Taraji P. Henson has shared how her love of ballroom culture helped inform her performance as the glamorous Shug in The Colour Purple.
In the new film based on the novel by Alice Walker, set between 1909 and 1947, confident nightclub singer Shug strikes up a romantic and sexual relationship with Celie, a quiet woman trapped in an abusive marriage with her husband, Mister.
Shug’s larger-than-life personality helps coax Celie out of her shell, as epitomised in one amazing scene in which Shug performs a song written for Celie.
“I’m a huge fan of ballroom culture,” Taraji told Attitude in an interview in November 2023. “Shug would have taken babies in and been their mother.”
“To feel like a superstar? That’s power” – The Color Purple‘s Taraji P. Henson
“I had a cousin who passed away years ago, may he rest in peace, who introduced me to ballroom culture,” Taraji went on. “It moved me, this culture of people who were unseen and ousted by society, but still found a place to feel like somebody.
“To feel like a superstar? That’s power. To take ownership of your narrative and not fizzle away like society wants you to.”
Taraji furthermore continued: “I’m so proud of shows like Legendary and RuPaul. Those kids [back then] had to rob and steal to get those costumes. To be able to be on a platform for the world to see and have a budget to do that? Don’t make me cry!”
Asked if her stint guest judging on RuPaul’s Drag Race informed the character, the star, who has also appeared in films like Hidden Figures and What Men Want, replied: “I dress in drag all the time. My friends call me a drag queen. I love to dress up.”
Remembering the filming of her pivotal nightclub scene [above], which begins with Shug on a boat, Taraji said: “It was hot! And there was too much going on to partake in any spirits on set! They had [the boat] rigged to a pulley. And you know, they built that swap. There were no alligators in there! I was so blown away when I pulled up to that set. It was so beautiful.”
Speaking about LGBTQ representation in the film, Taraji said: “I think it’s a beautiful thing. And that’s what makes this reimagining very different from the one in 1985 [directed by Steven Spielberg]. We’re in a different place in society. We weren’t as open to people loving who they love.”
The Colour Purple is released in UK cinemas on 26 January 2024.