'Empire's' Taraji P. Henson on Cookie's Careful Planning, Loyalty and Greatest Vulnerability

The actress talks with THR about the universal appeal of the hip-hop soap and Cookie's second chance.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

"Boo Boo Kitty." "Goat ass." "Jump out the window and straight down." "The streets aren't made for everybody; that's why they made sidewalks." There is no question that Empire's Cookie Lyon is one of a kind — as is the woman who brings her to life every week on Fox, Taraji P. Henson. But though Henson was immediately as taken with Cookie as Fox's audience is after three weeks, the actress had some initial trepidation about taking on the role of the Lyon family matriarch.

"You don’t get these scripts often; I don’t get these scripts every day. I was trained; I’ve read some of the most amazing literature known to man; so I know good writing when I see it. I know a good script when I read it. So, I knew that, but at the same time, it scared the hell out of me," the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I had to reel myself back in [saying], 'OK, Taraji, I don’t think everybody’s going to love me; I don’t think everybody’s going to love it; but at the end of the day, this is important work.' "

See more Full 'Empire' Coverage

At the end of the day, Henson is an actress who likes to challenge herself and realized, like so many others do, that it was worth taking a risk to do something that scared her.

"The story we have to tell is big," Henson said. "There’s not an American who can’t identify with at least one of those characters. At the end of the day, this is important work. It’s challenging people to think. People are pissed; there are black people who think we can’t show this side of the race, but this is human; white people identify with this! This has nothing to do with color; people identify with this because it’s human stuff."

THR caught up with Henson to discuss the breakout drama so far and what's in store for Cookie and her boys.

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How important was it for you to show Cookie's lighter side — with so many quotable lights — and seeing her smile after serving a 17-year jail sentence?

She’s a real person, and real people laugh at themselves sometimes — I hope. She’s multilayered; she’s not just one thing. That’s something [co-creator] Lee Daniels really strived and wrote for, and it’s something the writers really pushed as complications because life is complicated. Why we do some of the dumb stuff we do, I will never try to explain [but] it’s called being a human. We don’t come with a book and a map that says, “This is how you live your life perfectly.” I don’t even know what perfect is; I don’t want the pressure of perfect — whatever that is. Because at the end of the day, I know I’m human and I’m going to make the wrong choice sometimes. I’m going to listen to the wrong person; I’m going to take the bad advice when I know I should have listened to my instincts. That’s what I stick to with Cookie — playing those human moments — and I think that’s why some people have taken to her. At the end of the day, she’s real, and she’s honest. She’s honest with herself, and she’s not hiding anything.

She certainly has secrets — specifically just how she got out of jail early.

Don’t we all? (Laughs.) That whole situation in working with the feds — first of all, there is no way you’re getting out early on a federal charge. Once the feds step in, it’s a wrap; you’re doing your time. No need for a lawyer; you’re going away. They have all the evidence they need; they’ve been watching you; there’s nothing you can do to worm your way out of it — except if you snitch. So she’s got some deal going on; she was supposed to do 30 years, but she got out in 17, so something’s going on. But the rule of the street is you don’t snitch. And here you have a woman who is watching her empire — she’s in jail, but she’s seeing it go public, and it’s bigger than she ever could fathom it’d be. And she’s not going to sit around and lose out. But there’s a reason why it was scripted that she goes to the door with a gun [in the pilot].

How worried is she about people in her life finding out she snitched?

Cookie feels like she can take on the world; she thinks she can take on that whole empire. This is a woman who has nothing to lose. She’s not second-guessing nothing. She got a second chance at life [so she’s] balls to the wall, doing anything. Everybody else is scared and afraid; Cookie is not [because] she lived in the worst of the worst for 17 years. It’s do or die for her.

Where is her focus, coming up? She hasn't wasted any time trying to find her place in society, let alone her family.

I think Cookie’s smart enough to know not to put all her eggs in one basket, so she’s trying to do a lot of things all at once. This is a woman who has lost 17 years, so time is something that she doesn’t take for granted, and I believe that in 24 hours she’s trying to do 10,000 things while a normal person is just trying to do three. She's had 17 years to think about this!

The world is very different now, though, and she does have her ups and downs with it. Where is she most vulnerable, and what is her greatest adjustment?

Family. Anything in life she can get through; nothing can hurt her out on the streets; her family is the only thing that has her heart. That’s all she has; that’s all she can claim that’s hers. Everything she did was for her fam ily. [Her greatest adjustment though is] acclimating herself back to society, catching up — Twitter, Instagram, what the f— is viral? What are you talking about? What is this stuff?

She should have hired a savvy assistant to help with those things!

Cookie sticks to what she knows. I made up the backstory. They write these characters in, and for me, I’ve got to make it believable, so I was like, “Why? Why is Porsha [Ta'Rhonda Jones] her assistant?” I had to make that reason up in my head so I could believe it. So I said, “OK, Cookie doesn’t really have a lot of money, and she’s not that savvy yet, having been gone for a long time. All she knows is the hood, so when she comes back, where’s the first place she goes back to? The hood. So she goes, and she finds this girl at this hole in the wall strip club. She needs somebody loyal, who’s going to be owing to me because I saved [her] life. So she got this girl off the pole, probably making $20 a night in ones." And so, this girl owed her, and she’s loyal, and that’s the thing about the streets: you’ve got to have somebody in your right hand who’s going to be loyal to you. That’s huge for Cookie because she’s loyal [too].

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Going back to family being a vulnerability for Cookie — clearly that's a spot where loyalty is key, too. She's closest to Jamal (Jussie Smollett) right now, but will she take active steps to bring the other boys in more?

Absolutely. She loves all her boys; it’s just that she knows Jamal better than the rest of them. It’s not that she loves him more; she just knows him more. He’s the one who came to visit her when she said don’t come. He still fought to know his mother. So they have a familiarity that she doesn’t have with the other sons, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want it [with them, too]. Whenever she sees a chance to try to make some headway, she’ll try to take it, but she doesn’t push it. She can pull back; she’s not going to force it. Sometimes as a parent, your kids hurt you— your family hurts you, they do that — and everything can’t be a big blowout because you’d be dead; you would just die from stress. If I blew up every time my child hurt my feelings (laughs.) Think about it, Cookie has learned how to keep her emotions together. Being in jail, I mean, you can’t be acting a fool because it would make it harder for you when you want to get out. So she’s had to learn how to keep her emotions in check. She’s not going to fly off the handle; it would make her weak.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. What are you looking forward to seeing — and what's your favorite Cookie one-liner? Sound off in the comments below. Stay tuned to THR's The Live Feed for more Empire coverage after Wednesday's episode.

Twitter: @danielletbd