Empire: Star Taraji P. Henson Discusses Working With Courtney Love and Timbaland On 2015’s Hottest New TV Show

In the US, Empire is 2015’s hottest new TV show, with over 23 million viewers tuning in to March’s Season One finale. Now E4 has snapped up the rights to the musical drama series created by Lee Daniels (The Butler) and Danny Strong (The Hunger Games – Mockingjay), giving British viewers the chance to discover why America’s become so obsessed.

Basically, there’s a lot to get obsessed about. The unapologetically soapy show centres on a fictional hip-hop music and entertainment company, Empire, owned by Terence Howard’s rapper-turned-mogul Lucious Lyon, who pits his three sons against one another to find a rightful heir after being diagnosed with a terminal degenerative disease that, obviously, he isn’t telling anyone about.

Taraji P. Henson, Oscar-nominated for her role opposite Brad Pitt in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, co-stars as his ex-wife Cookie, who’s recently been released from prison after doing 17 years for drug dealing. Cookie, who steals every scene with her shameless sass and garish glamour, wants desperately to rekindle her relationship with her sons – plus a chunk of the multinational company that her drug money helped to launch.

Throw in some impressive original music executive produced by Timbaland, guest appearances from Snoop Dogg, Rita Ora and Mary J. Blige, and Courtney Love in a recurring role as (ahem) a drug-addicted rock star on the comeback trail, and Empire is genuinely unmissable TV. NME met up with Taraji P. Henson recently to find out her take on the show’s success.

Why do you think US viewers have responded to the character of Cookie so much?

“She’s real. She’s 100% straight no chaser. I think she does and says the things that most people are afraid to do and say, so she’s pretty much everybody’s alter ego. I have women coming up to me saying, ‘I work with a Boo Boo Kitty [the nickname Cookie gives to her rival],’ or ‘I wish I had the guts to storm into a meeting the way Cookie does’. It seems like she’s become people’s hero.”

What did you think when you first opened the script?

“I was like, she’s gonna piss a lot of people off – either they’re gonna love her or hate her. But I figured more people would fall in love with her if I played the why she’s the way she is. If I just played her with attitude, snapping finger and rolling neck and getting mad all the time, people would have hated her because Cookie would have been a caricature, not a person. People are the way they are because of how they were raised and how they grew up – the backstory – and the more I delved into Cookie’s backstory, the more she became a multi-dimensional woman.”

How would you describe Cookie’s sense of style?

“Well, when she first gets out of jail, it’s a bit dated – she’s 17 years behind the curve! I pretty much have to call her ghetto fabulous. Towards the end of the season she classes it up a bit, but that early 90s style – Lil’ Kim and Mary J. with their furs and a whole bunch of jewellery – that’s always gonna be in her. Cookie came from the hood and when you come from the hood and then you get all this money, you wanna wear stuff that says ‘Look! I’m rich, I made it’.

When Cookie gets out of jail, are her musical tastes dated too?

“Um… one thing Cookie knows is talent, whether it’s Elle Dallas who’s a rock star, or her own son Jamal who’s a pop-R&B singer, or Tiana, who’s an up-and-coming girl singer. It doesn’t matter if she’s 17 years behind with what a beat is, when she hears a voice and sees a personality, she’s like, ‘I can make a star out of that person’. Cookie’s on the comeback trail and looking to prove herself by making stars, so it doesn’t matter what they sing as long as she can see their talent.”

Elle Dallas is played by the one and only Courtney Love. What was she like to work with?

“I love working with her! I cannot wait to do it again because we just had the most amazing time. She was like my sparring partner, that’s the best way I can put it. We did so much stuff in our scenes together that wasn’t scripted. When Elle falls over and starts yelling ‘I can sing, Cookie!’, that wasn’t scripted; nor was me grabbing her face and punching the wall. Because she’s so open, we were able to push that scene beyond its boundaries.”

Will she definitely be back for Season Two?

“I hope so, I’m championing her to come back!”

In the US, the show’s ratings literally grew week on week. Why do you think it’s become such a phenomenon?

“This show is something people have never seen on primetime network television before. We’re talking about things that people are afraid to talk about on primetime network television. This is basically a cable show without the [bad] language, but we don’t need to use that kind of language because people are getting our show anyway. The subject matter of the show, people have been sweeping this stuff under the carpet for decades, but we just went and lifted the carpet right up.”

