A month ago, no one knew who Cookie Lyon was.
Four episodes into Fox’s new smash hit series “Empire,” and Cookie has blossomed into one of the hottest, buzziest characters on TV.
“It’s really a Cookie craze,” said Taraji P. Henson, the Oscar-nominated actress who plays the wisecracking, broomstick-wielding, swagger-to-spare ex-con and ex-wife of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) on the hip-hop drama filmed in Chicago.
“There are pictures of babies dressed up like Cookie,” she added during a recent interview at the TV critics’ winter press tour in Pasadena, California. “Women are getting their Cookie costumes ready for Halloween already. It’s unreal.”
Twitter will tell you fans can’t get enough of the strong, outspoken matriarch, but Henson wasn’t always convinced there’d be an appetite for Cookie.
“When I read the script, it scared the life out of me,” said the former “Person of Interest” star, whose character doesn’t bat an eye when she tells her gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), that his Hispanic boyfriend — “La Cucaracha” — should clean their apartment, which was pretty messy “for a queen.”
“I was like, ‘We’re going to piss a lot of people off,’ ” Henson said. “Cookie — they can 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.”
Henson soon grew to understand the character: She’s a tough Cookie, with a soft center.
“I know who Cookie is,” she said. “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. And so I’ve 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.”
Henson, who walked on to “The Tonight Show” to the Roots playing the Empire Carpet jingle, draws from an eclectic mix of people when she channels Cookie. There’s a bit of Bette Davis. (“One of my favorites,” Henson said.) Some of Diahann Carroll’s character on the ’80s soap, “Dynasty,” an inspiration for the Fox sudsfest. And a lot of her real-life father.
“My dad was like Cookie,” Henson said. “You either loved him or you hated him. He spoke the truth all the time. He lived in the present.”
Even some of Cookie’s sharp tongue can be traced back to Henson’s dad, who once asked his daughter why her hair smelled like “goat ass,” a phrase Cookie used to describe the scent of a scalp that’s spent years covered in a full head weave.
“A lot of those one-liners are things that my father said,” she said, adding that her dad was right; her hair smelled because she hadn’t washed it in two weeks.
“Empire” co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong heard Henson use “goat ass” in rehearsal and immediately added it to the script.
“Ninety percent of the incredible lines that Taraji is saying, Lee and Danny have written, and then Taraji likes to dip it in gravy a little bit,” said Henson’s co-star, Howard.
Added Henson: “I like gravy.”
“Empire” airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on WFLD-Channel 32.