67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals Just how does Taraji P. Henson feel about the opportunity to play "Empire's" unfiltered, no-nonsense, survive-at-all-costs and oh-so-quotable character Cookie Lyon? Her answer's as direct as the role: "I'm having the time of my life!"

Henson's "Empire" success is the current culmination of a much-admired 15-year career in Hollywood that's included a breakout turn in "Hustle & Flow," an Oscar nomination for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," top-grossing comedies like "Think Like a Man," and a TV hit with "Person of Interest."

But very little comes close to the chord she touched with her portrayal of Cookie, who launched the Lyon brood's hip-hop dynasty and paid a hefty price with nearly two decades in jail, only to return with a vengeance as the scheming and sublimely attired family matriarch, becoming 2015's most buzzed-about new TV character in the space of 12 episodes. "I would say that probably 80 percent is Cookie and maybe 20 percent is Taraji," says Henson. "I mean, 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."

It's that brash and outspoken nature -– a form of genuineness -– that's key to Cookie's appeal, says the actress. "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," Henson explains. "Primetime network television has been so safe for so long. And I think that's why 'Empire' has had the impact that it has had, because it's almost like the cable formula -– we're just not using the words. We can't say certain words but Cookie can certainly say it with a look, and you know what she means."

At the Television Critics Association press tour, the Emmy-nominated actress joined a small group of journalists to share her thoughts on the show-stopping character creator Lee Daniels has called "a hood version of Mama Rose from Gypsy," along with a glimpse ahead at the pot Cookie's stirring. [Spoilers ahead if you're not caught up!]

Were you, Taraji, rooting for Cookie to actually do in Lucious at the end of Season One?

Taraji P. Henson: Yeah, but I knew she's not a killer. Even though the one time she did make a mistake and had someone killed, it was a mistake. And she didn't do it. She's not really a killer. I don't think she could ever pull herself to kill the love of her life basically. She still needs him. She has three sons that need their father.

Why do you think the Cookie phenomenon has gotten so huge?

I think she is everybody's spirit animal, or their alter ego. She lives in truth. I mean, I know if we lived in a world with people that just weren't afraid to live their truth, that they get to be in a better place. We're so busy trying to run around and be politically correct, and what is that? So Cookie -– one thing she is not is politically correct. And people, you get asked a question, and the first thing that comes to mind is the truth. But we've been taught as a society, to manipulate the truth. So we breathe. We hear the question. Then we manipulate it. Cookie does none of that.

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 sold 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 gonnna cut it. So she did what any human did. She survived. She got caught. She served her time. But she survived that. Seventeen years in prison with animals, she survived it. She didn't lose herself. She came out. She didn't miss a beat. So that's to be commended.

Does she give you an outlet to say things you want to?

Absolutely. 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.

Are you surprised by which lines people respond to and start quoting?

No, because I have the reaction from the crew, who are just like beer-drinking guys, regular family guys. So when they yell, "Cut!" and I have them laughing or them saying, like, "Oh my God!" then I know it's going to be a hit. They're like the regular guys.

Did you have any fun fan encounters since the show premiered?

No, I just get random pictures of people dressing their pets up like Cookie, or their babies. People dressed up like Cookie.

Speaking of wardrobe, what do you love about her fashion, and what can we see going forward?

I love the fact that you're just going to get to see it grow. Think about it: she was in jail for 17 years -– a little rusty; came out a little behind the curveball of fashion. But second season -– wow! We're getting so much love from fashion houses, that it's, like, crazy! [laughs]

Can you name a few?

Moschino, Balmain, Chanel -– you name it, we got it, Cookie wears it! [laughs]

Do you get to keep anything?

You know what? I always go into my wardrobe fittings like, "I want to keep it all." But then after you wear it for a few days, it's like, "Okay. I'm over it."

So if Cookie's only 20 percent you, what happens when you meet people, and the expectation is that you are Cookie?

Usually, they hit me, "Hey, girl!" I'm like, "Ow -– don't touch me!" And they call me Cookie. And it's like, "That's not my name." Yeah, it's funny. People really think that I'm her. Like I'm not a fur girl. I'm a PETA girl. I don't wear fur. So a lot of things -– like selling drugs. I think selling drugs is a horrible thing! I'm not trying to go to prison [laughs].

What was your personal favorite moment from Season One?

Geez Louise, there's so many! I'm getting confused because there's so many incredible moments this season. I think my favorite moment was when I had to drink the lean with the fellas. And I told Malcolm to take the cookies because that was all ad‑libbed. It was a lot of fun.

What excites you the most about the new season?

Her fashion. I can't say it enough. I wish I could show you some things, but I can't. 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 more flashbacks.

She's getting a love interest--

Yeah, two are coming my way. I'm going live vicariously through her.

How does all the attention from your performance feel, at this point in your career?

I've been doing it for a long time, so I'm not a spring chicken. I'm grown. My kid is grown now. And so I'm kind of relaxed in it. It's just odd because I can't do things that I used to do like Target. I love going to Super Target. I love going to Marshalls or Ross. Just like I love going to Rodeo Drive, I still love T.J. Maxx, bargains. I love it. And it's really difficult for me to do that. Or I have to go like at a really weird hour, and I have to dress like a Unabomber.

Is it better that it's happening now?

Absolutely, because I'm an adult now. And I'm not caught up in the hype. Like, I know not to believe the hype.
categories Interviews, Tv News