Taraji P. Henson, Ted Melfi, Octavia Spencer, Pharrell Williams Talk ‘Hidden Figures’ at Press Conference

Following a weekend of private screenings, the Hidden Figures press conference was held on Sunday (Dec 11th).  Hidden Figures, the incredible yet untold true story about a group of brilliant women, who while aiming for the stars, helped change the face of America for the better.  The movie features a stellar cast of acting greats from Empire’s, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, just to name a few.

As the room filled up with overly anxious journalists ready to unleash their questions upon the panel that included director Ted Melfi, producer Pharrell Williams Taraji & Octavia, it only made sense to start from the beginning. 

Melfi began describing bringing the cast of leading ladies Taraji, Octavia, and singer Janelle (Monae, who was not present at the conference & played a feisty Mary Jackson) together.

Octavia Spencer was the first person to actually read the first draft of the screenplay; she said she wanted to be involved right away. She couldn’t even decide which role, but she wanted to be involved.”

 The idea of the film stemming from a 55-page book proposal by Margot Lee Shetterley who grew up around the amazing women, Melfi continued, “And then, I’ve been wanting to work with Taraji since ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ which I thought she was just brilliant in. And to watch her grow from that; to Hustle & Flow, to Cookie on Empire; she could pretty much do anything really. She is like a consentient actor. And then Janelle Monae role, we wanted a new and fresh idea. And Janelle came in and auditioned; strangley enough fought for the part just like her character fights for her rights in the film.”

Taraji and Octavia talked about playing women who existed, and doing such heroic things. How important it was for them to know as much as possible about their characters vs. the film version of who we see them to be?

The always entertaining, Taraji P. Henson who played Unknown Legend Katherine Johnson, mathematician who helped calculate key trajectories responsible for John Glenn‘s (played by Glen Powell) orbit around earth & safe return back, began with, “When you are portraying a person that is very real, in my case, Katherine is still alive; she is 98 years old. There is a responsibility to get it right. So as soon as I signed onto the project, I asked Ted immediately, when I got the script actually, “Is she still alive?” And he said, “yes.”

Because at the time, Katherine was 97, Taraji and Ted rushed a flight to her home in Virginia where they were greeted with a hug and excitement.  Taraji was warmly welcomed with, “Oh my God, we’re so happy they got you to play our mother; and grandmother.” And I was like, “no pressure.”- {the audience falls out in laughter}

So I go in, and I sit with her.”  Taraji explained, as she felt like she was waiting to greet the Queen. “And she came in, and it was just like, ‘Wow, I’m in the presence of a real life super-hero.’  I guess the biggest thing that I took away from her was her humility. And when you talk about super-heroes, they are selfless, they don’t think about themselves. They put humans, humanity before them.”

In her best weighty impression, Taraji inquired, “How as a black woman, did you do it? …You know, they were misogynistic, and I’m sure you were called the N-word ….” And she was just like,

‘well, you know, it just the was the way it was. That was the way it was. I just did my job; I wanted to do my job.’

So humble, Taraji was so impressed with her tendency to always use ‘we’ when speaking of completing the mission, “In my mind, I’m like ‘no Katherine, it was you; it was your mind alone that got Glenn to orbit the earth.’  He (Glenn) didn’t say, “go get so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so”; he said, “go get that smart girl.” So it was ‘you’(Katherine). But the fact that she sees the ‘we’ in ‘I’ blew me away. And her passion for math. The way I light up when I get asked questions about acting, is the way her eyes danced when she talked about math. And how she wanted people to fall in love with numbers the way she loved it. If I had a teacher like that, I could be a rocket scientist.

There was not an understanding when I was growing up, no one ever said to me, “you can’t do math because you’re a girl.” You grew up knowing that ‘ah, math and science is for boys’. Somebody lied to me because this woman exists, all of these women existed.

So that to me made it my mission to do this film. I didn’t want another girl to grow up believing the myth or the lie.”

Catching up with her thoughts, Taraji stopped to catch her breath while acknowledging that she could go on and on, however giving way for Octavia to share her thoughts before the already shortened conference time was underway.

Octavia Spencer, who played other Unknown Legend Dorothy Vaughan, chimed in,Why thank you, Taraji. {Audience laughs}

For me, it was a very different process because this is,  a woman that actually existed, and she is no longer with us, but her family is and her legacy remains. And even though I told them that I wanted to be a part of it early on, when I finally knew that it was going and that I was going to be in the movie, there was a 3 ½ week period, so very little time (to prepare). And as actors, well for me, my process is about, I need at least 6 weeks; so I started panicking.

Although now that their Unknown I then thought that I should google and find out as much information about Dorothy as possible, and there was very little. But now if you google it, you’re going to see a lot of things referring to Margot’s book, and you will get to see NASA archives, which I got a lot of that. And you’re going to see a lot of things referring oyu back to the film.

But, it is important to get it right. It is important to learn all that you can about the person and then throw it all away so that you aren’t then doing some sort of mimicry. What was wonderful was, Ted gave us a lot of the archival footage from NASA and then teh opening chapters that corresponded to our characters. He didn’t betray you by giving us a lot of the manuscript.”

Considering all the moving parts while bringing the project together, the book by Margot Lee Shetterly having yet to be completed by the time production started, there already being enough negative images of black women out there, it was important for Octavia to bring her role justice,For me, the research part was integral, but you also want that if this is the first time that these women are being introduced to the world in this way; I did not want to portray her in any stereotype; I wanted to make sure that her integrity was preserved.

