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Here’s the Real Reason Why Taraji P. Henson Almost Turned Down Empire

10 minute read

Lee Daniels’ breakout hip-hop drama Empire (Wednesdays on Fox) draws more than 10 million people a week — thanks in large part to Taraji P. Henson. The actress plays Cookie, the scene-stealing ex-wife of a gangster-turned-record-exec (Terrence Howard) who’s coming for her share of the company after finishing a 17-year prison stint — that is, when she’s not hurling shoes and giving other characters a vicious tongue-lashing.

TIME caught up with the actress to talk about Cookie’s already-iconic style, her shadiest insults and the show’s take on political correctness.

TIME: Empire‘s huge ratings have risen steadily since its premiere, which is incredibly rare. Why do you think that is?
It’s making people think, making people upset, making people talk, and I don’t think you’ve had a show like this on primetime network television in a long time. This feels like a cable network show, but you get to watch it for free!

What are people most upset about?
Barack Obama.

You mean the scene in which one of Cookie’s sons calls Obama a sellout during a drunken rant?
It was to prove a point about how reckless young kids are nowadays. Some of them are out of control! They don’t understand hard work — what it took for that man to get in office. But people get so offended! It’s art, baby! People out there think like that. I’m sure our president doesn’t believe everyone in the world likes him. I’m not stupid enough to believe that about myself.

What’s it like playing a character who’s so not politically correct?
I like it! “Politically correct” is really BS. It’s not the truth. You’re forming it in the way so that you don’t offend anybody. Well, I’d rather deal with the truth. Tell me what it is. I’d rather know if you like me or not, for whatever reasons. Then I know what I’m dealing with!

Putting a character like Cookie on TV isn’t necessarily an endorsement of everything she says or does, either.
I think people get Cookie. She’s not a malicious person. She’s just real. She shoots straight from the hip, and I think the majority of people really respect that and like that and look up to it. Nine times out of 10 she’s right! It’s not like she’s flailing off at the mouth and saying dumb stuff.

People are saying Cookie is the Halloween costume of 2015 already.
Let me tell you something, they have been tweeting me pictures of the babies in Cookie swag. The women have already started getting ready. It’s like a Cookie craze. Terrence said, “You became an icon in two weeks.”

Which outfits do you wish you could take home?
All her stuff I want to take home because all of it is very expensive.

Even the animal prints?
As long as it fits and looks good and makes me feel like a woman, I’m all about it.

Cookie must be fun to play, but is it a challenge to make sure you don’t go too over-the-top?
I always have to rein her in. The writers are so excited because I’m so uninhibited — they write really big. I make a conscious effort to sit on it. What happens if you play her big all the time? Then she becomes a stereotype and no one cares.

Cookie drops some of the shadiest insults on TV. What’s your favorite?
Oh honey, there’s so much shade to come. So far, it’s booboo kitty. That’s like saying bitch without saying it. That’s the best shade you could throw right there.

What makes it good shade?
Somebody not sharp enough or not savvy enough might think, “Aww, she called me booboo kitty!” No, sweetie, that’s actually not what I called you.

Do you come up with your own insults?
Booboo kitty was mine. “Shut up, Dora!” was mine. I didn’t even think they would let me use it. I just ad-libbed it for the scene. Lee was like, “No, no, keep it! Say it every take!” They’re saying “Shut up, Dora!” is the new “Bye, Felicia.”

How much do you improvise?
I mean, I have Cookie. You can’t out-Cookie me. I know who this woman is. Terrence said it best: “Taraji will take what the writers write, and then she will take and dip it in some extra-special gravy sauce.”

When you play such an intimidating character, do people get scared of you on set?
Sometimes, but I am such a bubbly person between takes making everybody feel welcome. If there’s a scene where I really have to slice someone with the tongue and go off — because sometimes I black out and just go — then I’ll come and hug the person. “You know it’s just Cookie, it’s not me! Let me buy you a drink.”

