'Empire's' Adam Rodriguez on Cookie's "Attraction" to Laz, Hakeem's Jealousy and Challenges Ahead

"Laz is somebody who is willing to protect Cookie," the actor tells THR about the on-screen romance.
Courtesy of Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire, "A High Hope for a Low Heaven."]

Step aside, Lucious.

On Wednesday's episode of Empire, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) seemed to put her on-and-off (and on-and-off) relationship with her ex-husband (Terrence Howard) in the rearview mirror when she knocked on the door of her company's new concert promoter, Laz (Adam Rodriguez). No spoiler alert needed here: Cookie didn't stop by to talk business. After a sultry kiss earlier in the hour, the two consummated their relationship in the hour's steamy final moments.

Although playing the love interest of one of TV's most beloved characters might be his biggest role this year, it's far from his only gig. The Magic Mike star will also appear on Jane the Virgin in a multi-episode arc and will step behind the camera to direct an upcoming episode of Scorpion. "There's a whole lot going on but it's all good stuff," he tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh.

Rodriguez spoke to THR about, the hurdles ahead for Cookie and Laz's relationship, Jane the Virgin and his leading man ambitions.

You're playing a love interest to the show's breakout character. Did you feel any pressure knowing you would play opposite the biggest scene-stealer?

I wasn’t intimidated. We did a movie together some years back [2009's I Can Do Bad All by Myself] and we developed such a great friendship that we've maintained since then. We don’t talk everyday or anything like that, but we just got along so well and genuinely cared for each other as people. I was just super excited to do it. The fact that she's having the kind of success that she's having on that show made me even more excited to do it as opposed to nervous.

Empire as a whole has just created a world and a very clearly defined world that's heightened and rich with drama and deception. All of the things, I think personally, that made Shakespeare timeless, are the things that are working so well for Empire. It's all the best and worst of people, and you really just never know exactly what's coming. You think you do and then you don't and the characters are so rich, and yet clearly defined. You're really clear about who you're rooting for and why you're rooting for them, and who you hate and why you hate them. It was so much fun to get to play in that world.

How was it reuniting? Was there a shorthand there after having worked together before?

It was like seeing an old friend. I was just really happy to see her and it was like we didn’t skip a beat. We jumped right in with jokes and teasing each other, and just having some laughs and hopefully making some entertaining television.

In your experience does it make less awkward or more awkward to have history with someone who is playing your love interest?

It makes it more fun to know the person. You're more willing to play. You're more willing to try things. You're more willing to be silly. And I think that actually adds to the chemistry.

What is your understanding of Laz? What brings him to such an up-and-coming company like Lyon Dynasty?

The concert promotions world – it's a dirty game. It's a ruthless business so you need to be somebody that's not afraid to tangle with other people whether they're dangerous or not. He's basically not afraid to be a pit bull. You can be a friendly, loving dog but when you have to get nasty, you're going to get nasty and you're not afraid. Laz is very familiar with the streets. He's very comfortable operating in that world and yet, has a business mind, which is why he's been able to build a company that's successful enough that he's on Cookie's list of people she's looking to partner up with. I think he comes in her office and, he's supremely confident, knows what he's capable of and isn't afraid to display that. He's looking to get to that next level. He's been operating at a certain level and Cookie is an opportunity for him to partner with somebody that can actually help his career take a step up to the next level.

Their romance really heated up in this episode. What do you think draws them to each other romantically and prompts that ending?

It began in the last episode. When people meet, you know instantaneously if there's a vibe when you meet somebody. However long it takes for that to manifest into something, or whether or not it ever does is another story, but I think you know right away. When you look at them in that first scene, you felt that chemistry – that was palpable. Laz helping Cookie out when there were people breaking into her office trying to steal stuff from her, he comes to her defense and the two have these guns and look at each other, and realize, "Oh, you're that type of person too? OK. Alright." Laz is somebody who is willing to protect Cookie. Cookie does all of the protecting for her sons, she's even protected Lucious by going to jail for him for all those years. She's a protector and I think that sometimes the people that play that role in life, when they find someone that makes them feel safe, as safe as they want to make other people feel, they're instantly drawn to that, and I think Cookie sees that in Laz.

What do you think he sees in her?

