Abbott Elementary quickly became a fan-favorite ABC sitcom when it premiered in December 2021. Created by writer Quinta Brunson, the comedy series follows the colorful and mischievous staff of a predominantly Black public school in Philadelphia. Just like previous iconic comedies like The Office and Arrested Development, the show utilizes a mockumentary style to highlight its hilarious ensemble cast featuring Quinta herself, Tyler James Williams, Lisa Ann Walter, Janelle Williams, Chris Perfetti, William Stanford Davis, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. Now, two seasons and three Primetime Emmys later, Abbott Elementary also boasts an impressive list of guest stars, including Orlando Jones, Vince Staples, Ayo Edebiri, and Taraji P. Henson.
Taraji P. Henson’s guest role on Abbott Elementary, however, was perhaps the most impactful regarding the growth of main character Janine Teagues (Brunson). In the show’s second season episode titled “Mom,” which aired this past April, Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson portrays Vanetta, Janine’s mother, and instantly makes her presence known. Henson consistently slays the game and brings her A-game in every project, and her guest-starring role here was no different. Following the appearance of Janine’s sister Ayesha (Edebiri) earlier in the season, mama Vanetta’s first visit to Abbott Elementary derails Janine’s planned Memorial Day weekend solo trip. The mother and daughter haven’t spoken for six months, prompting an emotional and cathartic episode that speaks on the complexities of motherhood.
Mother Vanetta makes an impact the moment she hits the screen, and Taraji P. Henson’s interactions with the cast of Abbott Elementary make for some of the funniest and heartwrenching moments of the season. The actress has a penchant for playing memorable characters and Vanetta is the latest addition to her collection of roles, which includes Cookie Lyon on Empire, Shug in Hustle & Flow, Mary Goodwin in Proud Mary (also executive produced by Henson), real-life mathematician and NASA employee whose calculations were critical in the USA’s first spaceflight missions, Katherine Johnson, in Hidden Figures, and voice acting roles as Yesss in Ralph Breaks the Internet, Belle Bottom in Minions: The Rise of Gru, and Victoria Vance in PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie. Her role in Empire, in particular, led her to two Emmy nominations, two BET Awards, a Critics Choice Award, and a Golden Globe Award.
In addition to Vanetta in Abbott Elementary and all the other notable roles she’s taken on throughout the years, Taraji P. Henson will be portraying Shug Avery in Blitz Bazawule’s film adaptation of the Broadway classic, The Color Purple. This latest reimagining is produced by Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders, and Quincy Jones and has an all-star ensemble made up of Fantasia, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Ciara, Halle Bailey, and more. We spoke with Henson about her time on set for Abbott Elementary, Vanetta versus Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and her excitement and nervousness about taking on The Color Purple, which is set to release on December 25, 2023.
Exclusive Interview with Taraji P. Henson for Abbott Elementary
You recently had a guest starring role on Abbott Elementary as Janine’s mom, Vanetta. What was it like getting asked to participate in the series?
Taraji P. Henson: I was excited and pleasantly surprised because I had just competed against Quinta on That’s My Jam, the Jimmy Fallon Show, and I remembered telling her how proud I was of her, how happy I was for the success of the show, and that I was a huge Abbott fan and avid watcher. I was like, “If you ever need me on the show, girl, call me!” Literally, like three weeks later, she called.
What was the dynamic like on set, working with all the other talented actors in the Abbott Elementary cast?
Taraji P. Henson: It was amazing! I didn’t get to meet the fellas because we weren’t in any scenes together, but it was just amazing. They treated me like family. I felt like I belonged there, and we had a good time. It was really, really quite fun and a very, very lovely set to be a part of.
There’s a hilarious interaction that your character has with Janelle James’ character, and off camera, she said, “The key to never getting your ass beat is knowing when someone could be your ass.” So in terms of Vanetta and other characters you’ve portrayed, are there any you think could handle herself best against Vanetta?
Taraji P. Henson: Cookie! (laughs)
When I watched the episode, what I loved the most was the little clash of icons between yourself and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Barbara. What was it like for you to shoot that pivotal scene together?
Taraji P. Henson: Lots of fun! She comes from theatre and so do I. So I was salivating in the lead-up to doing that scene with me and her. It was just really fun!
As a series, Abbott Elementary deals with a lot of complexities in relationships, including family. When you were getting into the role of Vanetta, did you take inspiration from any real-life experiences to make the character your own?
Taraji P. Henson: Well, I’ve known a few women who just didn’t want to grow up. Women who were trying to hold on to their youth, refusing to grow up. I’ve seen the dynamic where the daughter or the child is more like the parent than the actual parent as well. I’ve gone to school with people who had to be more responsible than their parents. So, I myself have seen that dynamic before; it was familiar to me.
You know, the writing [on Abbott Elementary] is just so on point. A lot of times, I don’t have to pull from anywhere but the script because it’s all right there, to begin with. Quinta is one hell of a writer. She understands dialogue, she understands characterization. She understands the story, plot twists, and comedy, quite frankly. And that’s something you can’t teach a person. That’s a true gift, and she has it.
At the end of the episode, Janine is talking to Barbara, and she mentions that she and Vanetta might be able to go on a trip together at some point when their mother-daughter relationship is mended. Would you be up for starring in a few more episodes?
Taraji P. Henson: Absolutely, absolutely!
Outside of Abbott Elementary, one of the following big projects you have is the new reimagining of The Color Purple. I was in attendance at CinemaCon where they showed us the first-ever clips of the film, and it blew me away. What was it like for you to be part of sharing that footage with an audience for the first time?
Taraji P. Henson: It was great. I mean, I know how special that project is and all the hard work we put into it. So to be able to be in the audience where people are experiencing what we did for the first time was just incredible. It’s really why I do what I do, to push people’s emotions and to get some kind of feeling out of them. You could really feel it in the room – the anticipation for this reimagining of one of our classics. It is palpable, you know? Every time I run into someone, they go, “Oh my God, I can’t wait until The Color Purple.” And it’s like, I can’t wait for you to see it because I know how special it is.
I’m sure that participating in such a beloved classic must be daunting. When you got the role, was there any nervousness or trepidation?
Taraji P. Henson: Absolutely! I was nervous because I had to dust off the old vocal cords. I hadn’t really used them, but I did do Annie Live! for NBC, so that prepared me for this. But, you know, I don’t do a role unless it scares me because it’s going to force me to grow in a way that is also going to force the audience to grow or at least think about some things. So I was just grateful and honored to be tapped to play Shug.
Shug is very special. She’s the one who understands The Color Purple and explains it, right? She’s the one who frees women in the film, actually, it’s because of her freedom. So it’s done very well, and what I love about this adaptation is that no one was trying to recreate what was already done. Blitz Bazawule, our director, was smart enough and just beautiful and nurturing enough to let us allow us to make the characters ours.
Shug plays such a pivotal role in The Color Purple story. What are some words you would use to describe your version of Shug Avery?
Taraji P. Henson: Oh God. Freedom, independent, boisterous, sensual, and talented.
Lastly, what do you hope people get from experiencing this reimaging of The Color Purple?
Taraji P. Henson: What I hope people get, especially women, is to just live your life. Be your true self regardless of what people may think of you. Don’t chase men (laughs). Let them chase you because she sure didn’t!