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'Empire' star Taraji P. Henson on the pros and cons of being Cookie

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Taraji P. Henson stars in "Empire."
Chuck Hodes
Taraji P. Henson stars in "Empire."

Playing a popular character on a hit show is an actor’s dream, but it can also open the door for some strange interactions out in the real world.

In the hit Fox series, "Empire," Taraji P. Henson plays Cookie Lyon, the feisty matriarch of the family behind Empire Entertainment.

And you learn early on in the show that you should never mess with Cookie. Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, the show also stars Terrence Howard as Luscious Lyon, her ex-husband and the CEO of Empire.

The backstory here is that Cookie took the fall for a drug charge and spent 17 years behind bars. $400,000 of her money was invested in creating Empire Entertainment, and the series began on the day she is released from prison and comes back to claim her place within the family business.

Let’s just say a lot has happened in the series since that first episode, and all of it has made Cookie one of the most colorful and memorable characters on television. That’s mainly because of Henson’s fearless ability to fully embody the character.

Playing a popular character on a popular show is an actor’s dream, but it can also open the door for some strange interactions out in the real world. When The Frame host John Horn spoke with Henson a couple of days ago, she provided a glimpse into the kinds of encounters she faces with fans.

Interview Highlights:

Do fans confuse you often with Cookie? If so, what do they do?

They grab me up like, COOKIE GIRL! And [I'm] like, I'm not Cookie. I'm Taraji and Cookie is not working right now. Please don't call me Cookie.

What do they want to tell Cookie?

Girl, you my favorite! Or, You're my spirit animal. You are the best. You're my hero. Yeah. I even had men tweet me, I wish I had the b---s to walk into my board meeting like Cookie this morning. I don't know. I never saw this coming. 

That's a great compliment.

She's kind of taken over my life though. 

In a good way?

No. In a bad way. My father worked hard to give me this beautiful Swahili name. It has a meaning.

What does it mean?

It means hope. My middle name is Penda, which means love in Swahili, but people just want to call me Cookie.

How does that make you feel? That they don't understand the person underneath the character? 

I get that they're excited. I get that they have love for Cookie. I get it! But this the third season now, and now Cookie is work for me. (laughs) So, [after] 18 hours of playing Cookie, I'm just trying to be Taraji and buy my bag of bananas at the local Gelson's. And I'm still reminded that I'm Cookie. 

I've known Lee Daniels for a while and one of the things that he believes in is taking really intimate, personal parts of his life and [putting] them on screen. How do you talk about your life experiences and what you want to bring to the part?

Well, you know, I grew up in the 'hood. Crack was all around. Where Cookie and I are different is that I chose education. I chose the light side of the 'hood. There's always a way out. I don't care where you start, it's where you end up. Everybody has a story to tell and nobody's story is easy. If it is, who wants to hear it? My thing was looking at it from Cookie's perspective. Not judging her. Not saying, Oh my gosh, she sold drugs to her own people.

I gave Lee an interesting concept. I said, "What if she chose to go to jail?" He said, "I never thought about it. Why would you say that?" I said, "Because she's a mother. Mother's make ultimate sacrifices for their families all the time." She didn't sell those drugs alone. [Lucious] was just as dirty as she was, but he was the talent. Had he gone to jail, how was she going to feed her babies? Continue selling drugs and end up in jail with him? She made a conscious choice to say, I'm gonna take this for us to save y'all. Who can't identify with that? I don't care if you come from the 'hood or if you've ever been to a 'hood, you can understand making a sacrifice to save your family. 

As a single mother yourself, you must have really latched on to that idea.

Oh, absolutely. As a mother, period. I latched on to her need to save her boys. Then when you look a little deeper, being a woman of color — a black woman with black boys — coming from the hood, how do you save them from being statistics? How do you save them so that they don't become a number on the back of an orange jump suit? You do it so they don't have to. What parent can't understand that struggle or that sacrifice?

Even if you're not going to judge the character, you do have to understand Cookie. and. Was that a process for you, or did you kind of see her and get her immediately?

I was very scared of her initially because I was like, She's a monster! But if I'm not scared, then it's not moving me. Fear means, Okay, this is something you have to overcome. Then that made me have to look into this character. I was like, I have to do this role because she scares the life out of me. And if she scares the life out of me, in the wrong hands she's going to scare the life out of the audience. So in being fearful of her, I [thought] the only way the audience is going to get her is if I base her in a reality that is so real, that she will never ever be a stereotype — because she can be easily a stereotype. You know — mista sista girl, head roll with the attitude and sass. People are deeper than that. They're more complex. 

The other thing that's important about this show is that it's dealing with issues that are not dealt with on primetime television or in hip hop: Sexual identity, sexism, mental illness, domestic violence — and yet the show is also fun to watch and has a huge audience. How do you think that's possible that the show can address those really serious issues and not be preachy?

We disguise it under the genre of soap opera and we put on big flashy clothes and we have music and spectacle and then we give you a message. People like it like that. They don't want to sit and be banged over the head about what's going on in the world. People want to escape. But while you're escaping, we're going to deal with some real issues here. I think that's why the show has been a hit because it transcends color. It transcends religion. This speaks to humanity. This speaks to all humans everywhere. That's why it's a hit all over the world. It transcends languages. People get it. They are dealing with this stuff that these characters are dealing with. They are dealing with this all around the globe. It's just amazing to be a part of it. This is the type of work I prayed to God I'd do — life-changing roles. That's what art is for. If I'm not here to use my voice to change someone, what am I doing?

From the very first time that we saw Cookie on the show, she made an entrance and was wearing an amazing piece of wardrobe. You have great costume designers on that show. How has costume and wardrobe helped you find Cookie?

I literally stand there and let Paolo [Nieddu] do whatever. I'm like, Oh this is what you want me to wear? Okay. Paolo is the costume designer on the show. I don't ever argue with him. The only time I'll argue is if it's itchy or it's uncomfortable. Then I'm like, I'm not wearing this, Paolo. These hurt my feet. And he's like, Honey, just try it. And I'm like, Paolo, I'm not gonna get a bunion because of you. Okay? So, I play my position and I let everybody play their position. It just makes my job easier. I can focus more on Cookie and her mindset and where she is. What ends up happening is, when you allow them to create, it helps in my process. Now, I'm great with her props. He gives me interesting purses to work in. More things that I can add to her and make her juicier. 

Cookie seems like a part you were born to play. Do you feel like this character and your life lined up in ways that are beyond understanding?

Absolutely. I feel like that about my entire career. Being a single mother, I couldn't have mapped it out any better. My career grew as my son grew, meaning I didn't have to have nannies. I was there for every PTA meeting, all the important things. Until he was old enough, like 17, was when I was finally able to go away and do "Person of Interest" in New York. But by this time, he's pretty much grown. So I couldn't have mapped this out any better. This is coming from a source higher than us all. My manager would always say, Kid, this looks like the perfect storm. And, boy, does it look like the perfect storm right now. (Laughs) It's a great time to be me.

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