The portrayal of the relationship between Lucious and his son Jamal, who’s gay, is especially powerful. We see Lucious being so unaccepting of Jamal’s sexuality, even though the rest of his family are completely cool with it.

“I knew we’d ruffle feathers with that storyline, but for me, that’s what art is supposed to do – it’s supposed to challenge you to think outside the box, and I knew this storyline was going to do that. Everybody knows someone gay. If you don’t know someone gay, you’re living on a desert island. Me being an arts student, I had a lot of friends who had issues coming out so that was something near and dear to me. I felt like I had to do this role because I’ve experienced situations where people were borderline suicidal because they were afraid their parents would reject them because of their sexuality. I think that’s another reason people love Cookie, because she’s like, ‘I don’t care what my son is, I don’t care if he’s got a horn growing out of his head, that’s my baby and you gonna treat him with some respect’.”

The flashback scene where Lucious catches a young Jamal wearing women’s shoes, then picks him up and puts him in the bin is totally harrowing.

“I’ve seen it a lot of times now, but every time I watch that scene I have to brace myself. I tweaked my ankle shooting that scene because as Cookie, I was trying to kick the life out of Lucious! It had to be put on ice. Because as a mother, Cookie turns into a bear trying to protect her little cub. But that scene actually happened to [the show’s co-creator] Lee Daniels, by the way, that was a slice of his life, and it was very hard for him to watch that.”

The music on the show, awesomely, was executive produced by Timbaland. Is he on set much?

“He comes every now and again. He has a producing partner, Jim Beanz, who’s pretty much in Chicago [where Empire is filmed] with the cast all the time. But Timbaland comes in and out and has a lot of say and does the final remixing of all the tracks. He is very hands on, but he’s not on set every day because he has so many other projects going on. Because he’s so busy, sometimes the guys have to fly down to Miami to record with him. He’s so brilliant at what he does, he’s like a Quincy Jones of today.”

The show has also become known for its guest stars from the world of music: Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Rita Ora and Gladys Knight all make cameo appearances in Season One. Who would you like to see guest star in Season Two?

“Musically? I would love to have Eminem, and I’d love to have Diana Ross on the show. Lee did mention to me, ‘What if she played Cookie’s mother?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God! Please can you make that happen!’ I mean, don’t you want to know what Cookie’s parents are like? We’ve seen her sister [in Season One] but not her parents yet. I want her to see more of that backstory in Season Two, and also what life was like for her in prison. 17 years is a long time, I mean, did Cookie have a girlfriend?”

Which of Cookie’s trademark one-liners do fans tend to quote back at you?

“Oh, ‘Boo boo Kitty’ and ‘Shut up Dora!’. They say ‘Shut up Dora!’ is the new ‘Bye Felicia’. A lot of those lines are ad libs, they just come straight off my head while shooting a scene. You’re never going to get the last line with Cookie! In that scene, [Jamal’s boyfriend] Raphael was butting into a conversation between Cookie and her son, so as soon as he did that, I just turned around and said ‘Shut up Dora!’ It was totally off the cuff, not scripted at all. The director yelled cut and the crew just hit the floor, they just screamed. But they look for me to come up with these zany lines now, although some of them don’t make the final cut. In the scene where there’s a stand-off between Cookie and Naomi Campbell’s character Camilla [who’s dating one of Cookie’s sons], I said to her, ‘I want some grand babies. But you got old dried up Benjamin Button eggs’. Sadly they couldn’t clear the Benjamin Button reference, which is crazy because I played Benjamin Button’s mother! But they left in the part about dried up eggs.”

Do you think British viewers will become as obsessed with Empire as American viewers are? It seems crazy that it’s taken so long for a UK channel to pick up the show.

“I think the hesitation came from the fact that it’s never been done. In Hollywood I’m always told: ‘Black shows don’t do well overseas, black women can’t open films overseas.’ But I’m like, ‘I have a whole shit load of fans overseas saying they love my work, so I don’t know what you’re talking about’. So I’m just really happy that we’re proving people wrong. If you give people good TV or good film, they’re gonna watch. I don’t go to the movies and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna watch a white film this weekend’ or ‘I’m gonna see a black film this weekend’. I see the trailer and think ‘Whoo! That looks good, I’m gonna see that!’. When you put labels on things – black this, black that – white people might think, ‘Oh, that show has nothing to do with me, that’s for the black people.’ But what I’m loving with this show is that I’m starting to hear the word ‘black’ less and less, because people are identifying with human issues, period.”

Empire begins this Tuesday (April 28) at 9pm on E4.