Fox’s Empire is the water-cooler hit of 2015. The series, a dramatic update of King Lear that centers on three brothers competing for control over their father’s record label, racked up a little more than eleven million viewers for the last episode, making it the network’s highest-rated show in years. Many of those fans (or at least the fans in our office) are tuning in to see one character: Cookie, the unflinching matriarch played with nerve (and lots of animal print) by Taraji P. Henson.
Newly released after seventeen years in prison, Cookie is one part Mae West, one part Lil’ Kim. She talks trash, wears her skirts short, and tosses off one-liners as hilarious as they are cringe-worthy. She has a soft side, too, and her alliance with her gay son, Jamal, who was rejected by her ex-husband Lucious (played by Terrence Howard) because of his sexuality, is a tender storyline in a series packed with big, boisterous moments. We reached Henson by phone in Chicago, where she’s filming the series, to ask her how she brings the electric character to life.
What is it about Cookie that resonates with so many people?
I think it’s because she’s the truth; she speaks the truth. You know exactly what you’re going to get from her. She is what she is—I wish everybody was like that. She’s free, she’s in the now, she says exactly what she feels, and I know most people wish they could all be so bold. She’s the moral compass.
Were there people from hip-hop culture that you specifically referenced for Cookie?
She’s more than hip-hop: She’s everywoman, she’s a mother, she’s a family woman, a wife, a ride-or-die. She made a sacrifice to break the cycle of poverty, and that makes her an everywoman. Is she influenced by Foxy Brown? Certainly. That’s where a lot of her style comes from—Salt-N-Pepa, all of that. That era of hip-hop was her heyday, those are the woman she identifies with.
Lil’ Kim is surely a big influence on Cookie.
Kim is everything. Today it’s Nicki Minaj, but Nicki Minaj got everything from Kim. Kim came on the scene and made everything change for women—she made it feminine and sexy and hardcore. She was a champion, and she’s certainly Cookie’s champion.
Do you remember that time in hip-hop?
Absolutely, nineties hip-hop was my heyday—I was in my twenties. During the eighties and late seventies, when hip-hop first hit the scene, I was there. I’m a hip-hop baby, and I will never not listen to hip-hop. I’mma be one of those old heads still listening, one of those grandmas still hitting it and getting it. My mother knows the blues like I know hip-hop.
Your character’s relationship with her gay son, Jamal, is really beautiful. When Cookie defends him so passionately from his rejecting dad, where did those emotions come from?
Once a mother; always a mother. I’m a mother in real life, so I don’t have to act. When it’s time to protect our child, as parents, we feel our kid’s pain harder than they do. I tried to explain that to my son. The closest he came to understanding was through his relationship with our dog. He said, I feel that way about Willy. We carry them for nine months. I could only imagine having a child that a father rejects.
I feel like Lucious rejects him out of fear. When he puts Jamal in the trash can, he wanted to throw him away before the world threw him away. He wanted to hide his son from everyone—the ugliness of being a black gay male to the world. Fear will do anything, and Cookie understands the pain on both sides. Cookie is never going to hate her child for being who he is, but she fears for his life, too, because he’s gay and black. It’s deep.
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