Empire premiered last season to high ratings and massive buzz, due in no small part to TV’s most jaw-droppingly outrageous character, Cookie Lyon. Newly released from jail after taking the rap on a drug charge for her record mogul husband Lucious (Terrence Howard), she has no filter, suffers no fools and will do just about anything to protect her sons and reclaim her share of the empire.

Taraji P. Henson, who first landed on Hollywood’s radar 14 years ago in Baby Boy and went on to star in Hustle & Flow (with Howard), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Think Like a Man movies and TV’s Person of Interest, has become a bona fide star in her best role to date, which earned her an Emmy nomination and has creator Lee Daniels talking about a spinoff focusing on Cookie’s family.

Empire’s second season kicks off Wednesday at 9/8c with Lucious behind bars and Cookie angling for a hostile takeover, and later launching her own label. Henson hints at what’s ahead and talks about her newly high-profile life (alas, no more trips to Target) in this straight-talking conversation.

“Fans call me Cookie and it’s like, ‘That’s not my name.’ It’s funny. People really think that I’m her.”

Why has Cookie hit such a nerve?
I think she is everybody’s spirit animal or their alter ego. She lives in truth. If we lived in a world where people weren’t afraid to live their truth, I think it would be a better place. We’re so busy trying to be politically correct, and one thing Cookie is not, is politically correct. She says it like it is. We’ve been taught as society to manipulate the truth. We hear the question and we manipulate it. Cookie does none of that.

How much of Cookie is Cookie, and how much is Taraji?
I would say that probably 80 percent is Cookie and maybe 20 percent is Taraji. Every character that I portray, I bring a little bit of my life and experience to it. I’m not as bold as she is. I have to be politically correct in what I say. She can fly off the handle and say whatever she wants to. I, however, cannot, because people will quote me and then I’ll have to answer to it.

Are you enjoying all the attention?
I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I’m not a spring chicken. I’m grown. My kid is grown now, 21, so I’m kind of relaxed in it. It’s just odd because I can’t do things that I used to do, like go to Target. I love going to Super Target. I love going to Marshall’s or Ross, just like I love going to Rodeo Drive. I still love TJ Maxx—bargains–but it’s really difficult for me to do that now. I have to go like at a really weird hour and I have to dress like a Unabomber.

Have you read any scenes in the script that shocked you?
Yeah, I’m, like, “You really want me to say that?” I think in order for us to challenge the audience, we have to be challenged. We have to be challenged with taking a risk of telling the truth. She’s bold. She doesn’t bite her tongue. She’s uncompromising. She’s going to call it like she sees it. She’s not safe. You don’t know what’s going to come flying out of her mouth. You know, primetime network television has been so safe for so long. I think that’s why Empire has had the impact that it has had, because it’s almost like the cable formula. We can’t say certain words but Cookie can certainly say it with a look, and you know what she means. I’m just always blown away by the stories that they come up with. It’s always challenging me as an artist, to tell the truth and not be afraid of it.

She almost killed Lucious last season.
Yeah, but she’s not really a killer. I don’t think she could ever pull herself to kill the love of her life. She still needs him. She has three sons that need their father.


Do you think she’s a good role model?
I think she’s a good role model as far as being who you are and not apologizing for your journey in life. No one’s perfect. At the end of the day, some people might judge her because she sells drugs, but guess what, when minimum wage is five dollars an hour and you’ve got three mouths to feed, sometimes that McDonald’s check ain’t going to cut it. So she did what any human did, she survived. She got caught. She served her time. She survived it. She didn’t lose herself. She came out. She didn’t miss a beat. So that’s to be commended,

What’s ahead for Cookie this season?
We’re going to see more of her backstory, maybe what that 17 years was like in prison. We’ll start to delve into a lot of more flashbacks. Two men are coming my way. I’m going to live vicariously through her. Her fashion, she was in jail and came out a little behind the curve, but the second season, wow! We’re getting so much love from fashion houses—Moschino, Balmain, Chanel, you name it. I always go into my wardrobe fittings thinking I want to keep it all, but then after wearing it for a few days it’s like, “okay, I’m over it.”

What’s the best thing about the role?
The writing is so rich.  It’s all on the page. I really just show up and they put me in the hair and makeup and then I have this incredible material to work with. I’m having the time of my life.

Have you had any strange encounters with fans? Do they expect Cookie when they meet you?
They call me Cookie and it’s like, “That’s not my name.” It’s funny. People really think that I’m her. I get sent random pictures of people dressing their pets up like Cookie or their babies, people dressed up like Cookie.

Have you spoken to your young co-stars about handling fame and success?
I had a conversation with Yazz (Bryshere Gray) about saving his money, not believing your own hype. I’m constantly checking in on them because, you know, when you’re on that set, that set life kind of bleeds into your life.  And because we film in Chicago, we have become a family. I don’t know anybody in Chicago. So they’re constantly over at my house. I cook for them. They’re really like my sons. So I’m constantly checking in on them, making sure their head is right and they’re not getting lost in this thing called Hollywood.

Are you glad this is happening for you at a time when you’re older and established?
Oh, absolutely, because I’m an adult now and I’m not caught up in the hype. I know not to believe the hype.

Lead photo by Christopher Fragapane/Fox
Second photo by Michael Lavine/Fox