There’s a reason why you always see Cookie in skin tight leopard print. “We’ve all decided that Cookie is an animal, so she wears a lot of prints,” Taraji P. Henson revealed. “She went away for 17 years, so she needs to be a little 17 years behind the fashion. So sometimes you get too much print.”
No, seriously. FOX got the cast and production crew Rolex watches to celebrate the show growing in ratings every week it airs.
Off camera, Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and the cast gather together as a family. “When we first started this venture together, we really hang out like a family,” Henson said. They even protect each other like a family, with the boys surrounding Henson whenever they’re out together.
Grace Gealy, who plays Anika Calhoun on Empire, does not find it easy to play an antagonist on national television.
Whenever I read in the script something that I wouldn’t do, I remember that when we expect perfection from our characters that mean that somewhere in our lives we’re expecting perfection,” she shared. “But when we can bring ourselves to have compassion and empathy for flawed characters and understand that we are always doing the best that we can with our given circumstances, then you can find some truth. That’s how I approach her.”
“I get letters from kids all the time, both homosexual and heterosexual, that say somehow Jamal made them understand themselves or the people around them a little bit more,” Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon) shared. “His story is actually pretty universal. None of us in the world have at least one point in our lives not felt as if we did not belong.”
“Jamal is a blessing to be able to play.,” Smollett added. “I wake up every single morning and I thank God, and then I thank Lee Daniels.”
Why is the chemistry between Lucious and Cookie so hot? “Because [Taraji and Terrence] never had sex,” Lee Daniels said. “We hang out with our kids together. We keep in touch through projects. This is really my friend in life,” Taraji P. Henson said of Howard. “That you can’t write. That you can’t make up.”
Terrence Howard agrees that he and Taraji P. Henson are just friends, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to be more. “The friendship comes from being brutally honest,” Howard said. “She was brutally honest from the first time I tried to sleep with her to the last time I tried to sleep with her. That just keeps a brother on his toes.”
During a Skype conversation, Taraji P. Henson told Lee Daniels she wouldn’t be part of the show without Terrence Howard as the lead.
“I said ‘You ain’t even got the job yet!'” remembers Daniels, who was considering someone else for the part. “I turned to Danny and I said, ‘Danny, I think we found our Cookie!'”
Taraji P. Henson really gets into character. Before shooting Empire, she had a script reading with Terrence Howard to test their chemistry. “And Taraji’s idea of a chemistry read is to slap the sh-t out you,” Terrence revealed. “She slapped me so hard, I had a handprint on my face for a month.” To be fair, it was in the script.
Empire‘s success is credited to its ability to appeal to a diverse audience. “They understood subject matter,” Taraji P. Henson said. “They understood humans just going through life, love, hate, and loss. That has no color. For me, that’s what I was hoping that this show would do. Martin Luther King we made it to the mountaintop!”
Co-creator Danny Strong used a Shakespeare play to help shape the story of the Lyon’s hip-hop empire. “I thought, ‘Well, how do I do hip-hop?’ And then I thought, ‘King Lear,'” Strong said. “And I thought about the line in ‘Winter’ and I just started coming up with these ideas. Then I thought, well I should just call Lee Daniels.” And the rest is history.
Did you know that Empire is being produced by the same man behind the Academy Award winning movie 8 Mile? Executive Producer Brian Grazer (right) helped bring 8 Mile, American Gangster, and now Empire to life.
If you’ve ever watched The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son or Good Times, you’ve seen the work of legendary sitcom creator Norman Lear. Lee Daniels says that when creating Empire, he was inspired by Lear. “When Danny (Strong) created this, we really wanted to do a throwback to Norman Lear’s work,” Daniels says. “Through humor we are able to feel pain.”
Trai Byers’ character Andre Lyon is the only family member who isn’t musical on the show. But it turns out he can actually sing in real life. He serenade the audience with a powerful yet brief rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.”
“This cast is amazing. You come to the set, [Terrence Howard] will be playing the piano, Malik Yoba will grab the guitar. Singing, rapping, the entire cast is very musically inclined,” Taraji P. Henson said.
But you might have to wait for Season 2 to hear her solo. (Wink!)
The whole cast became superstars over night after Empire premiered. Bryshere Gray (Hakeem Lyon) can’t go to the store to get cereal without a fan yelling his name. “I’m walking through the store and I hear ‘HAKEEM! I don’t like what you did to Cookie!’ And I’m like, I’m just trying to get some food!” Gray said.
“I really hate television, because I’ve always felt trapped in a little box, literally speaking. You gotta stick to the words exactly like this,” Taraji P. Henson confessed. “[But Empire] is a place where you can be as creative as you want to be. And you can be as inhibited and that’s what art is supposed to be: unrestrained, unrestricted, free.” Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and the cast are encouraged to be themselves and stray from the script on Empire.
Lee Daniels and Taraji P. Henson both take pride in the large number of women of color working behind the scenes on Empire. Daniels called Empire executive producer Ilene Chaikin “The Show Runner.”
“But I think what’s more important than people of color working behind the scenes, is the people of character that’s working behind the scenes,” Terrence Howard added.
“We were on a plane coming back from shooting in Chicago. We were all sleep on the plane. Then this producer, we’re landing, and he goes ‘Guys! Congratulations! You got picked up for Season 2!’ We walked off the plane with a little more swagger,” Taraji P. Henson shared.
Lee Daniels revealed that he’s looking to see less opulence on the upcoming season of Empire.
“I’d like to see us go back into the ghetto,” he said. “We’re dealing with the opulence of being rich but how are the streets thumping right now. I want to go back into the streets so people can see what poverty is like right now.”
Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Kanye West are just a few of the names that were thrown out as potential guest stars for Season 2 of Empire. Catch the Season 1 finale Wednesday at 8pm on FOX.