Taraji P. Henson on Creating Cookie, Prison Flashbacks, and How Empire Is Opening Minds

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Taraji P. Henson thought Empire would never get picked up. Fortunately for her, it did, and in no small part because of her take on Cookie Lyons, the show blossomed into a phenomenal hit. Henson sat down with New York Magazine to discuss how she created Cookie, watching soap operas as a kid, and how the show is opening minds.

The first episode of season two ...
Ooooh, that first episode is us trying to dismantle the system. And I was like, yooooo, everyone, slow down.

What do you think about most when you’re playing Cookie?
She has testosterone. She ain’t scared. Seventeen years in prison, she survived what most people don’t. A lot of people, they get institutionalized and go back into jail. She’s strong here [points to her heart], and she’s strong mentally.

The show hasn’t spent that much time with her prison years.
I am really interested in where they’ll go with flashbacks, and what it was like for her. I think it’s because I’ve been binge-watching Orange Is the New Black. I hadn’t realized everything that goes on in prison. I certainly never pictured myself going to prison. With Orange Is the New Black I thought: This stuff is really happening with women. I feel like I’ve met all of these women.

Did you grow up watching soap operas?
Yes, with my grandmother. Oh, honey, you could get hit with a switch if you talked during the stories. Ooh! It was All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital.

We had to. There was only one TV in the house then. And Grandma was in charge.

You famously ad-libbed “Boo Boo Kitty,” your nickname for Lucious's ex-girlfriend Anika.
The writers are very open to our input. I give them ideas. The writers write, and then the actors, we come and we … I live with Cookie 24-7. They live with Cookie, Andre, all of them. I have to make everything they write make sense for Cookie. And sometimes that involves creating a backstory they didn’t see.

Give me an example of that.
Cookie went to jail for the drug bust, right? But they didn’t go further. So I said to Lee and Danny: Wow, she sacrificed for her family. Think about it. She took that fall for her family because he was the talent. How were her boys going to eat? She kept her eye on the bigger picture. Me and my husband are about to become something that often happens in the ghetto: They become a part of a vicious cycle of poverty. We’re going to break the cycle and our boys, who might have become statistics, they won’t know what poverty is. And that’s what they did. I think that’s why people are drawn to her. I was afraid when I read the script that people were going to hate her: She went to jail for selling crack, she beats her son with a broom … what is worse than that?

Well, what about Lucious, throwing his gay son, Jamal, in a trashcan as a kid, and another, Andre, in a career garbage bin for having a white wife.
White people will never accept your black ass! That’s real stuff. You might ruffle feathers. How could he say that to his son? How can she beat her son with a broom! But I’ve noticed that with this story: You can’t be mad at me because Cookie’s just doing her job! I’m playing the why this woman is the way she is. If you don’t like her, maybe you need to examine yourself. I was afraid: We’re forcing the people to think. But I’m a risk-taker, even in the roles I take.

Daniels has talked about sometimes worrying if white people can handle some of the things he’s put in the show.
Yeah, but you should. The more we know about each other, the less hate we’ll have. You hate something you’re afraid of, you know? Somebody who has never been to the hood might meet Cookie on the street and say, This bitch is crazy! But because we’re showing this TV show, they might see a woman like Cookie and say, Oh, I like her! We just have to keep telling stories, to move humanity forward. And you can’t do that by playing it safe. Because life ain’t safe. Who’s protecting the audience from all this shit that goes on? The truth, the truth will set us all free.

When you think about Cookie, do you think about Lee Daniels?
I do. But you know a lot of her snazzy little lines you’d think Lee wrote, but Danny Strong wrote them. Danny wrote “Yoko Ono, what can you do?” Danny is a shit-starter. We had this one scene [this season] where Cookie runs in with the law again, and he tells me when she gets in the cop car she could yell out something like: “Black Lives Matter!” So I went to town. That’s why the show is so good: I’m telling you you do not get to do that on television. You cannot go off that script. That's why I never really liked it. I’d do it for the check. Sometimes, I literally don’t know what I’m going to say. They tell me, “Oh, you’ll come up with something.” It just comes out. I have no control over Cookie. Once I have on that hair and makeup, then it just takes over. It's very therapeutic.

So the writers listen to you. What other kind of input do you have?
I would like to think I had some input on casting. Jussie Smollett, and Terrence, and Yaz [Bryshere Y. Gray] — I was in their final callbacks. I met Smollett a couple of years ago. I didn’t know him, but when I walked in and we looked at each other, I said to Lee, “That is him. He’s the one.” Terrence was there and he co-signed. Terrence wasn’t as sure about Yaz, but Lee and I were sold on him.

Because our sons are the same age as Yaz, and we saw our sons in him: cocky, but still don’t know who he is. That swag out, but still not sure.

Your son Marcel is a musician. Will he be on the show?
They did try him out for something, but it was the end of the first season and they ended up going with a local person.

What was the role?
To be in this rap battle with Jamal. I asked [the producers] after his audition: Is he too soft? Because my son is not hood. He is very privileged. I told him, “Don’t ever try to pretend you're hood, because you’ll be clowned.” I was afraid that the character was too raw — he was supposed to be hating the gays and this, that, and the other. He had a quiet hate.

Someone who would never speak about it, but he’d keep it bottled up.

Are you ever afraid you’ll be typecast as Cookie?
You just have to keep looking for jobs in your off time that are not Cookie.

When did you know the show was a hit?
When that second episode was on. At that point we had six or seven episodes in the can, and I knew each episode is getting better. Because I am an avid social-media user, I saw that the word was spreading. And when I started seeing more faces like yours on my timeline, I knew we’d crossed over.