Oscars 2009: Meet the Nominees You’ve Never Heard Of

Best Supporting Actress Nominee
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Oscar Newbies
Viola Davis
Melissa Leo
Ari Folman
Michael Shannon
Taraji P. Henson
Richard Jenkins

She might win an Oscar for … taking in an “unsightly” abandoned baby and transforming into the ultimate mom to the most famous celeb dad in the world — Brad Pitt — in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Henson plays Queenie, a quirky, open-hearted young woman who works in a New Orleans retirement home and adopts a white, elderly baby that’s been left on her stairs. Impulsive yet stern, the “color- and disabilities-blind” childless caretaker brings the deformed boy into her insular world. Queenie repeatedly tells Benjamin, “You never know what’s coming for ya.’” Like any

She holds her own … adding quirky nuances and emotional imperfection to a character that escapes that overdone brassy, been-there-done-that caretaking “mamma.”. Button screenwriter Eric Roth told Variety: “She layered the thing and articulated the character better than I had written it … The danger of the thing is going into some stereotypical character, and I thought she gave it a separateness and a dignity.” Denver Post film critic, Lisa Kennedy furthers, “… Benjamin Button is smarter [than Roth’s Forrest Gump] about America’s stories, in particular those that refer to race … With touching chemistry, Henson and Pitt make a rich argument about Queenie and Benjamin’s true meaning for each other.”

You should know that … she was born in the country’s capital on Sept. 11 — a date, regardless of the year, that now signifies tragedy, resilience and hope. All of which have surrounded Henson in the shaping of herself as an actress.

A single mom to son Marcel, now 14, the Howard University grad, who had already parted with her self-proclaimed random aspirations to be an electrical engineer (initially convinced she didn’t “have what it takes” to be an actress), decided to follow the advice of her father to return to what she loved most — performing.

Driven with stamina, she worked her way through school: Pentagon secretary by day, cruise-ship performer by night, squeezing classes in between. Much like her courageous relative, early 1900s North Pole explorer Matthew Henson, she took a giant leap — she set out for Hollywood in her early 20s. She wondered if she’d made a mistake dragging her then 1-year-old far away from her family, her hometown, everything she knew and loved.

Recently she shared with us, “I remember when I said I was going to move out here [L.A.] and my son was like a year old at the time and I had no money. Fresh out of college with dreams and stars in my eyes. Some people thought I was crazy. My mom was like ‘You’re going to starve!’ But they are all really proud because I had a dream. In my opinion, if you’re not dreaming you’re not living.”

It wasn’t an easy road. In 1997, the father of her child, William Lamar Johnson, was stabbed in D.C. on his birthday by his girlfriend’s roommate in an altercation. Henson and Johnson were not a couple at the time. But she kept plugging away at her career. She held together a strong family unit around her son while pursuing her career.

At 26, she found an agent and landed a number of TV roles, including ER and Felicity; then things turned around even more. In 2001, she co-starred in director John Singleton’s Baby Boy, a drama addressing the absentee father epidemic, and in 2005, made a head-turning splash in Terrence Howard’s urban drama Hustle & Flow, which garnered her a Best Actress nomination from the Image Awards. She also sang the film’s Oscar-winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” performing it at the 2006 Academy Awards – just two weeks after her father lost a battle with cancer.

A year later she got critical raves for her work opposite Don Cheadle in the electric biopic about controversial ex-con, D.C. radio host, Petey Greene in Talk to Me – and had begun filming Button.

Henson shared with CNN: “There’s this beautiful saying in the [Button] script about how you have to live life forward, but the only way you understand it is backwards. I miss my father, and I love him, and I wish he was here, but it was like I had to experience a death of that magnitude to even bring Queenie to life.”

She confesses … “I knew that the moment Queenie saw Benjamin, she had to fall in love with him right away, because if she didn’t, the audience wouldn’t,” shared Henson with Entertainment Weekly about the CGI-dominant film, in which, at one point, she had to act opposite a grotesque robotic doll — one of three “non-Brad Pitt” versions of Benjamin. ”So I stared at that little ugly animatronic baby. I stared at it so much that after a while, I thought it was cute.”

She’s unstoppable … literally! Cited by Roger Ebert, who singled her out as “an unstoppable force and immovable object rolled into one,” for her role in Talk to Me, the horizon looks juicy. Next, she’s featured in the March sports drama, Hurricane Season, about a post-Katrina basketball team, co-starring with Forest Whitaker. Then Not Easily Broken, playing Morris Chestnut’s wife in a disintegrating marriage. And she’s now filming Once Fallen, an indie crime Ed Harris-starrer, playing the love interest of a man whose father is the leader of an Aryan nation in prison.

KEEP READING: No. 6 The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins