'Empire' Star Taraji P. Henson Talks Spinoffs, Guest Stars and Series Future

"She's a woman so she still has to prove herself but Cookie's a fighter," Henson says of her character's new role as the head of Empire.
Courtesy of FOX

Four seasons in, and Taraji P. Henson is still learning new things about Cookie Lyon.

This latest season of Empire has dived into the backstory of the Lyon family matriarch, with multiple flashbacks specifically to the 17 years she spent behind bars before the hip-hop drama began.

"I never knew really what happened in prison so I'm really happy about it," Henson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "As an audience member, wouldn't you want to know?"

It's just the latest plot twist this season for the colorful and outspoken Cookie, who has had to deal with the fallout of Lucious' (Terrence Howard) severe brain injury. In addition to trying to make Lucious remember despite his severe memory loss, she's also taken an expanded role atop the Empire throne while Lucious tries to recover both physically and mentally from the explosion that nearly cost him his life.

But Cookie's low points are Henson's highlights. The Oscar-nominated actress has won a Golden Globe award for her leading turn in the hip-hop drama, in addition to earning three Emmy nominations.

With her work on season four of Empire more than halfway done — she was working on episode 410 at the time of this call — THR spoke to Henson about keeping Cookie fresh, her theories on why there hasn't been an Empire spinoff (yet) and how much longer she sees herself playing the iconic character.

How has Lucious' memory loss on the series impacted the Cookie-Lucious scenes on the series? How has it made it more exciting for you and Terrence as actors?

It's just a different way for Cookie to interact with Lucious because he doesn't remember. I don't have the snappy, sassy comeback for him because he's the nice guy now. There's just a different dynamic in the relationship.

This season has really dived into Cookie's days in prison in flashbacks. How have those flashbacks informed you as an actress?

That's actually fun. I actually wanted to do that. I never knew really what happened in prison so I'm really happy about it. (Laughs.) Those things are exciting.

Why did you think it important to show?

As an audience member, wouldn't you want to know? People love Cookie. They love her. So I think it's important that people know of her past. I think people want to know. I know if I was an audience member. I would want to know how she got through 17 years.

Does that mean we'll see flashbacks from throughout her entire 17 years behind bars during this season?

I don't know that we'll see all 17 in one season but they're hinting to more flashbacks of her while she's in prison. We're trying to last. (Laughs.) I don't think we can cover a whole 17 years in prison in one season and in 18 episodes.

Because of Lucious' brain injury, Cookie has been tasked with running the company. How do you think that extra responsibility has impacted or changed her?

She's always wanted to run the company, even going back to the pilot so I think she's finally happy. She's a woman so she still has to prove herself, but Cookie's a fighter. She's always down for a good spar. (Laughs.)

You have some great guest stars this season. What has it been like to working with Demi Moore and Forest Whitaker?

They're thespians. They're people I look up to and I look up to their work. I've worked with Forest before so this is a reunion and I love it. And Demi I've never worked with before but she is amazing. They got us good actors to play with!

You've had a lot of great guest stars over the show's run. What do you think they add to the show? 

They add a level of seasoning to the art. They've been doing this for a while, they are respected, they are known in the industry. If you watch movies, if you watch TV, you've got to be fans of them because they've done amazing work in their careers. They up the level for us for sure.

Why do you think Empire continues to lure this type of talent?

It's a hit show. If I was on another show, I would be trying to guest-star on it. Sounds like a smart business move to me. (Laughs.)

You're now midway through season four of Empire. What keeps Cookie fresh and exciting for you at this point?

I guess what keeps it fresh for me is the wardrobe. (Laughs.) I love to see what Cookie's going to wear. I love the family, I love the people I work with, I love the crew so it's just an exciting job to have, really. There's really no drama on set — everybody gets along, so it's a great job to have and to be going into season four like this? It's amazing. That's what's exciting.

Considering how many storylines the show has already burned through, how much do you worry about the show repeating itself?

I feel like that sometimes when I'm reading a script, but then when they go into the editing room, it's totally different. (Laughs.)

Now that you're in season four, how much input do you have into Cookie's storylines? You mentioned you wanted to explore her backstory in prison and now they're doing it on the show, so what are those conversations with the writers like?

It’s a great collaborative effort. I think that's why the show is such a hit, because everyone collaborates and everybody takes everybody's view into consideration. The writers are really interested in what we have to say and we collaborate. Everybody has input.

Now that we're getting to see Cookie's time in prison on the show, what else is atop your wish list that you'd like to see on Empire?

I have something I want to do but I can't tell you because it will blow the ending of this season.

How difficult is it to keep track of everything that's happened on the show as it relates to your character? Are you able to keep track when new episodes make references to past storylines from past seasons?

Sometimes if I have to do an interview, I may need some refreshment. But it's like riding a bike — you don't forget. When you go through it, you don't forget. Sometimes in the writing, the script will be like, "But we didn't," and then they'll have to fix it, "Oh yeah, you're right, that did happen." But that's great. That's why they love our input.

If there's something that comes up that doesn't ring true to the character, are you able to go to the writers and talk to them about it?

Yeah, I don't even care if it's Empire, it can be a movie or something. If it doesn't ring true for me, if I don't believe what's on the page, then how am I going to act it? It's that simple. It could be Cookie, it could be any character. If I don't feel that I understand the character's truth, I'm going to have a problem, and we're going to have to fix it because I can't act what I don't believe.

Specifically on Empire, you've been able to have those discussions if that problem arises?

Absolutely.

There has been talk over the years about various Empire spinoffs, including one looking at a younger Cookie. What's the latest you've heard on that?

I really don't know. I never heard that so I don't know. You know more than me. A lot of people talk so I don't know what's real and what's not. I have not heard that.

Would you still like to see an Empire spinoff?

I don't know, maybe that's why it hasn’t happened because it's hard to reinvent the wheel. Once you have something really good, it's kind of hard to make another one. I mean shows that I see that work like that are the cop shows. Like the one with the forensics…

CSI?

Yes, CSI. They had it in New York, they had it in Las Vegas, they had it in Miami, but that's a job you do in every state so that's something you can franchise like that. This is kind of different and I just honestly don't know how you would do it, but I'm not a writer either so…. (Laughs.) If it's good, yeah, I'm all about it. But if it's not good, that's the catch. It will be, "How do we re-create Cookie?" and I don't know if you can do that.

At this point, how much longer do you see yourself playing Cookie?

I'm here until it's all over. Until I start feeling like the storylines are suffering then I'm going to have an issue, but as long as they give me good stuff to do, I'm not going anywhere. (Laughs.) I don't know where that rumor's coming from.… That would be goofy for me to walk away.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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