Saying that Taraji P. Henson had a bittersweet Emmy morning would be putting it mildly.
The actress started the day with jubilation over her nomination for best actress in a drama for her scene-stealing portrayal of the outspoken, take-no-prisoners Cookie Lyon in Fox's hip-hop flavored "Empire."
"I'm so very, very grateful," said Henson as she drove to work at the "Empire" set. "It's just so good to get love for what you do."
FULL COVERAGE: Emmy nominations
But her excitement was put on hold when informed by a Times reporter that "Empire," along with her leading man Terrence Howard, had been passed over.
"Really? I didn't even know…I don't know what to say," said a stunned Henson. "I can't do the show by myself. There are writers who are giving us these great story lines. It's just wrong. Terrence is my sparring partner. Cookie is nothing without Lucious. She is nothing without her family."
The omissions were among the Emmys' most surprising snubs—both "Empire" and Howard were considered almost sure bets for Emmy nods. After premiering in January, the show quickly became broadcast TV's hottest series, scoring both huge audiences and critical accolades during its record-setting 12-episode run.
The stormy love-hate relationship between Lucious Lyon, an ailing music mogul and his estranged wife Cookie, who are locked in a fierce battle for control of a massive music empire, is the driving force of "Empire." This isn't the first time Henson and Howard have faced each other on-screen: the two starred together in 2005's "Hustle & Flow," which earned Howard an Oscar nomination for best actor.
"That's why I try not to put too much stock in awards," Henson said. "What you expect and want to happen will hurt your feelings when it doesn't happen. Then you have to carry that around with you. I don't do my work for awards. My work is about touching people in a positive way."
Quelling her disappointment about "Empire" and Howard was the fact that she and Viola Davis ("How to Get Away with Murder") were both nominated in the lead actress in a drama category.
"History has already been made with two African American actresses being nominated," Henson said. "The both of us being nominated for lead actress means a great deal to me. That puts more importance on what's happened."
Her "Empire" nomination is a crowning achievement for the veteran actress, whose career spans more than a decade and includes roles in roles in "Baby Boy," CBS' "Person of Interest' and 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for which she received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.
But Cookie has been her breakthrough role, helping her earn an Entertainer of the Year at this year's NAACP Image Awards and a guest host gig on "Saturday Night Live." The adoration from fans has made it increasingly difficult for her to go out in public—she spent Tuesday, her day off, "on house arrest, bingeing on "Orange Is the New Black."
Henson is currently working on the second episode of the second season of "Empire," which ended its freshman run as the top-rated broadcast show among viewers 18 to 49. The series, which was created by Oscar nominee Lee Daniels and executive producer Danny Strong, set records, increasing its audience for 11 straight weeks, an unprecedented feat.
The upcoming season will have 18 episodes, split into two installments of uninterrupted runs—one starting in the fall and the other in the spring. Among the stars lined up for guest shots in the new season are Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Common, Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz.
VIDEO: Emmy contender chats
Many industry insiders and award watchers had predicted that Henson was a shoo-in for a nomination. She has invested Cookie with a larger-than-life ferocity fueled by withering wisecracks, streetwise bravado, smoldering sexuality and a closet of full-length furs and body-hugging outfits.
But for weeks, Henson said she has tried to distance herself from all the Emmy hype, which reached such a crescendo before the nomination announcements Wednesday that she turned off her phone.
"The phone was buzzing so much that I had to put it under my pillow," she said. "Everybody was saying, 'You know you're going to get it. Are you ready? What are you going to wear?' and I was telling everybody to calm down, we don't know what's going to happen.