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Taraji P. Henson's 'Empire' character 'says things that I might not have the guts to say'

Henson stars with Terrence Howard on the Fox drama 'Empire,' which centers on a family running an entertainment business. 'She doesn't compromise at all,' Henson said of her character Cookie.

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    'Empire' stars Taraji P. Henson.
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Taraji P. Henson is driving down an LA street, chatting on her cellphone, when a billboard catches her eye.

"Hi, me! Hiiii!" she says, smiling at her latest on-screen incarnation: glamorous ex-con Cookie in "Empire," which premieres on Fox at 9 p.m. EST on Jan. 7.

Draped in fabulous furs and drenched in attitude, Henson's Cookie is the heart of the Fox drama, a fiercely devoted mother and astute businesswoman who is fearless when it comes to getting what she wants. Her sometimes-reluctant partner is Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a music mogul deciding which of their three sons should run the family's entertainment empire.

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Henson has seen her face on billboards before, with dozens of film credits (including 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," for which she earned a supporting actress Oscar nod) and popular TV series such as "Person of Interest" to her name.

"Sometimes I forget, you know what I mean?" she says. "I just go on about my day, and look up and go, 'That's right, I do have a TV show coming out!'"

The 44-year-old actress pulled over to talk with The Associated Press about the new show and the empire that is Taraji P. Henson.

AP: Who is Cookie?

Henson: She is a hero. I mean, she is the truth. She is strong. She's family first. She's a lot of things. She doesn't compromise at all – never herself, and never her truth. That's what I love about her... She says things that I might not have the guts to say. I love the way she dresses. I love how much she cares about her sons.

AP: How is it working with Terrence Howard again, your old pal from "Hustle & Flow"?

Henson: I just know that I really like working with Terrence. I trust him. And for me as an artist – acting, you really have to be uninhibited. You cannot have any hang-ups. Or if you do, they can't breathe and live through these characters, because their hang-ups aren't your hang-ups. So for me in order to fully explore characters without throwing Taraji in the mix, I have to feel safe... And with Terrence, I'm so safe with him, I can try anything... We're friends. We've known each other, so it really works for Cookie and Lucious. When they came to me with the project, I said, it has to be Terrence. When I cracked open the script, I saw no one but Terrence.

AP: What's most challenging to you as an actress right now?

Henson: Challenging is getting what I think I deserve to be paid. (It's) challenging to get the projects I want done or greenlit. I'm still having to prove I'm bankable. But I think it's getting better! I'm not one to wallow in the muck and say how bad. I don't harp on how bad things are... My thing is to prove each and every time I'm on the screen – whether it's TV, whether it's film, whether it's the stage — Taraji is going to deliver. So when I do get that moment – cause it's coming, I work too hard – when I do get that moment, that perfect movie comes along and some studio is going to say, 'I believe in her.' Not me and a man. Not me and another guy, no. Taraji P. Henson is going to open this film. Then I know that I'm doing my job.

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