How ‘Abbott Elementary’ Made Taraji P. Henson’s Hollywood Dreams Come True

“This is literally what I’ve been wanting to do for 20-something-odd years,” the Academy Award-nominated actress says

Taraji P. Henson on "Abbott Elementary"
Taraji P. Henson on "Abbott Elementary"

It only took a couple of decades, but Academy Award-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson is finally making her Hollywood dreams come true, with a star turn on a prominent sitcom.

“This is literally what I’ve been wanting to do for 20-something-odd years,” Henson said in a recent interview with TheWrap. Of course, she’s referring to her turn in ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” in the show’s second season where she plays Vanetta, the unreliable, outrageous mother of steadfast and loyal protagonist Janine (Quinta Brunson).

“I’m grateful for the career I’ve had, as opposed to starting as a comedic actress and proving myself as dramatic. But now this is easy, because this is just what I do.”

But how does an Academy Award-nominated actress come to her role on an Emmy-winning workplace sitcom?

“I was already a huge fan of the show, like everybody else in the world, but I was on ‘That’s My Jam,’ and I was competing against Quinta and told her, ‘Girl, if ever you want me on the show, I’m there.’ Next thing I know, she’s calling,” Henson said.

Of course, the prospect of a stint on “Abbott Elementary” was made even more appealing by the character being offered to her.

Quinta Brunson and Taraji P. Henson in "Abbott Elementary"
Quinta Brunson and Taraji P. Henson in “Abbott Elementary”

“The character breakdown just made sense. It made me understand who Vanetta was as a character and gave me more insight to who she was,” said Henson. “We all know these dynamics between parent and child, where the child was more of the parent than the parent and I just loved that and wanted to be part of it.”

“The writing is so clever and so exact, so detailed, that I didn’t have to do much other than suspend my disbelief and walk into the role,” she continued. “But I understood who this woman was and it made me understand who Janine was. I was just honored that Quinta trusted me with that.”

That wasn’t the dynamic that Henson had with her own son growing up, which she owed in part to, at 24, being older than Vanetta when she took on the role of motherhood.

“I was a bit more responsible and I took my role a little more seriously. I wasn’t a teenager, I had already finished college. I think I was just better equipped and prepared and ready to be a parent,” Henson said. “I think what happened with Vanetta is she got pregnant and was like, ‘OK, well, this is what it is.’ But she never gave up her lifestyle.”

For as thrilled as Henson was for the opportunity and as much as she felt she understood the character, it still must be a little intimidating for even the most veteran of screen stars, to walk onto a set with a group of actors whose chemistry is clicking along at obscene levels. So how did she find the cast and crew when she arrived?

“They are a beautiful group of artists and people. They welcomed me. I felt at home, like they just welcomed me into the family,” Henson said. “And I didn’t want to leave, literally. I pray that they will call me back. I can’t wait to go back.”