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Washington, D.C., native Taraji P. Henson didn’t always know that her smoldering charisma and beautiful face would make her a professional actress.

On the contrary, she originally studied electrical engineering when she enrolled at North Carolina Agric & Tech. She later transferred to Howard University, where she attended classes while working as a secretary at the Pentagon, and as a singer and dancer aboard a cruise ship. She eventually changed her academic focus to theater and graduated in 1995.

Henson’s career began with appearances on Homicide: Life on the Street and ER, but it really took off when she was cast in a major supporting role in 2001’s Baby_Boyand 2004’s Hustle_&_Flow, in which she also showcased her vocal talents, singing on the track “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” for the movie’s soundtrack, which took home the Best Song Oscar that year. Henson later moved on to take major roles in Smokin’_Aces and Talk to Me. Henson made the most of her work as the mother of the backward-aging man in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and her performance garnered Best Supporting Actress nominations from both the Screen Actors Guild, and the Academy.