is quite funny. I love her show. It’s smart, it’s poignant, it’s great, it’s refreshing. Y’know, awkward black girl, you never think. When you say black women, I think, for so long it’s attitude and being sassy. You never think of us being awkward. I was always very awkward, y’know? I may be very forthright and I speak up for myself or whatever, but I’m still very awkward. I get socially awkward sometimes when I feel like, ‘I shouldn’t have said that,’ or, ‘Why did I wear this?’ I think we all have that element, so I’m just glad that we’re seeing so many different representations of black women. Because we’re out there. We’re not just one thing, like any race, y’know? We’re three dimensional humans, all of us. And it’s just good, I’m so happy to see it, I’m just so happy to see so many representations.
When it comes to gender-bending movies, do you think this is a good opportunity for women to really change the conversation that’s been so archaic for so long?
Absolutely. Every time you tell the female perspective it’s a chance to open up new conversations and new dialogue that needs to be had. It’s a man’s world, it’s always him before her. We’re the nurturers, we’re the givers, y’know? You give a woman anything she’ll multiply it – including love. We have enough love in us to love all 13 children that pop out of our hoo-haa, y’know? So I think it’s beautiful. And I had this man say, very intelligent man say to me, older gentleman, white gentleman, he said that, ‘It’s interesting, that if you follow nature, man always follows the woman. And that it was when men flipped it, that it got crazy.’ We gave all the power to the men, that’s when society got flipped upside down. ‘Cause they don’t think like us. We need each other absolutely, we absolutely need each other, but this whole notion that man knows all is a myth. If that was the case, the world would be full of men and you wouldn’t need us.
I take what I do as an artist very seriously. I know people see me and they think, ‘Oh she gets to dress up and dat, dat-dat, dat-dat.’ But I’m very clear on the jobs that I’m picking, in the roles that I’m picking. It’s not like, ‘Oh I’m desperate and I need a job.’ There’s a reason behind everything I do, everything, trust that.
Your character is a career woman, she’s worked very hard to get where she is, but her love interest has a young son. Is that something that Ali struggles with?
The thing about when you see the film is she’s not ever looking for a love interest, it kind of just happens. And it’s out of a selfish need of hers. She has to pretend like she’s a family woman to sign a potential client. So yeah, she’s always work, work, work, and that’s made her kind of bitter, and the men in the office are slighted by her because she’s that too strong of a woman, y’know what I mean? And so that love interest thing that changes her, it’s not something that she consciously said, ‘Oh, I need a man in my life.’ And that’s the one thing I love about this film, it wasn’t about the man coming into her life that changed her, it was the circumstances that made her real a real person. Something that broke her down from having to be a man and tapped into a vulnerable side of her that she’s never realize she even had.