So she’s your alter ego in a way.
She totally is my alter ego. She’s my Sasha Fierce to Beyoncé. You’re absolutely right.

My editor says I bring up Beyoncé too much in interviews, so thank you for sneaking her in.
Why not bring up Beyoncé? Shit, all hail the queen.

Terrence’s character says music saved his life. When did music help you through a hard time?
All of Mary J. Blige’s songs got me through every heartbreak. All of them. If it wasn’t for Mary J., I would probably be in a padded room. She speaks right to your soul, right to your heart.

This show has a lot to say about the state of the music industry. Do you even buy CDs anymore?
I download on iTunes because it’s so convenient. I Shazam everywhere. I could be anywhere. I’ll be in an Italian restaurant like, “What’s that?” I’ll Shazam it and download it right away. I do still collect wax.

What are you listening to these days?
I’m always concerned about what the young hip-hop kids have to say. What is their message, what are they talking about. Right who has my ear is J. Cole and a kid out of Brooklyn, Joey Bada$$. He’s so young, but he has such an old school hip-hop flavor about him.

Did you see the photo of Malia Obama wearing his group’s shirt?
I did! I was like, “Well I know she’s not on the ‘Gram, so how did that happen?”

He thinks his phone has been tapped.
It probably has now!

Why did you almost turn down Empire?
When I read the script, Terrence Howard wasn’t cast. I initially thought me and Terrence Howard. If it couldn’t be Terrence Howard, I didn’t want to do it. That’s why I almost turned it down. I just felt like I would have served the project better with my choice of leading man. Thank God they listened to me!

Sounds like a Cookie move.
That’s what Lee Daniels said. “She just Cookie’d me!”

Some articles suggested you were concerned about the homophobia storyline.
That didn’t play into my hesitation at all. In fact, that’s what made me want to do it. I hadn’t seen the subject matter addressed in our in-your-face let’s-talk-about-this manner. I welcome that part. That didn’t scare me. It was the president [comment]! That scared me. I also didn’t know how people would respond to Cookie. She’s so real and raw, and people like that you either hate or love. There’s really no middle ground because she acts 100 all the time, and some people can’t deal with that. At the end of the day, my job as the artist is to make them understand her. That’s why it’s important I dont play her big all the time. Like I said, if she’s a stereotype, no one cares. If you show why people are the way they are, people will have more compassion for that person.

Were you nervous about using a gay slur in one episode?
No! I have a lot a gay friends, okay? I was the art kid! I’m a drag queen, basically. So I understood that word, and I understood Cookie’s use of it. It wasn’t a term for gay at all. If anything, she was calling Lucious that, and that’s how I played it. I never played it like I’m using the F-bomb to degrade gay people. That was shade. That was total shade to Lucious. I also ad-libbed “Pretty hair, bitch, I see your son gets it from you,” but they cut it.

Before this show, you were content with not going back to TV. Why?
Just being stuck playing one character. When I did Person of Interest, I went in there not wanting to do a whole seven — you know, you sign for season sevens if it gets picked up and goes that long. I was really hesitant of doing that because I love to do film. When you get on a show that shoots for nine months out of the year, when am I going to have a chance to do a movie? That was always my concern. With this show I am not only getting a breakthrough character, I’m also getting an amazing schedule because we only shoot five months out of the year.

What about Empire lured you back?
The character, the script, the cast, the company. I mean, the producers! The fact that Fox was willing to take a chance and push the envelope. Being a part of great change, and being a part of history, really. We’re breaking records. This is something I felt all along when I read the script: “This is something special.” It was the same feeling when I read Hustle and Flow, and the exact same feeling when I read Benjamin Button. I think I’m dead on with my instincts. What do you think?

I’d say so. But you’re not worried about getting bored of Cookie in a couple of years?
I don’t think you can get tired of Cookie. The wardrobe is always fresh, the hair is constantly changing, she’s always evolving. She’s been away for 17 years. There’s a lot she needs to catch up on. She’s going to change a lot.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com