Danny Moloshok/Reuters
'Empire' stars Taraji P. Henson.

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.

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.

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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