Cookie & Lucious: How Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard built an 'Empire'

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson are the secret weapons of 'Empire'

What is the secret to the success of Fox's "Empire"? The music? The outfits? The endless plot twists?

We say the show's not-so-secret weapon is the explosive chemistry between Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, the actors who portray scheming music mogul Lucious Lyons and his outlandish ex-con former wife Cookie Lyons.

As played by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, the characters have become TV's hottest couple, battling and loving each other with equal laser-like intensity. The two performers don't even need dialogue--their combustible chemistry is so potent they just need only their eyes and facial expressions to convey deep hostility or unquenchable desire between them--sometimes in the same scene.

"First of all, we're both very competitive," Henson said in a recent interview. "We're also very creative in our choices for work. Terrence can be intimidating; he reminds me a bit of my father. I'm very attractive and he's very attractive, so there's a natural chemistry."

But the key to their chemistry, Henson maintains, is more primal. "The reason why it's so electric between us is because we've never crossed the line."

Those who saw Henson and Howard go at each other in the 2005 Oscar-winning hip-hop drama "Hustle and Flow" are already familiar with the on-screen  hotness between the two.

Howard received an Oscar nomination for his role as DJay, a struggling pimp who has aspirations of becoming a rapper. Henson played Shug, the pregnant prostitute who receives an injection of self-esteem when she's recruited to sing the hook for Djay's anthem "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."

The experience of "Hustle and Flow" did not start out well for Henson. "Terrence didn't want me for the part," she recalled, laughing. "He had another agenda. But when I read for the role, I gained his respect right away. He thought he was going to steal the scene and wasn't anyone going to take it away from him. But that's what I did. From then on, he was intrigued."

But the real eruption came near the movie's end, when Djay and Shug confront their feelings for each other in a passionate kiss that has to be one of the most sizzling clinches in modern film.

When it came time for the scene, Terrence was more than ready to come together with Henson: "'Let's rehearse'" he said. "I said, 'You dummy, you're going to ruin the whole movie. Don't you know everyone is waiting for this kiss, and if we do it now, that will ruin the movie. You're an idiot.' So the film goes to Sundance and the kiss happens and everyone goes nuts and Terrence looked over at me and said, 'I'm so glad I listened to  you.'"

When Lee Daniels was casting for "Empire," he was talking to Henson about playing the role of Cookie. "But then she started demanding that Terence play Lucious. And this was before she had the part! I thought that took a lot of [nerve]. But she turned out to be right!"

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