ADTV discusses the challenges of being Empire‘s Cookie Lyon with Taraji P. Henson, the woman behind the sass
Earlier this year, Taraji P. Henson took home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her portrayal of Cookie Lyon on Fox’s Empire. Cookie is outspoken, fierce, and bold. Henson’s character is a heroine to the 10 million viewers who tune in each week to follow the adventures and saga of the Lyon family. Later this year, Henson will publish her memoir, “Around the Way Girl,” and she will stretch her acting chops with Hidden Figures, an upcoming drama detailing the story of Katherine Johnson. Johnson was the African-American mathematician who helped NASA make huge strides in the Space Race.
I caught up with the actress in Hollywood on an unusually chilly L.A. day to talk Cookie, what she hungers for as an actress, and the challenges in creating such an iconic character.
AwardsDaily TV: How is it filming Empire in Chicago?
Taraji P. Henson: It’s good. I really love the city. They have great food. It’s beautiful in the summer with the lake. I can’t complain. It’s a change of pace. The people are different. They seem a bit more authentic there than here. No one’s chasing stars there.
ADTV: L.A. is a world of it’s own. OK, that last episode of Empire. Oh my God! I’m still picking up my jaw from the shooting and the wedding. The whole season is crazy. I don’t even know where to begin?
TPH: [laughs] Good luck because I don’t either.
ADTV: Congratulations on a great season. What’s it like delivering those blunt lines?
TPH: It’s a lot of fun. She’s my Sasha Fierce. She’s my big sister. That’s what Cookie represents for me, that bold person who speaks up for me when the bully comes.
ADTV: Is that what makes her resonate with the audience?
TPH: I think she represents that for everyone, the voice… that inner fight that everyone has. Sometimes people are afraid to unleash because they need to be politically correct, and we know Cookie is far from anything politically correct.
ADTV: Is that hard for you delivering those lines that aren’t all PC? I don’t care. I’m a Brit so nothing offends me. We say anything.
TPH: I know! I’ve seen TV there. I love it because Cookie gets to say it. She says the things that people are thinking but are too afraid to say. I think that’s why she’s registered and resonates across the board. It doesn’t matter what color, what sex, who they’re sleeping with, they just love Cookie. [laughs]
ADTV: Well, it’s been such a long time since we’ve had such a great character like Cookie on screen. In the 80’s we had [Dynasty‘s] Alexis, then you come along, and she’s bad ass.
TPH: I love it. It was a scary character to take on because I didn’t know how she’d be received. America is tricky. People are tricky. They could turn on you real quick. It was very important as to how I played her. I couldn’t play her as a loud mouth sass because she wouldn’t resonate to most people. I had to figure out a way to make people empathize with her struggle.
I grew up in the hood, so I know what it’s like when you can’t make ends meet working at McDonald’s or a job that pays minimum wage, and all you have is crack to sell to make sure your family can eat, or hustle, or whatever it is you gotta do. When you come from the hood, you don’t have those options. She sold drugs. Was it the best thing to do? No. But what she did was prevent her three sons from becoming statistics. She did what mothers do, she made the ultimate sacrifice.
ADTV: And some of the best scenes are when Cookie goes all out protecting those boys. Where does that emotion come from?
TPH: From a mother’s love. You sacrifice your life getting that child here healthy. I became pregnant in my junior year in college, I was very young. That’s when you party and drink, and do whatever. I didn’t do it. I chose not to. Those are sacrifices I made to bring a healthy child into this world. Once I had him, I had further sacrifices to make, I couldn’t go clubbing because of the type of mother I wanted to be. As a mother you’re always sacrificing because it is your job to make sure these kids are good and they become productive citizens by any means necessary. You want them to survive.
ADTV: How has Cookie changed your life?
TPH: I can’t go anywhere. That’s how she’s changed my damn life. I am now Cookie. Everywhere I go, people ask, “Are you Cookie?” No, I am Taraji. [laughs]. I understand the love they have for her.
“Fans, please understand when you call me Cookie, it reminds me of work.” It’s work.
ADTV: But she’s going down in history as an icon.
TPH: I hope so. She’s the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do. I pray that’s the case.
ADTV: Do you have any scenes that have stood out for you this season?
TPH: The scenes where I slapped all the boys. I think I got Terence one good time, and now they all brace themselves when they see me.
