Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer talk about Hidden Figures, the story of the unsung heroines of the space race.
Hidden Figures tells the incredible, untold true story of a brilliant group of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped the US win the space race. At the same time, their achievements sent the quest for equal rights and opportunity rocketing forwards.
Empire star Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, physicist and space scientist, while Octavia Spencer (Allegiant) is Dorothy Vaughan, who was a schoolteacher before joining NASA’s Langley Research Centre. Rounding off the female leads is R&B star Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, a gifted mathematician who went on to become NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer.
Below, the three women talk about their character and their own role models.
Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who were the brains behind NASA. How much of their story did you know before you started filming the movie and what surprised you the most?
TARAJI P HENSON: Nothing and that’s what surprised me. I was upset, because as a young girl I was told that math and science wasn’t for girls, so here I found out that someone lied to me. It became my mission in doing this film, because other girls have to know.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: They were part of a team that saw something greater than themselves. It was about the security of our country and that’s why they were in the space race. Because of these women’s contributions, we were able to be successful in bringing our astronauts to and from space safely.
How were your math skills in high school?
TPJ: In high school it was fine, but in college there was a moment in my life where I thought I couldn’t act, so I decided to take up electrical engineering. That’s when I found out that acting was really what I was supposed to be doing! I needed that detour.
Who are the women who have inspired your lives and who you’d like to celebrate?
OS: Harriet Tubman, let’s just be clear, for me freedom is never free.
TPJ: I think we’ve all inherited what our ancestors left behind. Directly what they left behind is my mother and my grandmother and I still have them both. They taught me how to be a woman. My grandmother has no idea what she taught me about being a mother and a wife. Even though I haven’t been a wife, I know how to be one because my grandmother taught me!
JANELLE MONÁE: There are so many women that I could name and they all taught me very specific and different things. Mentioning grandmothers, my grandmother was a shear-cropper in Aberdeen, Mississippi so she came from nothing, but she turned her life into something. She made a lasting impact on my life and she taught me the importance of working hard and never letting obstacles, like coming from a poor class or people seeing being a woman or being black during that era as an obstacle, and she didn’t allow that to deter her or defeat her mentally and so here I am and I’m a descendant of hers.
The three of you obviously had a very close relationship on-screen, what was it like off-screen?
TPJ: They’re divas! I mean, Octavia won the Oscar so she’s just flaunting it! No, no we love each other!
JM: What you see is genuine. We had a lot of fun.