Taraji P. Henson Interview: The Karate Kid, Beijing Culture and Working for Will Smith
Taraji P. Henson plays Jaden Smith’s mother in The Karate Kid, opening June 11, 2010. Unlike the original incarnation of the film where Daniel moves with his single mother from Newark to Los Angeles, this updated version of the classic portrays Taraji’s character, Sherry Parker, uprooting her son Dre (Jaden Smith) to Beijing where martial arts are a way of life.
In many ways the storyline of The Karate Kid reflects Henson’s own life as a young single mother who moved with her young son across the country to California with the hopes of launching a film career. For Taraji P. Henson the risk paid off. One Oscar nomination and close to twenty film credits later, Taraji has hit her professional stride. Though I suspect it wasn’t always a cakewalk for the Howard University graduate.
Taraji P. Henson achieved instant recognition from Hollywood with her portrayal of Brad Pitt’s devoted adoptive mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And as she expressed to me during our interview, she is attracted to roles that reflect her own life history.
Signing on to be a part of the 2010 version of The Karate Kid was not just another acting job, but a true adventure for the actress. The Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith-led production team took their entire cast and crew half way around the world to the city of Beijing, China. While there, all of the American actors had to learn to work alongside Chinese performers and Chinese production crew members who spoke little to no English. The production also had to work within the parameters of a Communist government to obtain permission to shoot at many landmark locations, such as China’s Great Wall.
During our chat, Taraji filled me in on bonding with Jaden Smith and the entire Smith family, taking in Beijing culture beyond the mapped out tourist attractions, and her early life as a young single mom from DC with a dream.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): How long were you in Beijing, and were you able to bring your son along for the trip?
Taraji P. Henson: I was there for three months, and yes, I had my son there with me for three weeks because of course he had to come back to the states and go back to school. It just worked out perfectly that he was on summer break.
PR.com: You shot The Karate Kid last summer?
Taraji P. Henson: Yes, last summer. I got there the beginning of July and I didn’t leave until October.
PR.com: What was it like having to live there for a while and immerse yourself into the Chinese culture?
Taraji P. Henson: At first when you land, it’s like “Oh my God, I’m so excited!” You’re there for awhile and then you realize it’s a communist country and you ain’t in Kansas City anymore, you know? I kind of take on things sometimes, and I felt myself a little depressed sometimes. I had to snap myself out of it. It’s just a different way of living.
PR.com: When I watched the movie it felt like Beijing was this fun, cosmopolitan city. But you really felt the black cloud of communism over your everyday living when you were there?
Taraji P. Henson: Well I won’t say that, because if you stick to the touristy attractions, no. But I’m always the one to venture off. I like to go to where the people live and to where the pulse of the city is, the people who make the city run. So I was all in the hutongs. I ventured off the beaten path. And that’s when you can feel the weight. And then I started talking to a lot of the locals. They smile, but you know, it’s like when you’ve lived a certain way and then you go to different cultures. It’s like, dag! You realize how lucky you are! It wasn’t all bad. The people are beautiful. They smile, the cater to you, they really want you to have a good time. The plus side I did see is that because they are not driven by material things, that was the beauty. You know here in America we’re so driven by what kind of car you have, and what kind of house and what kind of shoes and bag you’re carrying. There it’s the bare necessities, and that’s refreshing.
PR.com: And our karma is catching up with us here in the states.
Taraji P. Henson: Uh, yeah ya think (laughs)!
PR.com: The Karate Kid was shot at some pretty spectacular locations, but it was mostly Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith who got to shoot some of those particular scenes. Did you ever go along just to watch?
Taraji P. Henson: Yeah, or days when I wasn’t working I would do my own sightseeing. I went to the Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, The Great Wall of China. Especially when my son was there, that’s when I did all of my sightseeing, because I saw everything incredible. The only place that I didn’t go to was Wutong Mountain where the monks live. I didn’t go there because I had to come back to the states to promote I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
PR.com: Obviously you didn’t have to train for any of the movie’s Kung Fu scenes, but did you take any Kung Fu lessons while you were in Beijing?
Taraji P. Henson: No, I left that up to Jaden (laughs). I’m not really into martial arts. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
PR.com: And what was the name of that Chinese festival that was portrayed in the movie?
Taraji P. Henson: The Light Festival.
PR.com: Was that an actual festival or was that all created for the film?
Taraji P. Henson: No, that was all created. All of that set was built for that scene.
PR.com: Does that festival actually take place every year, or was that fictional as well?
Taraji P. Henson: That was actually a very new soundstage that The China Film Group has over there in Beijing. It’s a studio that they built. So that was actually a back lot that looked like the hutongs. They built it and it’s only used for filming.
PR.com: Both you and Jaden were working with so many Chinese actors. How did you find that cultural gap was when you were working? And did Jackie Chan help to bridge that cultural gap for you with the Chinese actors?
Taraji P. Henson: Jackie Chan absolutely helped to bridge that gap. A lot of the time the extras wouldn’t know what in the world the PAs were saying or what to do, and Jackie would just kind of translate. We also had a translator on the set as well. But it was weird at first. It was always a delayed reaction. They’d go, “Action!” and then they’d have to translate in Chinese, and then we’d all start.
