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'Empire's' tough Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, always up for a challenge

'Empire's' Taraji P. Henson talks about how it's like to be Cookie and more @latimes

To say that Lee Daniels and Taraji P. Henson didn't see eye to eye when they first met about seven years ago would be putting it mildly.

The filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning "Monster's Ball" was prepping his new project, "Precious," a raw tale about an obese, troubled teen girl named Precious who endured physical and psychological torture at the hands of her mother. He summoned Henson, a veteran actress who had delivered impressive performances in several films including "Baby Boy" and "Hustle & Flow" to audition for the role of Ms. Blu Rain, an alternative school social worker who helps Precious to gain self-esteem and believe in herself.

But when the actress, who at that time was in her late 30s, arrived for the audition, she had other plans.

Said Daniels, "She didn't want to audition for Ms. Rain. She wanted to audition for Precious! I thought she was a bit crazy. I said, 'That is not going to happen,' and the meeting was over. After that, we were friendly from afar. Still, I had mad respect for her. It took a lot of balls for her to say that."

The idea of playing someone much younger and much heavier did not seem outrageous to Henson. The role of Precious spoke to her more. "I was just being creative," she recalled with a smile. "At that point in my career, I just thought, 'Why do I have to play this other character when Precious is the role that would challenge me? I'm always looking for the challenge."

Flash-forward to 2015, when the two finally find themselves on the same wavelength.

The two have reunited on Fox's "Empire," the drama winding up its freshman season Wednesday as TV's hottest series. Since its launch in January, the drama about ailing music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his frantic struggle to determine which of his three sons should inherit the throne of his massive music empire has been a juggernaut, scoring at least eight straight weeks of ratings growth — an almost unheard-of accomplishment in the highly competitive TV landscape. "Empire" rose to be the third-most-watched show overall for the week of March 1 and is Fox's most solid dramatic hit since "24" first went off the air in 2010.

Created by Oscar nominee Daniels and fellow executive producer Danny Strong, "Empire" derives much of its groundbreaking success through its mashup of fresh and familiar elements that have attracted a wide demographic base: the time-honored tradition of a prime-time soap opera revolving around a wealthy family (think "Dallas" or "Dynasty"), juiced with hip-hop, topical issues (homophobia, mental illness), humor (Lucious has President Obama on speed dial) and a predominantly African American cast featuring three Oscar nominees, including Gabourey Sidibe, the young actress who won the title role of "Precious." The series has slick production values and more than its share of plot twists.

But in an ensemble that contains no shortage of colorful characters, it's Henson's larger-than-life portrayal of a tough Cookie that occupies the chaotic center ring: the brash Cookie Lyon, the former wife of Lucious who stakes her own claim in the company when she is released from a long prison stint for selling drugs (her $400,000 was the seed money for the company). Henson has attacked the role with a scene-stealing ferocity, igniting the character's no-holds-barred flame with no-she-did-not-just-say-that wisecracks, urban-bred bravado, smoldering sexuality and a flashy wardrobe of full-length furs and fashionably alluring outfits that embrace her curvy physique.

Henson pointed out that although Cookie has her share of flaws decidedly not political correct, she also has many positive attributes, particularly her unwavering devotion to her family.

"These characters are multilayered and complex," she said, noting that some people might get angry "because it's not politically correct. But as we know, being politically correct is BS. That's why people like it, because we're not afraid to push the envelope on network prime time."

And she obviously feels a deep connection with the character that has brought her into the limelight. "She has a fight in her. When she believes something, she's totally uncompromising. That is a characteristic of myself. I identify in her passion."

Cookie's bite

Passion in abundance. "For a queen, you sure keep a messy place!," she declares when she first visits the loft where her gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), resides. She has shoe-throwing tantrums in the Empire offices, and when Lucious tries to get her to leave, she warns, "Be glad I don't feel like no scene today, because I'll shut it down!" Her chief adversary is Anika (Grace Gealey), Lucious' younger and lighter-skinned squeeze, whom she calls "Boo Boo Kitty" and "Halle Berry."

When her younger, defiant son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) insults her, she beats him with a broomstick. During a business meeting that she thought might be a rendezvous with Lucious, she takes off her coat to reveal a sexy corset, turns her back to Anika, slaps her rear end and says "Anika, this is an ass!" Even young toughs working in ghetto studios think twice about going toe-to-toe with her: Patting her purse containing a gun, she says, "I'm holding. The name's Cookie. Ask about me."

Fan frenzy over "Empire" and Cookie — along with her starring turn in the thriller "No Good Deed" with Idris Elba, which topped the box office in its opening last September — has propelled the 44-year-old actress into Hollywood's "it" circle, along with African American TV actresses such as Kerry Washington ("Scandal") and Viola Davis ("How to Get Away With Murder"). She and Howard are being showcased on magazine covers, and Cookie and the show was the recent target of a "Saturday Night Live" spoof.

At last month's NAACP Image Award, call-in viewers named Henson Entertainer of the Year over such A-listers as Davis, Beyoncé, producer Shonda Rhimes and Chris Rock.

The hoopla is a bit surreal for the actress, who also impressed on the big screen last year with "Think Like a Man 2." "Empire" has become the defining touchstone eclipsing her other accomplishments in a career spanning more than a decade that has included starring or featured roles in "Baby Boy," "Larry Crowne," "The Karate Kid" and the CBS drama, "Person of Interest."

She provided the melodic hook for the Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" for 2005's "Hustle & Flow" (her first project with Howard, who starred and scored an Oscar nomination for lead actor.) And she was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar in 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," where she played Brad Pitt's adoptive mother, Queenie.

But none of those projects jump-started her career.

"Before 'Empire,' I was just 'that girl from "Baby Boy" or "The Karate Kid,"'" she said as she sat in her publicist's Hollywood office. "I've been doing this for a long time, and in my opinion I've been doing very good work. But now people are discovering me, and they're starting to connect the dots. I've always been that utility worker, that utility actor, but now all of a sudden the world is seeing me on a platform they've never seen me on before. This show is so big, everybody knows my name now."

The real Henson

In person, Henson, who was born and raised in Washington, D. C., is noticeably lower-key than what she calls her "alter ego." She exudes confidence without seeming cocky, and she can be playful and warm. When making a humorous point, she laughed loudly, her voice echoing through the two-story building.

While Henson is thrilled with the attention that "Empire" has brought her, she added that she has never craved fame or celebrity. A single mother of a grown son, her off-camera life has been off the grid. And though Cookie does behave outrageously, Henson said it has been more important to make sure the character is grounded in truth.

"Yes, this is something I've worked my entire career for. But I always do it for the craft. It's never been for the money or for everyone to know who I am. It's not for anything but the work — did I move you? Did you have a cathartic moment? Those are the things I care about."

The series has been a glowing bright spot for the ratings-challenged Fox, which previously had little to cheer about. But last summer, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, the heads of Fox TV studios (who now also run the network), identified "Empire" as a crucial element in Fox's rebuilding strategy.

Since its premiere to 10 million viewers, "Empire" has received largely positive reviews. Among the elements coming in for high praise is the story line about Jamal, who is repeatedly denounced by his father for being gay.

Still, "Empire" also has its detractors. The series has a specific African American viewpoint and features characters who could not be called the most positive role models: Lucious and Cookie sold drugs, Cookie is brazen and determinedly non-PC, Lucious murders a blackmailing colleague — one of Cookie's relatives — in the first episode.

"While the show's sexy glossiness is alluring, it is also filled with badly written dialogue and ham-fisted racial and sexual stereotypes," wrote Laina Dawes of the independent online journalism magazine AlterNet. Author and social commentator Boyce Watkins wrote that "Empire" presents a negative image of blacks: "Just like animals in the zoo, the world loves to observe black people at our most wretched, because ignorant Negroes are simply fun to watch."

But Darnell Hunt, head of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, said that Henson's portrayal of the take-no-prisoners Cookie, with her 'hood cred and tough talk, transcends what could have easily have been a stereotypical presentation. "How she plays this role is much more complex. She makes Cookie more palpable and more poignant. She's very good."

In his review, Los Angeles Times TV critic Robert Lloyd said that Henson "elevates every scene she's in and every actor she plays against, and brings music and truth and a whole person to even the least promising lines."

Referencing Cookie's outspokenness, Henson said, "'I think everybody has a little bit of Cookie in them — if they were not afraid to speak their truth. We are all walking around afraid to say what we really feel. We've been trained to be politically correct. So when someone comes along and says the things that everyone wants to say, people fall in love with it."

She based a lot of the character on her late father: "He was very much like her. Straight, no chaser. He had an ability to see through people. But everyone loved him because he told it the way it was."

Daniels said Cookie was the easiest character to write. "I could do it with my eyes closed," he said. "She's my grandmother, my mom, my sister, my aunt, the one girl I slept with, my next-door neighbor, my best friend. She's the epitome of what I grew up with." He does not label her as outrageous. "America loves truth. When you keep it real, that's what they want."

But Henson said there are clear differences between her and Cookie: "There's the fashion — she's a little bolder than me, though I love dressing up. And I have to be careful about what I do because of who I am. I could never be a Cookie — I have to be careful about my read." Her laugh filled the room.

Daniels said one of his greatest joys about the success of "Empire" is the hoopla surrounding Henson. "The most exciting thing for me about all of this is that we now get a chance to celebrate Taraji, who has been so under-celebrated."

The two still have their creative back-and-forths: When she first auditioned for Cookie, Henson demanded that Howard be cast as Lucious. "This was before she was cast, and she's already making demands," he said with a laugh. "But she was right."

He's looking forward to next season, where he plans to delve more deeply in the character, probing "her pain and poignancies."

As for Henson, she is also looking forward to furthering the popularity of "Empire," particularly overseas. Already it's showing in a few markets and is the subject of a bidding war in Britain. Now that her son is getting ready to move into his own place, she has another goal. "I want love — that's the only thing missing," she said with a wistful smile. "I want someone to share this all with." She concluded with a very un-Cookie like comment, "I'm a simple girl."

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