ADTV: You connected?
TPH: Each and every time. [laughs] I have crew members saying, “Can Cookie slap some sense into my children?” They make me Facetime and threaten their kids.
ADTV: What about this relationship between Cookie and Lucious. Every episode they are flipping from love and hate. Last night, I was watching it and they’re on the couch. There was a moment when I thought, “She hasn’t learned from last season.”
TPH: Well, that’s a love you can’t describe. When you’ve been through so much with a person that love never really goes away. You may not love them romantically anymore, but there’s a deep underlying love that you can’t even put into words. When you find that, it doesn’t come often. Cookie and Lucious will probably always date other people, but they will never find that kind of love again.
ADTV: What can we expect in season three?
TPH: [laughs] I have no idea. They tell me nothing. I wish I knew.
ADTV: Ok, I have to talk about her wardrobe, because it’s outrageous. Do you get a say in what Cookie wears?
TPH: I don’t really want a say. I let Paolo [Nieddu] do his job. He really loves me because he calls me his Barbie. I’m a producer as well, so I just know that you hire people to hire their job. I’m an actress. I’m not a wardrobe person. I don’t study the upcoming fashions. That’s why I hire a stylist in my personal life. That’s why you have wardrobe in film and TV. I let that person do their job.
It’s my job as an actor to materialize that. I’ve done my research, they’ve done their research and we marry the two. I have to make it work. I might not like it, but it’s Cookie who’s wearing it. He did the character research. My main concern is fit. Does it fit? If it doesn’t we move on. I think Paolo is quite a genius. The outfits he puts together are ones I would have passed a thousand times in the store, but everything he puts me in, I want. But once Cookie wears it, it’s over.
TPH: I think people recognize me for being That Girl Around The Way for being tangible to them. I’ve reached this great success in my career, and people say, “You’ve never changed, you still feel familiar. I feel like I know you and you’re my BFF.” I think it’s because I would not allow Hollywood to dictate who I was. Yes, I’m this edgy girl and I speak with this accent, but I am a trained actress. I get paid to play characters. That’s not who I am. It was a struggle to get through the industry like that. When I walked in the room, I was just Taraji from around the way, but they just saw an edgy girl who couldn’t give them characters. I’ve had a lot to prove, but anyway, here we are and I get to tell my story.
I think it will resonate not just with women, or girls, but boys and men because the story is very real. I’m very proud of it.
ADTV: On the subject of Hollywood and its challenges, what obstacles have you faced?
TPH: There are roles that I didn’t get that I should have had, but when you look back in retrospect they weren’t my blessing. They belonged to someone else. I don’t really see them as obstacles. I just work. Hopefully those obstacles lessen, and they become obsolete.
I really can’t say that the industry is tough because I’ve been successful in this business. I can’t say the business has been bad to me. I carpe diem. I was nominated for an Academy Award. Great. I continue to do independent films, and, because I’m a theatre actor too, I hunger for roles that I can sink my teeth in to. I thirst for roles that will scare me. I don’t go for easy.
ADTV: On that note, you have Hidden Figures coming out early in 2017.
TPH: That was the hardest thing for me in life. I am not mathematically wired. She is the polar opposite of everything you’ve ever seen me do. Everything. She is a genius. She’s a mathematician. She sees numbers in the sky. She doesn’t speak unless she has something to say. She’s a very proper woman, and she was hard to play. I’m notch ten in my personal life.
I leave this character who speaks her mind, and then you take me to Katherine [Johnson] where I have two lines in three pages. When I got home, I felt like I’d just worked out because I had to sit on all of that energy. There are scenes with racial tension, and I couldn’t say anything? That was a workout.
ADTV: Did you know about Katherine Johnson?
TPH: No, I didn’t. When I took it on, that’s when I started to hear about her. It was interesting. The movie was perfect timing. I remember reading the script and asking if she was still alive, if so, I wanted to meet her. I remember how regal she was, and how smart she was without saying anything. She was very sharp. She’s 97 1/2. What I found interesting was that, I’m a people watcher, so I was scanning her room, and I saw that she had two Scrabble games under her sofa. I thought to myself, she’s still challenging her brain to think. I wouldn’t even want to play Scrabble with her. She’d make me look stupid.
Watch full episodes of Taraji P. Henson on Empire on Fox.com.