Visits the Set of What Men Want Visits the Set of What Men Want

For three years Taraji P. Henson has immortalized the role of Cookie Lyon on Empire, which catapulted the actress to a new level of superstardom and inspired countless amazing gifs. But as revered as she has become, with a staggering list of TV and movie credits (including an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe) to boot, there is one thing Henson has not yet conquered—headlining a major comedy film. With What Men Want, the upcoming reimagining of the 2000 Mel Gibson movie that places Henson in his starring role, she is excited to say that she has finally mastered that arena as well. This particular film couldn’t have come at a better time in our pop culture climate when women—more particularly black women—are being centered and empowered unlike ever before.

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Henson plays Ali, a successful, alpha female sports agent who, after getting passed over for partner at her male-dominated firm, gains the ability to read her colleagues’ minds and uses it to her advantage. The film is bursting at the seams with star power, not only Henson but also the supporting cast including Wendi McLendon-Covey (Bridesmaids), Aldis Hodge (Underground), Richard Roundtree, Pete Davidson (SNL), Max Greenfield (New Girl), Tracy Morgan, and a bevy of real-life athlete cameos including Lisa Leslie, Gabby Douglas, Grant Hill, and Shaquille O’Neal. Oh, and it’s written by Nancy Meyers, produced by Will Packer (Girls Trip), and directed by Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages, Hairspray)—so expectations are very, very high.

We visited the set of the film in Atlanta, where they were 21 days deep into their 36-day shooting schedule and filming a scene in which Ali is sitting in her corner office listening to the hilarious thoughts of her assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) and co-worker Danny (Davidson), who are talking about their fantasy football picks while secretly pining for each other. Though the scene highlights the power dynamic between tough-as-nails Ali and her colleagues, it simultaneously shows how completely unbridled the humor is when conveyed through the characters’ thoughts (via voiceover in the film). The scene is also a perfect example of how the movie embodies slapstick comedy while defying stereotypes. While its subversive images will undoubtedly strike a major chord with audiences, Shankman didn’t want them to necessarily carry the narrative.

“(Ali’s) assistant is gay and has put himself in a very unsympathetic environment to a gay man and he is showing he knows more about sports than everybody. I want to do something that (shows) this is what life looks like, but let’s talk about the issue of not understanding what the other is thinking.”

And while a black woman in Ali’s position in the sports industry is few and far between, Shankman said that her race is neither central to the plot nor the character.

“The movie that I wanted to make was deeply diverse and I never wanted to address race, because it doesn’t f***ing matter. No one’s mad at (Taraji) in the movie because she’s a black woman. We’re not making it an issue because it’s not central to the movie, so to put it on top of (the premise) would be irresponsible.”

Shankman calls What Men Want “a deeply laugh on laugh on laugh movie” that is made even greater by the massive talent of Henson, who he said is “one of the best physical comedians I’ve ever worked with.” Which is major praise for the star, especially since if the film is successful it could mark one of the very few times a black actress carries a blockbuster comedy on her own that is supported by a bevy of mostly male co-stars. That’s not something that Henson takes for granted, either.

“I worked so hard to get to this place where my name alone can greenlight a film, and here we are,” she said, adding, “I’m trying to break down barriers to make it easier for the girls coming up.”

Henson describes Ali as someone who’s been defined by her male relationships, which have prepared her for a navigate a male-dominated world. “She was raised by a single father (played by Roundtree), and she was around testosterone all her life. She was most comfortable around men. It led her to a career where she’s around men. She’s most comfortable with men, just because the way she was raised.”

The chance to break barriers wasn’t the only draw for Henson, though. It was the opportunity to do a comedy. As Packer explained, “[(Taraji’s) been doing drama for so long that when we first started talking about this movie, she told me, ‘I want to laugh! I’ve been Cookie for so long, and in my movies, I have been the distressed, single mom with something horrible happening to me. I want to have some fun!’”

Packer himself wanted the opportunity to be a part of a film that has the potential to be a game-changer.

“Movies that highlight women who need a man, figuring out how to adjust to the sensibilities of men…that feels very 80s to me. Now people who have been on the sidelines—whether it be women or people of color, or of various sexual orientations—we’re centering them in movies now, and I am proud to be a part of that.” Henson added, “Every time you tell the female’s perspective, it’s a chance to start a new conversation, dialogue that needs to be had.”

Henson was one of the main reasons her co-stars were excited to be a part of the film.

Greenfield, who plays a sports agent named Kevin, said, “I can’t imagine anyone else playing (Taraji’s) role. This is the movie she was supposed to do.” In addition to getting to work alongside one of the greats, Greenfield also liked the opportunity to play “one of the good guys.”

“There’s a version, especially now, that you could have written of this movie where every man is the worst man on the planet. But there is some nuance to the film, and there’s some nuance to some of the characters. Some of them have a lot to learn in certain areas but are not necessarily an enemy to (Ali) and women in general. That’s definitely a character that I play.”

Brener, who’s one of the many actors who gets to rehearse not only spoken lines but voiceover lines (of which he will have the opportunity to add in fresher, more relevant jokes close to release date), has a whole lot of fun with Davidson, of whom he said, “is a weird person who has so much positive energy and youth. I’m in love with him is what I’m saying.”

It’s clear that the cast and crew are having a GREAT time on the set, and they are also all aware of the film’s impact. For Brener, it’s the opportunity to spotlight women in sports.

“It’s really refreshing to have female athletes like Lisa Leslie and Gabby Douglas front and center for once, sports icons who, in our very myopic, single-minded society, are not talked about as much as they should be.”

For Hodge, who plays Ali’s love interest Will, it was the opportunity to portray a single father on screen.

“He’s just a stand-up guy trying to be a good father. We don’t see that portrayed a lot on screen, especially from the man’s perspective. Having grown up without a father in my life, I really respect putting that image out there.”

And of his character’s relationship with Ali, Hodge said, “She’s at a place in her life where she was not exactly ready for love, and she did not intend on sparking a new relationship with Will. Their presence in each other’s lives comes at an awkward time, but it came at the right time.”

What Men Want hits theaters January 2019.


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