Taraji P. Henson

Theory henley; J Brand jeans; (from left) Hearts On Fire bracelet, Chopard bracelet, Hearts On Fire bracelet.

Photographer: Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott
Stylist: Edward Enninful

When the director, producer, and provocateur Lee Daniels asked Taraji P. Henson if she was interested in playing Cookie Lyon, the outrageous, captivating, and highly theatrical ex-wife of the hip-hop mogul at the center of Empire, his outrageous, captivating, and highly theatrical dynasticmelodrama on Fox, her answer was a flat-out no. Daniels and Henson had met once before: She had auditioned for his award-winning 2009 film Precious, about a 350-pound black teenager who is HIV-positive and pregnant by her father for the second time. “Lee wanted me for the thin, pretty teacher in Precious,” Henson told me in late spring, with her usual mix of confidence and enthusiasm. She was wearing a short blue romper that showed off her great legs and made her seem much younger than her age (44). “And I was like, ‘Well, I want to play Precious—because that’s the role in this piece.’ Lee thought I was nuts. I was like, ‘Look, they turned Charlize Theron into a monster! I could be this girl!’ When I think about that now, it was such a Cookie move.”

Daniels turned Henson down, but he remembered her. Unlike a lot of directors or producers, Daniels is fueled by profound self-invention, and his characters are extensions of himself. On Empire, his DNA is in Lucious Lyon, the strong-headed father/kingpin; in Jamal, the musically talented gay son; even in Andre, the oldest child/businessman with the severe bipolar condition. But Daniels is, most of all, one with Cookie: Her extremes are his extremes—from her fierce persistence to her outspoken honesty to her love of peacock fashion and attention. Like Cookie, Daniels loves to be the center of his (often crazy) worlds.

Originally, Empire was pitched as a movie to him by Danny Strong, the screenwriter of The Butler, Daniels’s 2013 hit film about the life of the head servant to seven presidents. Daniels, who started his career as a producer (Monster’s Ball, his 2001 drama about bigotry and interracial love, won Halle Berry an Oscar for her performance), was intrigued by Empire but saw it more as a TV show, along the lines of popular ’80s series like Dallas and Dynasty. In the past, the idea of segueing from a successful movie career to one in television would have been considered risky, if not a total mistake. But TV today, from the creative talent inventing the programs to the stars acting in them, is a kind of mecca. The parts, especially for women, are more complicated and diverse than in the superhero-saturated cinema. Unlike studio films, which are usually very expensive and geared to a global (read: male) audience, television can afford to be quirkier. On TV, there are real housewives, killer zombies, and Silicon Valley nerds. In considering Empire, that kind of fluidity greatly appealed to Daniels. “And I wanted to finally make some money,” he told me. “You don’t make any money doing independent films, even if they get nominated for the Oscars and the world says you’re a genius. Doesn’t pay the bills.”

Daniels knew that casting Cookie was crucial to the success of Empire, so he persuaded Henson to audition. “I was like, This is stupid,” recalled Henson, who had just left CBS’s successful Person of Interest and wanted to return to her first love, theater. “Hip-hop—dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. But then I started to think, Cookie is going to piss so many people off! She hits her son with a broom; she talks back. Clearly, this was a challenge.”

During her audition—a Skype session with Daniels, who was in Japan—Henson insisted that the Academy Award–nominated actor Terrence Howard play Lucious Lyon, Cookie’s ex. Henson had worked with Howard in 2005’s Hustle & Flow, in which he played a pimp who dreams of becoming a rap star, and she, one of his prostitutes. At the Academy Awards, Henson performed the film’s Oscar winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” “I sang that in front of my peers,” Henson said. “It was both amazing and embarrassing. But I think the song won for the same reason that people love Cookie. It was about coming from nothing, having goals, and going after them.” She paused. “And it was extreme. People love extremes.”

When Henson demanded that Daniels hire Howard, Daniels remembered thinking, “This bitch just Cookied me! So I made them do a screen test to see if they had chemistry.” Henson, to her credit, put her ego aside and played along. “If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on Cookie. Or, they would have missed out on me, honey.” She laughed. “You can see my head growing!”

