Taraji P. Henson on ‘Empire’ and racial progression in Hollywood

Steven Pan for Glamour magazine
Glamour magazine

It’s no secret that Taraji P. Henson is at the top of her game. Not only does she star in Fox’s music-biz drama “Empire,” which demolished TV ratings with its debut season, but she’s a thriving example of how women can have it all: motherhood, a dream and a dollar…

As the new cover girl for Glamour magazine, Henson, aka Cookie Lyon, opened up about her controversial character, the barriers she hopes to break down and most recently her Emmy nomination. “[Before the nominations] everybody kept saying to me, ‘Have you cleaned your mantel off?’ I said, ‘Everybody chill.’ I knew the day was coming, but I didn’t watch the nominations. I was getting ready to go to work. The phone rang, and it was my manager. I was like, “OK, he’s clearly not calling with bad news,” she shares.

As for why she believes people so strongly connect to Cookie, Henson, who oddly enough went by the same moniker in college, says Lyon speaks to each individual’s inner doppleganger. “She is everybody’s alter ego. She crosses cultures. [Last year] we went to Paris and screened the pilot for a thousand people. Lee Daniels [the series’ co-creator] brought me onstage. The audience stood up on their feet and clapped. I cried because, for so long in Hollywood, I’ve been told that black women don’t do well overseas, that they can’t open a film overseas. That moment for me was the best moment of my life. That’s better than any trophy, any award, any nomination. You know how they say music can heal the world? I feel that way about art in general,” she says.

And while “Empire” tackles quite a few controversial topics including homosexuality and mental illness, it also has the largest African American cast in a network drama on TV… a sign (for some) of racial progress in Hollywood. However, it’s not Hollywood, but the world’s view on race and the stereotypes that plague the Black community that Henson is concerned about. “I think we are making strides in Hollywood. It’s the world that I’m more concerned about…. My son grew up in a pretty much all-white situation and went to the best of schools. I saw the change when he got older and started to get that life is different for him [as a black male]. He came home crying, like, “Why do white people hate us? Why can’t we fix this?” This can be fixed. I’m gonna try my best to make change,” she says of her desire to break down these barriers. And we couldn’t agree more…

Henson, 44, is a single mother from Washington, DC. She nabbed her breakthrough role in Baby Boy alongside longtime friend Tyrese Gibson (2001). Since then, she’s starred in Hustle & Flow, The Karate Kid, Date Night and Think Like A Man. In 2008, she played Queenie in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

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