Taraji P. Henson, who stars as real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures,” said that she felt a certain “duty” to make the drama about three brilliant African-American women who helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit in the 1960s.
“This movie I had to do, I just felt like it was my duty,” the actress told TheWrap in a shoot at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “We always celebrate the astronauts, but we don’t celebrate the mathematicians behind it. But I didn’t know that these women existed and I was like, ‘Why are we just learning about them?’ And I couldn’t wait to meet Katherine Johnson, she’s still very much alive. She’s 98 now.”
Johnson is a physicist, scientist and mathematician who made fundamental contributions to America’s aeronautics and space programs at NASA. She calculated trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for many space flights, including the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
“What struck me most was her humility,” Henson said. “She found the ‘we’ in ‘I.’ Because John Glenn … asked for Katherine in a time when it was very difficult for women, especially black women — [we] couldn’t even vote. She focused on solutions, not problems.”
The actress sat down with NASA chief Charles Bolden Jr. to discuss director Ted Melfi’s new film, which also stars Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, as part of the “Close Up With TheWrap” video series.
“Had it not been for what she did, I wouldn’t even have been where I am today,” Bolden Jr. said. “That’s why she’s very important to me. She’s one of those people on whose shoulders I stand.”
Bolden got to meet Johnson at the White House when President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
“I think the movie is absolutely tremendous,” added Bolden Jr. “I tell all of our employees: They will laugh, they will cry, they will scream in anger and then they will walk out incredibly proud that they are part of the NASA team.”
“Hidden Figures” is now in limited release, and will open nationwide on Jan. 13.
Watch the video above.