Clique x Cookie (Taraji P. Henson)
We met Taraji Henson, the star of Empire during her visit to Paris for the festival Series Mania. She chatted to us about her journey, her background, her relationship to her character Cookie from the series Empire and her feelings about the USA today.
The main similarity between the actor and her character is that they have both been through a lot; from her high school years where she missed out on getting into drama school, to her first course in the dramatic arts that she undertook while pregnant and continuing to work as an actor. Taraji’s path is riddled with detours.
“I know what it’s like to be rejected. And so what, it doesn’t kill you!”
We ask her if it is simple to say such a thing while struggling in life. She responds, “pretty much”.
“I come from a blue collar family. Everyone got up and went to work. They worked hard”, she says. “My mother comes from the South, my father was a sharecropper. We lived in a two bedroom house with 8 children.”
She talked to us about how her mother came from nothing. Once she had moved to the North, she worked in department stores, labeling products. She then worked her way up and by the end of her career, had her own office and employees working directly for her.
“I am a direct descendent of Matthew Henson who discovered the North Pole. His blood runs in my veins, that is what has made me so strong.”
This is what pushed her to persevere with acting:
“I come from nothing. What did I have to lose?”
Taraji was discovered by the world in 2005 when the film Hustle and Flow was nominated for an Oscar in the category “Best original Song” for “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp” that she sang with Terrence Howard – who would later become her co-actor in the series Empire:
It was quite uncomfortable to be singing about pimps and whores in front of my peers. People that I look up to, you know, Meryl Streep…” (she laughs). “It was one of those amazing moments where I felt like I was dreaming.”
Straight after the Oscars, unrest returns to her life, bringing with it difficult times. “Then it was time to deal with his death”, she explains. She evokes memories of her father with emotion. He had predicted that she would one day become a great actor, from when she was only a child. A premonition he evokes with her while on his deathbed:
“My father looked off into the distance and he said to me ‘this is nothing, you’re going to be a sensation.”
Ten years later, with the arrival of Empire, this premonition seems to finally have come true.
“Empire killed your name”, we told her. “You are no longer Taraji, now you are Cookie!”
“Cookie, I hate her! She stole my identity. Even my friends only want to talk about Cookie.”
“And I have such a beautiful name!”, she laughs. If the series has had such an incredible success, it is because there is something in it for everyone: “we are the proof that you cannot underestimate your audience. You give them good TV, with a good cast and they will watch”.
“Right now they are making it about black people. Hire a bunch of black people! They are totally missing the point.”
She didn’t want to do the series without Terrence Howard who plays the role of Lucious Lyon, her ex-husband in the series. She jokes:
“Terrence owes me at least half of his salary!”
We ask her if the moment where she shows off here backside was really improvised.
“I knew that I was gonna do it, but I didn’t tell anybody.”
She explains that she was inspired to do it by the scene where Boo Boo Kitty (the nickname that Cookie gives to Lucious, her ex’s current girlfriend) shows her behind as if to say “hey, this is what young looks like”.
“And I said to myself: ‘Ok then sweet hot cheeks, I’ll show you what a real butt looks like, a woman’s butt’.”
Taraji insists on the feeling of freedom on set that brings all the actors together. “Everyone gets along and there is good material”.
“It’s an actors playground. It’s like a dream come true.”
“I never thought I’d be doing this on television. Film maybe but television, no way.”
We ask her if Foxy Brown is the original Cookie. “Hey I’ll give it to her” she says. “I think that everyone has a little bit of Cookie in them, that is why the show is so popular.” When we say that Cookie also reminds us of the rapper Lil Kim, she says that that is normal:
“Lil Kim is my inspiration for Cookie”.
“When Cookie went to prison she idolized Lil Kim. When she came out she was total Lil Kim.”
Her top 5 rappers list includes: Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Kendrick, Eminem and Easy-E, “because he showed us the boys in the hood, he taught us about the boys in the hood”.
With regard to the enormous success of Empire, what does she have to say about today’s America?
“People want to see society as it really is: reality. This is exactly what Empire does.”