Taraji P. Henson and Ilene Chaiken Make the Most of 'Empire's' Big Splash
The actress and showrunner behind broadcast's top scripted series — both THR Power 100 honorees — reflect on a truly breakout year and how female characters like Cookie Lyon are changing the conversation.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Two of the most high-profile additions to the Power 100 arrive thanks to the stellar success of Empire. Neither Henson nor Chaiken is new to the game — Henson earned an Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and starred on CBS' Person of Interest on top of a steady film career, while Chaiken co-created Showtime's groundbreaking lesbian drama The L Word — but their stocks have skyrocketed in the past 12 months thanks to the hip-hop drama. Chaiken signed a lucrative seven-figure overall deal with 20th Century Fox in May, and Henson's new household-name status has led to appearances in commercials for Apple and Hulu as well as multiple magazine covers. In addition to her Emmy nomination, Henson also has taken home Critics' Choice, BET and NAACP awards for her portrayal of the outspoken and instantly quotable Cookie Lyon. "For so many years, we pushed up against this idea that women can't carry a show, that female characters can't be this, this or this, that we had to create our female characters to behave in a certain way," says Chaiken. "When it works, and when it works powerfully, everybody notices and understanding dawns. Cookie is such a great example of that."
The two also have found ways to use the show's power for good (in addition to selling soundtracks and Empire-branded clothing at Saks Fifth Avenue): The opening minutes of the season two premiere shined a light on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the show's list of directors is one of the most diverse in the business — in terms of gender as well as race. "There's a palpable, measurable, progressive change happening right now," says Chaiken of the growing ranks of women behind the camera, noting that things have come a long way since she first came to Hollywood to work at CAA. "Girls weren't accepted into the training program because we couldn't carry typewriters," she recalls. "By the way, I can carry a typewriter as well as any 25-year-old boy."
ACTOR I'D CAST TO PLAY ME IN MY BIOPIC Henson: "I think by the time my biopic is being made, Quvenzhane Wallis will be perfect casting."
SUPERPOWER I WISH I HAD Henson: "I want to fly. No more plane rides."
GO-TO LUNCH SPOT Chaiken: "A.O.C. It's close to the Empire office and delicious. I love to sit in the courtyard and pretend I'm on vacation in Europe."
I'M STILL STARSTRUCK BY Henson: "Carol Burnett. When I met her I could hardly speak."
WHAT PEOPLE DON'T KNOW ABOUT ME Henson: "I'm a really good cook. My Thanksgiving rocks." Chaiken: "I'm trained in an array of martial arts disciplines. I'm not suggesting I could kick anyone's ass …"
Other Power Squad honorees: Shari Redstone, Bonnie Hammer, Elizabeth Banks, Cindy Holland, Kathleen Kennedy, Donna Langley, Nancy Dubuc, Jennifer Lawrence, Dana Walden, Megyn Kelly, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Barbara Broccoli, Amy Schumer