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Taraji P Henson: Hollywood's tough Cookie

TOUGH COOKIE: Taraji P Henson has won critical acclaim for her role as the fierce character of Cookie on hit show Empire

IT took her over a decade to become an overnight sensation. But with the birth of US drama series Empire, Taraji P Henson found her defining role.

Playing the no-nonsense ex-wife of hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), Henson is fierce as Cookie Lyon; a former drug dealer who, after being released from prison, sought to claim half of her ex husband’s multi-million dollar record label, Empire Entertainment.

Created by famed filmmaker Lee Daniels, the FOX drama – described as a ‘hip-hopera’ – became a huge hit, thanks to its gritty yet glossy portrayal of the modern day music industry, and its convincing depiction of the power struggle of the Lyon family – Lucious, Cookie and their three sons – who all want to be at the helm of the business empire.

While all the show’s characters have earned praise for their realistic portrayals, Cookie is undoubtedly Empire’s standout character. With her outlandish fur coats, tight-fitting lycra dresses and hot high heels, Cookie is the fierce and fabulous character that carries the show.

“When I Skyped Lee [Daniels], he said I ‘Cookie-d him’,” Henson says of landing the role. “He was in Japan doing press for The Butler and they set up a Skype session for me to talk to Lee about the script. At the time I wasn’t interested in television. I’d just left a television show and I was back in theatre, but my manager made me read the script.

“When I read it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so stupid, hip hop…’ Then I got to ‘Cookie gets out of jail’ and I was like, ‘Woah’. I said to Lee, ‘This is a great script, it’s amazing, I think Cookie is incredible – but I’m not interested unless you hire Terrence to play Lucious’.”
Having starred alongside Howard in the 2005 film, Hustle & Flow, Henson knew what on-screen chemistry could be created if the pair teamed up again.


FIERCE: Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon

“I knew when I read the script that if Lucious and Cookie didn’t work then Empire wouldn’t work’. They needed that indescribable connection and I guess we kind of have that in life – I can’t get rid of him,” Henson laughed.

“So yeah, I told Lee that and I literally closed the computer and Lee was like, ‘That b**** Cookie-d me!’ I think that’s what initially got him interested. They always say in this industry ‘Don’t ever act desperate’ and ‘It’s always the roles you don’t want that you get’. It’s not that I didn’t want it, I just wasn’t desperate. I didn’t care. I was like, ‘I’ll either get it or I won’t, I’m going back to my play’.”

Thankfully, she did land the part – and got her co-star wish – then quickly went on to create what would be her defining role.

Though she boasts a career that spans more than a decade – and seen her star in films including Baby Boy (2001), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid and the popular 2012 rom-com Think Like A Man – it was Cookie Lyon that undoubtedly brought Henson to international prominence, allowing audiences worldwide to get to know the Hollywood heroine that had graced the screen and the stage for years.

Considering why her character has such universal appeal, Henson – who won the Critics’ Choice Award for best actress in a drama series earlier this year – says: “Cookie has become a lot of people’s spirit animal, I’m told. I was afraid of her at first. She beats her son with a broom and she calls one son ‘a f****t’. I mean, I was like, ‘People might get really offended by her’ then I thought to myself, ‘Well no, if I play her truth, if I play why she’s like this, people will then begin to have empathy and compassion’. And I think that’s what happened.
“I’ve had straight men say ‘I wish I had the balls to walk into my board meeting like Cookie and kick the door open’.


MEET THE LYONS: Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard (seated) with their on-screen sons

“I’ve had women from all walks of life come up to me and say, ‘You’re empowering women’. Cookie speaks the truth, she’s uncompromising and she fights for what she believes in.”

Still, Henson admits she was determined not to make Cookie a stereotype.

“I’ve played a lot of characters in my career who could come off as stereotypical,” Henson admits. “But I’m a trained actress. I thought, if I played her sassy, with attitude, always mad all the time, nobody would care – she’d just be a loudmouth.

“How you get people to care is if you play her truth – you play why she’s like that, you play what happened and you write the backstories of what made her like she is.”

A huge ratings success, Empire was picked up by FOX for a second series, which will hit US screens this week. And with the global popularity of the show, complete with its all-black cast, Henson says it dispels the long-held Hollywood myth that black dramas can’t have international appeal.

“With all my time in the industry, Hollywood has told me ‘Black doesn’t work overseas’,” she says. “You know, ‘You put a bunch of black people together and they’re not gonna buy it overseas’. I was sick of hearing that, especially after the boom of social media. I’m scrawling through my Twitter feed going ‘Brazil loves me!’ and ‘Oh, New Zealand too, so what are you saying?’

“What is most rewarding to me is that the show is transcending colour. People aren’t seeing a black cast anymore, what they’re seeing is themselves – they’re seeing humanity.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and I can’t wait until we get past ‘Black this, black that, white this, white that’. We’re humans. Every human understands pain, loss and love. That’s universal and I think that’s why the show works. We took a risk and it worked.”

Empire Season 1 is out now on DVD

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