In the opening scene where the three ladies are having car issues on the side of a road, the site of a cop car headed in their direction seemed to resonate heavily. Speaking on the world we live in now and not 55 years ago, one of the reasons this movie remains so powerful.

Touching on that scene, Octavia revealed, “The opening scene is this wonderful metaphor of what was to come later in their lives.   The love and camaraderie and fidelity that they had with eachother, as friends. But it was a twisty-winding road that they had to navigate and negotiate in a very interesting way. And I think Ted did a very good job.”

In accordance with Octavia’s last thought, Taraji added,He did. And I think that scene is so powerful, you can feel the audience brace themselves when the cop arrives. What was beautiful about that scene is that, you see this man un-learn racism right before your very eyes. And it proves to you that your perception can change in the matter of minutes. And that’s when you know that racism is learned.  

He literally saw that these women mattered; these women’s lives mattered to the great space race. So that negativity that he was about to spew upon them, of course, shifted in the blink of an eye. And if we all, as a human race, get back to some goal that we can all focus on, I think the world would be more balanced.”

Jumping back into the conversation, director Melfi shared, “I think it’s a classic example of art imitating life, because we wrote that scene and shot that scene long before the string of police shootings against motorists. And then, who could have predicted  the passing of John Glenn,” who only died within a few weeks of the conference. “These things just kind of makes the movie even more special, more important to us.” 

Because of the juxtaposition between the NASA world and what was actually going on in real life around racism and African Americans; not-to-mention, the unfair treatment of women in the workforce overall, Taraji clarified on what she gathered the mindset of folks living in Katherine’s day compared to now to be.

This is what I’ve noticed, whenever I talk to anybody from that era, they didn’t wallow in the muck, like how we complain today. ‘Ah this and that, they don’t this and that, we have to go out there and march.’ They didn’t do that, they just didn’t.  

Yes, they marched, when there was an injustice or whatever, but everyday was not a march. You know, at some point, you are going to have to say, ‘okay, this is what it is’. Put your head to the grind and get through because your hard work is going to open up doors for somebody coming behind. So she (Katherine) never complained; it just was what it was. 

When you talk about diversity, you’re talking about women being hired in front or behind the camera, you’re talking about disability people, the LGBT community; I hate when people think diversity, they look at the black actor. We are just scratching the service when talking about this diversity thing, it just doesn’t start with me. Stop it, we think so small.”

And with every experience being a sort of precursor for what’s to come, she proceeded to say, “It gave me a new sense, to stop complaining about the issues. Life is spiritual warfare; if you don’t know that, you are doomed. There is always going to be love verses hate; the sun is constantly chasing the moon. We’ve struggled with that as humans within ourselves everyday, as a society we’re going to struggle. So you just gotta choose when you wake up, what side am I on today or for the rest of this life; and then do the work, and hopefully your legacy is changing things.”

Finally getting to creative force, music producer/composer, and season 10 coach on “The Voice”, Pharrell Williams who oddly enough hails from the same area in Virginia as Katherine, spoke about coming onto the project as a Producer.

After his producing partner, Mimi Valdes took a meeting with Donna (Gigliotti, producer), telling her about the project, she said that he (Pharrell), would lose his mind.  “It had took so many touch points of things that interested me; three African American female protagonist that are like, not arguing, or divorcee’s consoling eachother, and not the token bestfriends. We love those parts, we appreciate them; but this was different. This was three African Amerian female protagonist who were scientists, they were engineers, they were mathematicians. They were technologically advanced.

 The idea that this also included NASA and space, two things I’ve always been obsessed with. Yes, I lost my mind.” {Audience laughs}

Although, at first, he hadn’t remembered meeting Katherine 6 years prior at an event for his foundationFrom One Hand To AnOTHER– an organization largely dealing in the space program founded in 2008; and then to one day be able to aid in the beautiful illustration of her story had blown his mind.I know this is the scientific community, I know you guys are just now diving into spirituality but I’m sorry, there is a God. And if you don’t want to call it God, there is at least a Universe. You cannot argue that you are made of the Universe and the Universe made you; there is formuli for everything including how I got into this film. I believe this was meant for us. I just feel so blessed that I got to be even a comma in this story.”

And in regards to the fact that he was already working on the appropriate soundtrack prior to even signing onto the movie. Taraji nudged Pharrell to add his enlightment on the timing of putting together the music that ultimately ended up on screen as well, “Another way, more proof if you will that this was meant for all of us: at the end of 2014, I started working on 1960’s-esqe music, i didn’t really know why, but stayed with it so much so that I actually released one of the songs, it was called ‘Freedom’. Didn’t know that we would need it today.” He explained, it was like a lightbulb that went off. “The universe was warming me up and tuning me so that I could prepare myself to write the song ‘Running’ for the film, and ‘I See A Victory’.”  

And in effort of showing off his exceptional math skills, he ended with, “Most people wouldn’t know how to explain that, but for me, its just 2+2 = 4. And the other example of me meeting her 6 years ago is 4 -2 = 2. Proof that it’s real.”

You only have to wait until Christmas Day (Dec 25th) for the limited release date, however out nationwide January 6, 2017.   The amazingly astonishing movie about a set of women who without them, America wouldn’t have beat Russia in the great space race to orbit the earth – Hidden Figures.

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