In truth, there is no Empire without Henson. From the first episode, where Cookie emerges from a 17-year prison stint in a three-quarter-length white fur coat over a skintight jaguar-print mini, she is instantly riveting. And that’s before she even opens her mouth. Cookie is the queen of the hilarious put-down: When she tries to get rid of Lucious’s new fiancée, she quips, “If you want Cookie’s nookie, ditch the bitch.” Then there’s the episode in which she beats an artist on their label in a drinking contest, throws her legs in the air in the backseat of an SUV, and seduces her newest love interest with the order “Take these cookies!”

Cookie, as embodied by Henson, has become the reigning heroine of 2015. She’s maternal, sexy, honest, and always up for a cat fight. Largely because of Cookie, Empire is the season’s No. 1 broadcast series with adults 18 to 49 and has unseated The Big Bang Theory. More than 17 million viewers watched the season finale, a bizarre mash-up of revealed secrets, attempted murder, quasi-incestuous sex, and a sudden plot twist involving an incurable disease, which prompted 2.4 million tweets in the space of two hours. The audience must like the speed of the plot contrivances—the show’s ratings have increased steadily by the week, as has its viewership online. The show’s soundtrack was No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. And Henson, who in June won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for best actress in a drama series, has 3.49 million followers on Twitter alone. “They want Cookie,” Henson declared. “They see her heart. They see her intentions. And they love her style—her style is 17 years behind the fashion curve, which makes the clothes a character on the show. As Cookie grows, you’ll see her fashion grow. And people love that—she’s a work in progress. The only thing that never changes is her spirit: To me, Cookie is living, breathing, walking truth.”

Nevertheless, Henson has attracted a lot of criticism, especially from the black community, which feels Cookie is not a proper role model. “When I hear that Cookie is a bad representation of black women, I don’t get involved. Maybe Cookie makes you uncomfortable because she reminds you of yourself. People miss the bigger picture when they start judging.”

In real life, Henson has similarities to her character. She grew up in a working-class family in Washington, D.C., and, from the age of 5, she knew she wanted to be an actress. After a failed foray into electrical engineering (“It sounded like I was going to make a lot of money”), Henson majored in theater at Howard University. During her junior year, she became pregnant. When her son was still a toddler, they moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue acting. “It was a struggle,” Henson remembered. “But my son grew as my career grew. I never had a nanny—I did TV so I could be home with him. I wasn’t making my millions, but I was able to fulfill my dreams and be a mother.”

After Hustle & Flow, she was asked to read for the part of Queenie, the adopted mother of a man who ages backward, in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “I didn’t take it seriously,” Henson told me. “I mean, they had Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt—why would they want me? I thought it was a runaround, and I decided to hold an epic garage sale that day instead. I had mannequins. I had glasses with wig heads. I had champagne ready. And then my agent called and said, ‘Shut that garage door! Fincher wants to see you.’” She got the part and was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress. “I lost, but it was the best time of my life,” Henson declared. “Brad and Angelina rushed up to me and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I was like, ‘Yes! Can I get some more wine?!’ They were more concerned about my name not being called than I was.”

After the high of Benjamin Button, Henson expected a surge in feature-film parts, but it was not to be. “Not only would I never be offered a character like Cookie in a movie, but she doesn’t exist,” Henson said. “Cookie is bold and crazy, and she loves the struggle. She started from nothing, and now she’s at the top. In that way, we’re alike: Cookie is the American Dream.”

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Hair by Shay Ashual at Tim Howard Management; makeup by Yadim for Maybelline; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Essie at Celestine Agency. Produced by Across Media Productions. L.A. Production by LOLA Production. Digital Technicians: Niccolo Paccilli, Jeronimo De moraes. Photography Assistants: Matt Easton, Sinclair Jaspard Mandy. Fashion Assistants: Ryann Foulke, Dena Giannini, Sam Walker, Tina Huynh. Hair Assistant: Taichi Saito. Makeup Assistants: Mondo Leon, Marisol Garcia.