The same thing that the entire audience that watches the show sees in her: Here is this badass woman who is unafraid to go after what she wants and anybody else that's standing in the way of getting that. He's, of course, attracted by her success and by this character that she portrays on the outside, but Laz sees through it and sees that there really is this little girl on the inside that just wants somebody to take care of her.

What does their relationship look like after they take things to the next level?

At some point, you have to decide what's most important to you. Some people are about love. Some people are about ambition. And some people realize they're about one thing more than the other and sometimes they realize that in time and sometimes they realize that too late.

How will the rest of Cookie's family react to her relationship with Laz?

Hakeem is really the one trying to build Lyon Dynasty with Cookie so he ends up being the one that probably has the most say-so in terms of how he feels about the choices Cookie is making. He's struggling so hard to prove that he's a man because everybody sees him as this kid and this artist that hasn't stepped into manhood yet. He's the baby of the family. He's really trying his hardest to assert himself as a man so all of a sudden, this new man coming into his mom's life that his mom actually listens to and values his opinion makes Hakeem a bit jealous and maybe even a bit concerned. His natural protective instincts kick in as a son. I don’t think he's sold on the relationship very easily, but as time goes on, maybe that changes.

Lyon Dynasty is still a relatively new company. How will Cookie and Laz juggle their romantic relationship and their working relationship?

That does become the challenge, and that's what I was hinting at earlier. You see it all the time. Some people choose personal lives. Some people choose professional lives as the thing that matters most to them. They are going to be in the process of juggling that and figuring out what matters most. But in the meantime, they do have a common goal and that is growing Lyon Dynasty and getting that job done. They might have different ideas of how to best do that, but they do have that common goal.

In addition to Empire, you have an arc coming up on Jane the Virgin. How familiar were you with that show when you signed on?

I saw the show and loved the world that had been created by [showrunner] Jennie Snyder Urman. So I had gotten word to my manager and my agents and said, "Look, you guys have really got to try to find me something on this show." My manager had stayed on top of it and he actually ran into one of the executives at The CW and let them know. They were actually getting ready to start the process of casting the character that I'm playing. When they wrote it, Jennie had told me she had said she wanted to get an "Adam Rodriguez type," and I was like, "Wow, hopefully I can fit the mold." (Laughs.)

When she described the character, it just sounded like a lot of fun: This writing professor who is really passionate about writing and seemingly mean, but really just doesn't have time for anybody that's not coming to his class to truly get better as a writer. He doesn’t have time for the excuses, he's not interested in what's going on in your personal life. He's obsessed with writing. He's so engrossed in that that maybe his personal life is a bit shut down as a result of that. So here comes Jane, who is going through this incredible rollercoaster ride of a personal life and wants nothing more than to grow as a writer and this guy is like, "OK, well, grow as a writer but it's not going to be easy." She's trying to juggle this crazy personal life and life in graduate school, so they don't necessarily see eye to eye on things at first, but I have a feeling it's going somewhere very interesting.

What are you looking to do next? How do you go about picking roles and picking shows at this point in your career?

Ideally, there's a great show that I'd be able to lead myself going into this next pilot season. I'm definitely at the point in my career where that's what I'm ready to do. I'm really ready to lead a cast on a show and take a crack at hopefully bringing something great to TV. But I'm open. I guess my goal, very simply, is just to continue to work and do jobs that are fun and hopefully relevant and just give people a great feeling when they watch it. Whether that's a happy feeling or a sad feeling, or whatever it is, just to entertain. While I certainly could have a very clearly defined wish list if I sat down and thought about it, I try not to get bogged down by that. I really just wake up everyday and see what gets presented to me and then try to make the best choice based on whatever that is. So far, it's been working out great.

Speaking about being the lead of a show, is there one thing in particular you learned from Empire and Jane, and how Taraji and Gina lead their respective casts that you think will carry with you?

No matter what, you're setting a tone as the lead. You set the tone for the cast, you set the tone for the crew and you really create a culture on set. So you've got to come to work and be willing to work harder, work longer, work smarter and contribute everything you have to the job you're doing and I see both of those women doing that everyday. That's something I know I'm ready to do as well and I look forward to having the chance to do.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. What do you think of Cookie and Laz's burgeoning romance? 

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