By Ronda Racha Penrice
For The New Orleans Tribune
This week is a good one for Taraji P. Henson.
“Empire” returns from its winter hiatus on Wednesday and her new film, “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony,” comes out Friday.
The coincidence is one Henson initially missed.
“Yeah I just realized that,” she says via telephone from New York City. Since she began playing Cookie in 2015, the Washington, D.C. native’s popularity has gone into overdrive. Cookie, the ex-wife of rapper/music mogul Lucious Lyon and mother of his three sons, spent nearly 20 years in prison before coming back to claim half of the music empire for which she sacrificed her freedom.
Melinda, the woman Henson plays in “Acrimony” scorned by her husband Robert portrayed by Lyriq Bent, might remind fans of Cookie, but the two are not exactly alike.
“I hope they can see the difference in the characters,” Henson said. “Cookie’s already been to jail … she’s not going to jeopardize her freedom so she’s not going to snap. Melinda is snapping.”
On the surface, Melinda is more vulnerable than Cookie. So much so that audiences may recognize themselves or someone they know in her. But, like Cookie, she too seems to have a score to settle. After loving and sacrificing for her husband for years, another woman is enjoying Melinda’s fruit and she’s not happy about that. Another parallel to “Empire” is in the backstory with the character who plays the younger Melinda. “Empire” fans will immediately recognize Ajiona Alexus as the same actress who plays a teenage Cookie. As with Cookie in “Empire,” Alexus’ role as a young Melinda here, especially as she falls for the younger Robert, is critical to understanding who Melinda becomes.
“It was so crucial [for me] to show those moments that trigger her and show how much she held in,” Alexus explained via telephone from Los Angeles. “I feel like Melinda is the type of character [who] holds [her emotions] in and then, when she pounces or she attacks, she goes all the way in.”
Tracking Melinda’s early emotional build-up is important, Alexus says, because “it shows you, ‘okay, she dealt with that, this happened and this happened’; it wasn’t just a random ‘oh my God, this girl’s crazy.’”
For Henson, Melinda’s unhinged state made playing her an appealing role.
“It was very intense. It was like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” So I always had a character like that on my bucket list,” Henson says.
There are no dead bunnies here, however. Instead the heat is turned up on relationships. There is a lot going against the couple. Robert’s blind obsession with perfecting an invention he believes will make them ridiculously rich generates a lot of tension. Melinda’s sisters’ refusal to accept Robert adds another layer of conflict. And then there are signs, many of them missed, that Melinda may suffer from mental illness. To Henson, Melinda’s unspoken expectations also play a role in the marriage’s demise.
“As the mature Robert, Bent, who some may recognize as Jamie Overstreet in the Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It,” is essential to the story, Henson says.
“He was so perfect for the role because he’s very charming. The character he played walked a very thin line and that’s hard to do as an actor. I think his biggest asset is the ability to be vulnerable. He’s so vulnerable and he has these eyes that look like a wounded puppy. So when the story starts to shift, you get a better understanding of who this guy was.”
This is Henson’s third film with Perry. She was featured in “The Family That Preys Together” in 2008 and played main character in “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” in 2009.
“I really honestly like working with Tyler,” she says. “I just understand him. He’s a Virgo like me. He works really, really fast. He comes from theater. He’s an actor’s director.”