Taraji P. Henson opened up to VOGUE about her “Empire” character Cookie Lyon, explaining her fashion choices, hip hop influences and her love for Lucious Lyon. More inside…
“The streets ain’t made for everybody, that’s why they made sidewalks.” –Cookie Lyon
Since the debut of “Empire”, tv viewers all over the country have been fascinated by Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon, a quick-witted street chick, fresh off of a 17 year-bid. From her love of animal prints and furs to the way she protects her son Jamal from curel people (or at least attempts to), Taraji (as Cookie) has clearly tapped into something that viewers love. We can all agree that her character is well on her way to becoming iconic. The ratings say so.
Taraji, who recently posed for the N0H8 campaign, talked to VOGUE about her character where she broke down how she developed her fashion sense, revealed her hip hop influences (Lil’ Kim, Salt N Pepa) and revealed how she hopes to see her develop throughout the show’s run. Here are the highlights:
What is it about Cookie that resonates with so many people?
I think it’s because she’s the truth; she speaks the truth. You know exactly what you’re going to get from her. She is what she is—I wish everybody was like that. She’s free, she’s in the now, she says exactly what she feels, and I know most people wish they could all be so bold. She’s the moral compass.
Were there people from hip-hop culture that you specifically referenced for Cookie?
She’s more than hip-hop: She’s everywoman, she’s a mother, she’s a family woman, a wife, a ride-or-die. She made a sacrifice to break the cycle of poverty, and that makes her an everywoman. Is she influenced by Foxy Brown? Certainly. That’s where a lot of her style comes from—Salt-N-Pepa, all of that. That era of hip-hop was her heyday, those are the woman she identifies with.
Lil’ Kim is surely a big influence on Cookie.
Kim is everything. Today it’s Nicki Minaj, but Nicki Minaj got everything from Kim. Kim came on the scene and made everything change for women—she made it feminine and sexy and hardcore. She was a champion, and she’s certainly Cookie’s champion.
Do you remember that time in hip-hop?
Absolutely, nineties hip-hop was my heyday—I was in my twenties. During the eighties and late seventies, when hip-hop first hit the scene, I was there. I’m a hip-hop baby, and I will never not listen to hip-hop. I’mma be one of those old heads still listening, one of those grandmas still hitting it and getting it. My mother knows the blues like I know hip-hop.
Your character’s relationship with her gay son, Jamal, is really beautiful. When Cookie defends him so passionately from his rejecting dad, where did those emotions come from?
Once a mother; always a mother. I’m a mother in real life, so I don’t have to act. When it’s time to protect our child, as parents, we feel our kid’s pain harder than they do. I tried to explain that to my son. The closest he came to understanding was through his relationship with our dog. He said, I feel that way about Willy. We carry them for nine months. I could only imagine having a child that a father rejects.
I feel like Lucious rejects him out of fear. When he puts Jamal in the trash can, he wanted to throw him away before the world threw him away. He wanted to hide his son from everyone—the ugliness of being a black gay male to the world. Fear will do anything, and Cookie understands the pain on both sides. Cookie is never going to hate her child for being who he is, but she fears for his life, too, because he’s gay and black. It’s deep.
Does Cookie trust Lucious?
Cookie loves him no matter what, because she knows he’s trying to do the right thing. He’s been an orphan since nine, so a lot of his actions are coming from that, having to survive in a really inhumane way, as a nine-year-old out on the street. I marvel at how he was able to do it. It’s how you look at it, and Cookie really knows him.
Are you and Cookie similar in any ways?
Some of it is me. I think with all of the characters I portray, there is a little bit of me. I have to pull from life experiences to make the words pop. With Cookie, I am a personality in real life, so we have that in common. But I don’t go flying off the handle in elevators. Like when she calls Jamal’s boyfriend La Cucaracha, or calls the cab driver a Pakistani. I don’t do that. I have the emotions in check.
Cookie has a lot of my dad’s character—the truth and the no-buffer. My dad was like that. I had to do a disclaimer before you met him. He don’t mean no harm, he’s just real, and that’s that. She did seventeen years in jail. What’s she gonna bite her tongue for? And that’s why people love her.
How does Cookie come to life?
Usually I’m asleep in the makeup chair, and when I wake up, I have the face and glam on. Then, they put the wig on and its like, Hey baby. It’s just her—it takes all of that to get in character.
Do you help pick the wardrobe?
Normally, they bring me a bunch of things and I pick what I like. I’m the one who has to sell it. It’s all about fit—if I put something on and I feel like Cookie in it, I’m feeling it. For the jewelry, they’ll dump a bunch of jewelry in my room and I just wear all of it.
What do you hope for Cookie’s character?
I hope that her seventeen years in jail weren’t in vain. I hope she really does become a major player in the company, because she knows what she’s doing. She’s smart enough to know how to go …read more