Life pre-Cookie: Taraji P. Henson reflects on 'Baby Boy' in TV One special

Before her role in 'Empire,' Taraji P. Henson was known for starring in 2001's 'Baby Boy'

Before she was Cookie, Taraji P. Henson was Yvette.

For more than a decade before Henson became the hottest actress in Hollywood with her portrayal of the outspoken Cookie Lyons on Fox's hit hip-hop drama "Empire," she was primarily known for her role as Yvette, the emotional "baby mama" in "Baby Boy," John Singleton's follow-up to his acclaimed "Boyz n the Hood."

Since its 2001 release, "Baby Boy," which also marked the movie debut of Tyrese Gibson as the irresponsible young adult who refuses to grow up, has grown in stature and reputation as one of the seminal films about young blacks, arguably outpacing "Boyz n the Hood," which scored Singleton an Oscar nomination for directing. 

In addition to launching the careers of Henson and Gibson, "Baby Boy" also featured Ving Rhames ("Mission Impossible)" and rapper Snoop Dogg in his first dramatic feature role.

The long-lasting impact of "Baby Boy" will be explored Wednesday on TV One's "Unsung Hollywood" docu-series.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Henson said that before "Empire," she was most recognized as the female lead of "Baby Boy," despite a varied and steady career that included her Oscar-nominated performance in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and other films, including "Hustle and Flow."

"I was Yvette before Cookie, and now I'm finally getting rid of Yvette," Henson said. "In fact, I've been Yvette all my life, so I just got used to people calling me that."

Henson said "Baby Boy" has had more resonance with audiences over time than "Boyz n the Hood" because of its relatability: "With 'Boyz n the Hood,' it was about the 'hood -- there was a lot going on. 'Baby Boy' is about a young dysfunctional relationship. This boy who was living at home -- who does not understand that? That still resonates for people."

In many ways, she said, "Boyz n the Hood" is too painful a film to revisit "because that stuff is still going on, kids getting murdered in the streets. But 'Baby Boy' reminds people of themselves, even to this day. If you know young love, you know 'Baby Boy.'

She called the experience of making the movie "amazing. It felt like family. It didn't feel like it was a job."

Henson added: "I think that's why Tyrese and I are still good friends to this day. We were like virgins to the game, together. It was the first feature film for both of us, and we were in leading positions. There were a lot of firsts -- it was the first time being totally nude on film and pretending to have sex. We went through that together, and we met at a point in our lives when we had to connect and get through something together."

Henson added that Singleton also gave her valuable direction that she cherishes to this day: "He would tell me: 'Don't do so much.' That's when I first learned about the power of my eyes and how expressive my face was. He was the first director to say, 'You don't have to do too much. Just think it. You have these big beautiful, expressive eyes, so you don't have to do much. You are so true to what is going on inside your body. Just think on it and the camera will do the rest.' "

Singleton also helped the two bond on a personal level that he hoped would show on screen.  'John told us he wanted us to become the new Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, to have the kind of chemistry they had. So he made Tyrese and I hang out a lot." She laughed. "So we had to become friends."

She said the experience was so exciting "that I got spoiled. I thought 'Every job should be like this." She laughed again. "But every job isn't."

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