“Oh my god, I can’t stop crying,” Henson said after seeing clips from the movie for the first time. “It’s so important right? I’m glad I did this.”
Directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the just-released Margot Lee Shetterly book of the same name, Hidden Figures tells the true story of the African-American mathematicians who helped launch astronaut John Glenn into space. Henson plays Katherine Johnson in the film, which 20th Century Fox has set for a January release at the moment, a role the Empire star previously told Entertainment Weekly “scared the hell” out of her. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae costar.
Speaking on Saturday, Henson teared up while explaining why she wanted to play Johnson. “I’m a girl from the hood, okay. I didn’t grow up with much so all I had was dreams and hope. The reason why this is so overwhelming is because when you come from a place where you had no dreams, no hope, and all you see is that people who look like you don’t belong, or they have no place in society… If I had known about these women coming up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist.”
For more on the Toronto International Film Festival, go to PEOPLE.com/tiff
Henson added, “Not to say that I have a bad journey, but what I’m saying is that nowadays, this is all kids of color feel like they have – sports, rap, acting – and there’s so much more important work to be done. And to be a part of the project that will give children like me, where I grew up, where you grew up, hope – to dream a different dream – I can’t even quite put it into words. It really feels surreal right now.”
Despite the emotion of her words, however, Henson still found time to joke as well. “I’m sorry if I’m emotional, I look a mess, my makeup is a mess. I should have done like Alicia Keys and taken it off,” she said.
Henson also debuted a new look at the festival, sporting a short, blonde bob with her green silk wrap dress.
RELATED VIDEO: TIFF 2016: Buzzworthy Films
The star also joined the film’s producer Pharrell Williams for a performance of some of the films’ songs. Williams is working with famed composer Hans Zimmer to compose Hidden Figures‘ full score.
Hidden Figures is out on Jan. 13.
• Reporting by JODI GUGLIELMI