PR.com: Was Will Smith in Beijing with the cast and crew?
Taraji P. Henson: Yes, every day, Will and Jada.
PR.com: Will and Jada Smith were very hands on as producers?
Taraji P. Henson: Very hands on. Any time I had a problem I could call them and they would sort it out. I don’t really have problems (laughs), I’m pretty low maintenance, but that’s how accessible they were. And we continued to rehearse every day too, so that Jaden and I could build a relationship, so before we actually started filming I would see them every day in rehearsals and we would sit and bang out the script and each moment. It was great.
PR.com: What inspired Will Smith to re-make The Karate Kid?
Taraji P. Henson: He was trying to search around and find a perfect vehicle for [Jaden] and then he just thought about this movie. And I thought it was a great idea. I wish I was Jaden (laughs).
PR.com: I love the fact that with the re-make it focused on Chinese culture and Kung Fu rather than Karate. It brought a whole new life to the story of the film. And the landscape of China breathed new life into the story as well.
Taraji P. Henson: Absolutely, because China is a character in this film.
PR.com: That’s how I felt when I saw the film. Were you a fan of the original Karate Kid?
Taraji P. Henson: I still have a crush on Ralph Macchio!
PR.com: Ralph Macchio then or middle aged bloated Ralph Macchio?
Taraji P. Henson: (Laughs) Ralph Macchio then.
PR.com: That was so bad!
Taraji P. Henson: I didn’t say it. You said it (laughs)!
PR.com: Tell me a little bit about the orchestration of the final tournament scene?
Taraji P. Henson: It was a lot of work and I didn’t really have to do anything but sit in the audience and cheer. But China is a very humid part of the world, and I mean humid on levels that are inhuman. I don’t think hell gets that hot. It was excruciating when they would turn the air off and it’s all those people and bodies in there. I really felt for the kids because they had to jump around and do all the martial arts in that heat. And then when you add the lights, it was pretty trying. Kids were getting hurt. The one kid who plays the bully, he got a concussion.
PR.com: During one of the fight scenes?
Taraji P. Henson: During one of the fight scenes, yeah, he fell and hit the back of his head. In that culture they really are perfectionists, and this baby wanted to continue to work and we had to say, “No, you can’t.” He felt bad because he felt like he was letting everybody down. We didn’t care. We wanted him to get better.
PR.com: Were they all extras who were in the stands watching the tournament?
Taraji P. Henson: Yeah, all extras, and that was trying because the director said in English what he wanted, and then we would have to get the translator to come in and translate to all of the extras.
PR.com: You, yourself, are a single mom. And I remember reading about you moving from DC, where you are from, to Los Angeles with your son to pursue your acting career. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with this character.
Taraji P. Henson: That is what I noticed when I read [the script]. At the time California was my Beijing. It was the unknown world for me. I had visited California when I was two. I moved 3,000 miles away from everything that I knew and loved, and took a chance; just me and my baby.
PR.com: Did your son hit any stumbling blocks in adjusting to your new life in California?
Taraji P. Henson: He was one. He was like, “As long as my mommy’s smiling, I’m smiling.”
PR.com: Is that what attracted you to the role of Sherry Parker in The Karate Kid?
Taraji P. Henson: Absolutely. First, I always have to be attracted to the material. And then I’m a huge fan of The Karate Kid, and just a huge fan of Will and what he has been able to accomplish, and the Smith family in general. And I love Jaden. I just wanted to be a part of it, and why not? Go to another country on someone else’s dime, and you get to work and do what you love to do. That’s what actors dream of.
PR.com: I read that you actually worked at The Pentagon at one point in your life. What was that experience like?
Taraji P. Henson: It was interesting. I guess I really didn’t get where I was working. I knew where it was and all of that, but I really didn’t get it! This might sound really sad, until 9-11. I was like, “Wow. I was working in a place where terrorists target.” It is the Department of Defense, but I couldn’t really fathom the [meaning]. I was a college kid, and I was an art student so I just knew that I had a job and I could go shopping (laughs). You know what I mean? My dad was in the service, but by the time I grew up he was done. He fought in [Viet] ‘nam and things like that, but I didn’t really get it. Yeah, we would have bomb threats and things like that, but again, I was an artist. So when 9-11 happened and they targeted The Pentagon, I was like, “Oh my God! I used to walk down that corridor every day.”
PR.com: The gravity of it suddenly hit you.
Taraji P. Henson: Yes!
PR.com: I know that you can sing. Will you be singing in any upcoming films?
Taraji P. Henson: I should hope so. You can never say never. Singing is something I can do, but it’s not my first passion. I don’t wake up and vocalize every day, but if it’s required of me in a movie, for a character, yeah, I’m all about it. Can never say never, but I don’t know if I’m going to drop an album.
PR.com: How did you go about bonding with Jaden Smith to create that mother/son dynamic that comes across on the screen?
Taraji P. Henson: Before we went away to Beijing, we had rehearsals here in California for like a two week period. That gave us a chance to bond here, and then once we got to Beijing we had more rehearsal time and alone time. Will and Jada, they just created such an easy and free atmosphere and they gave us the space to create that bond. He is like one of my friends for life, that little kid. I love him, and I kind of feel like I’m his mom in a weird way (laughs); a screen mom, if you will.