There are only four episodes left to get caught up on what has been the surprise hit of the 2014-15 TV season: “Empire.”
New shows — especially those that launch as mid-season replacements — tend to start hot and then cool off.
“Empire” is only getting hotter each week. The Feb. 25 episode marked the seventh consecutive week that ratings increased. More than 13.8 million people tuned in against a competitive night that included the season launch of “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” on CBS.
The show has gained almost four million viewers since the program launched Jan. 7. FOX executives have noticed and already ordered a second season.
What’s drawing viewers is the most back-stabbing, sex-filled, industry-shaking stories since J. R. Ewing sent the oil business into a tizzy in “Dallas.” “Empire” is a prime-time soap opera set to a killer hip-hop beat from executive producer Lee Daniels.
Part of the appeal of the show has been the glitz and glamor. But, the real power comes from one source: Taraji P. Henson.
The Oscar-nominated actress has appeared on several TV series, the most recent being “Person of Interest,” but no role has come close to this one. Her Cookie Lyon is part Lady Macbeth and part Joan Collins. That makes her the last person on Earth you want mad at you.
Henson sees Cookie as a mother bear whose sole instinct is to protect her family. It might seem like Cookie has some anger issues after being in prison, but she’s playing the character with pure love in her heart.
“Everything she does is for her boys, is for her family. She went away for 17 years for her family. She did not snitch. She could have, but she didn’t. So it’s always coming from a place of love and then everything after that,” Henson says.
Whether it’s love, hate or a mix of both, Cookie has become the break-out character of the year. It’s the most unique role for Henson since she played Shug in “Hustle & Flow” a decade ago.
Roles like Cookie are exciting for, who doesn’t ever want to do safe work.
“Art imitates life. Art can save a life. Art can change a life, and I think that’s why everybody signed on to do this project, because they saw the bigger picture. They saw how many lives we could affect with telling the truth,” Henson says. “Initially, when I read the script, it scared the life out of me. I was like, we’re going to piss a lot of people off. They can either either love her or hate her, and there was a fear that was rising up inside of me.
“Whenever that happens, I don’t run. I’m pretty tough, and I don’t like to bow down to fear because I’m living my life choosing faith, and they can’t coexist. So you either have to live in faith or fear.”
Part of her inspiration for Cookie comes from her father. Henson says he was the kind of man that people either loved or hated because he always spoke the truth. A lot of the one-liners Cookie says are actually things her father would say.
Playing Cookie pushes Henson because she is outlandish. Henson feels so comfortable and connected with the character that she can defend her actions to anyone.
“I can defend anything she ever says because, at the end of the day, it is coming from a place of love, and it’s coming from a real place for her. She’s not loud just for the sake of being loud. When a person is the way she is, there’s a reason why,” Henson says. “I have had to be careful in how I portray her and handle her. Everything that I say out of my mouth has to be coming from a place of reality, a place of somewhere real for Cookie. Once I understood that, saw the bigger picture, I got kind of excited.”
Viewers are equally excited. At least right now, the sun is not going to set on FOX’s “Empire.”