With the hottest show on primetime television, Taraji P. Henson is breaking down barriers and finding that this is indeed her time to shine. Undoubtedly, “Empire’s” Cookie will go down in television history as one of the best female characters to hit the screen.

Beginning Her Journey

Born and raised in southeast Washington, D.C., the future star started on a slightly different path. After attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University for a year to study electrical engineering, Henson transferred to Howard University and changed gears to focus on theater. It was at Howard that she became serious about acting. “I was seeing my peers make it; I’d see them in the hallways and then up on the big screen.”

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College is where Henson honed her acting, singing, and dancing skills, making her a triple threat. She stayed involved in theater even after becoming pregnant with her son in her junior year because, as she says, nothing was going to hold her back from pursuing her dream. “I was always a stand-out kid. My father pushed me forward and made me believe I could do it.”

Right after graduation in 1995, the single mom moved to Los Angeles and never looked back. Even though she left her home and support system, she says she was never afraid. “I knew I had to be in LA; that’s where the jobs were. They weren’t in D.C.” Her parents were supportive but worried; the actress didn’t feel the same. “I didn’t think of fear,” she says.

Perfecting Her Craft

Henson began pounding the pavement, auditioning and landing recurring roles on such shows as “Smart Guy,” “Sister, Sister,” “ER,” and “The Division.” In 2001, she made her film debut in John Singleton’s coming-of-age urban comedy drama, “Baby Boy,” alongside newcomer Tyrese Gibson and rapper Snoop Dogg. Henson and Gibson would reunite on-screen a few years later in the film “Four Brothers.” The actress also starred in Gibson’s music video for his hit song “Stay.”

Four years later, Henson found herself working on her first project with Terrance Howard in the 2005 Oscar-winning film “Hustle & Flow.” There she made her singing debut, recording “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” on the film’s soundtrack, written by hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia and Cedric Coleman. Henson performed the song live with the group at the 2006 Academy Awards, where it won Best Original Song. 

Little could Henson and Howard anticipate that a decade later they would be part of a TV phenomenon that’s been a game changer – especially for the actress. Despite working steadily for many years on a long list of films, including the challenging role of Queenie in the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and on hit TV shows like “Person of Interest,” Henson says that Cookie is without a doubt her breakout role.

“I kept thinking with each part or film, this would be it, but it wasn’t. Every time I thought I was the ‘It Girl,’ it didn’t happen,” she says. 

In an Empire State of Mind

But the role of a lifetime was waiting in the wings. “Empire” creator Lee Daniels has said that Henson was the only actress he envisioned in the role of Cookie; she was the first to join the show. “The cast was important,” says Henson. “I fought for Terrance, and we were an integral part in hiring the family.”

More than just co-stars, Henson and Howard have been friends for 10 years, which makes rumors that they’re feuding sound crazy to the actress. “Where did that even come from?” she wonders. “I fought to have him on ‘Empire’; why would I fight to work with someone I don’t get along with?”

The chemistry between Henson and Howard is palpable, so finding the right mix of talent to round out the Lyon family was extremely important. “We met Jussie [Smollett] and Yazz [Bryshere Gray] the same day we had our chemistry read,” says Henson. “We both loved Jussie right away and knew he was Jamal; we bonded. It was just natural with that kid.”

And both Henson and Daniels were sold immediately on Yazz. “Lee and I have sons his age and we saw in him that confident (but not too confident) chest puffed out, with that swag that the character represents.”

Clearly, the casting has been a success, on-screen and off.

“Off-screen we literally are a family,” says Henson. “Yazz is always over here and looks to me as his mom away from home.” The cast and crew, who spend extremely long hours together, genuinely have fun and enjoy being with one another outside of work, Henson says. “We always party and hang out together.”


Creating the Role of a Lifetime

Henson says she was drawn to the role of Cookie not because she was her, but because she understood her.

“It’s hard to play a character that big and not be so big,” she says. But Henson is determined to get it right and not make her portrayal a caricature. “I want people to look up to Cookie and feel her struggle.”

What she loves most about bringing this larger-than-life woman to life is the boldness Cookie possesses and her ability to bounce back. “Seventeen years in jail and it didn’t break her spirit; she was just on pause,” says Henson.

In creating her character, who is now the most quoted on TV, the actress looked to her dad as a source of inspiration.

“When I read the script, the words sounded just like my father,” she says. She describes him as a “tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy,” someone who nicknames everyone, including her friends (Boo Boo Kitty, anyone?). And while the writers have given the character that brash, no-holds-barred dialogue, Henson says when it comes to throwing in some of her own one-liners, the people behind the scenes trust her completely. 

Along with those memorable phrases that are tweeted and retweeted every Wednesday night, Henson knows why audiences around the world are addicted – it’s the wow factor this nighttime drama delivers.

“You are always going to get good music [on ‘Empire,’],” she says. “We have talented people – Jussie and Terrance write a lot of their own music and Trai [Byers] can also sing; he has a great voice. And this season we amp up the fashion and portray matters that people shy away from. There’s something for everyone.”

With the second season in full swing, Henson promises plenty of backstory. Fans can expect to learn about Lucious’ past and understand how he’s become the man he is today. The stories will continue to deal with issues that affect everyday life, even if those topics hit a nerve.

“We ruffle feathers,” says Henson. “We make people uncomfortable, and we’re going to piss a lot of people off, but we show the truth.”

Living Her Dream

From the very beginning, Henson knew the show would be a hit if it was handled with care.

“Fox Network marketed the show right, and from there I knew it was going to be a runaway train,” she says. It’s a fact – people are talking about the show and getting together for viewing parties each week because no one wants to be left out of the conversation. “Empire” has become event television.

What has taken the star by surprise is the success overseas, both for the show and for Cookie. Now, fans of all ages know Henson by name, not just by her alter ego.

“It’s crazy what Cookie has done for me,” she says. “I feel like all of my work has not been in vain.”

With the same will and determination that her character embodies, Henson is a fighter in life for the things that matter most.

“I had to make my dream come true because if I didn’t, what kind of example was I setting for my son?”

Social Media Info to Include:

IG: TarajiPHenson

Twitter: @TheRealTaraji

FB: Taraji P. Henson


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