In the lavish world of Fox’s musical drama ‘Empire,’ Cookie’s a treat

SHARE In the lavish world of Fox’s musical drama ‘Empire,’ Cookie’s a treat

Fancy furniture. A grand piano. Flamboyant art work. Animal print. Bling to spare.

The sexy, tricked-out Cinespace Chicago soundstages of Fox’s new midseason drama “Empire” couldn’t be more different than the blue-collar backdrops for “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Sirens” — the other TV series filming at the North Lawndale studio.

“Stylistically we want to do something that’s very glamorous,” said director Rob Hardy in between takes for episode 10, shot in late December.

The show about a dying music mogul looking for an heir to his empire debuts at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WFLD-Channel 32.

“It’s the music industry,” Hardy added about the do-rags-to-riches tale co-created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (“The Butler”). “We want to make it look very cinematic. We want the colors to be rich. We want the angles to be wide and sweeping, so you can feel like you’re living in the mansions. Because you’re going in and out of these musical numbers, we want the camera to move so it feels like you’re at the party, you’re at the club.”

If the rest of the series is anything like the pilot, this is one party you don’t want to miss. Stocked with talent on both sides of the camera, “Empire” is a sudsy soap, a family-centric drama that mines the excess-prone music industry for a slew of compelling storylines, from homophobia in the hip-hop world to the cutthroat business of cutting a record.


‘EMPIRE’ When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays Where: WFLD-Channel 32 Rating: [s3r star=3/4]


Chicago-born Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) plays fearsome patriarch Lucious Lyon, who has to decide which of his three very different sons will inherit his legacy — an empire built on the back of his tell-it-like-it-is ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, “Person of Interest”).

Think “Dynasty” meets “King Lear” set to the thumping beats of Timbaland.

Like “Glee” and country music-minded “Nashville,” the show presents songs that can be snapped up on iTunes after episodes air.

“It’s some of the best music you’ll hear, especially on television,” said actor-singer Jussie Smollett, who plays Lucious’ gay middle son, a musical prodigy who shies away from the spotlight.

Trai Byers (“Selma”) is the Wharton-educated eldest child with a brain for business, while network TV newcomer Bryshere Gray is the spoiled baby of the bunch.

“I’m the out-of-control one,” said Gray, aka rapper Yazz the Greatest.

A long list of guest stars includes Gabourey Sidibe, Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Judd Nelson.

But it’s Cookie who steals the show. She’s a commanding presence who rattles off zingers like the Dowager Countess on “Downton Abbey.”

“She’s the truth,” Henson said about her character. We meet Cookie as she’s getting out of prison after 17 years behind bars.

The scene was shot at Cook County Jail. The entire 12-episode season is filmed in Chicago, but the show is set in New York and Philadelphia, where Cookie and Lucious were drug dealers back in the day. She took the fall so her husband could get off the hook, shoot to fame and give their three boys a better life.

“I grew up in the ’hood,” said the actress who got an Academy Award nod for her work in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008). “I understand being in the situation where you feel like [drug dealing] is the only hope for your family. Is it good what they did? No. Selling drugs is not a good thing. But what they did was they broke a cycle. They have three sons who don’t know what the ’hood is.”

Another cycle that’s being broken on TV: the absence of African-American women in lead roles on broadcast television.

“It’s changed tremendously,” said Henson, who was cast on CBS’ “Person of Interest” in 2011. “Later that season Kerry [Washington] came on with ‘Scandal.’ Now we have Viola [Davis, ‘How To Get Away With Murder’], Octavia [Spencer in ‘Red Band Society,’ pulled off the Fox schedule last month], Alfre Woodard [‘State of Affairs’]. It’s an explosion.”

While “Empire” is one of the few series on network TV with a primarily black cast, Henson doesn’t want people to think of it that way.

“My hope is people won’t look at it as an African-American show,” she said. “When you label things, it makes others feel like, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’

“Everybody understands love,” she added. “Everybody understands pain. They understand death. What you have here is a very rich family that happens to be black. You get to watch the dysfunction of what money can do to you. That’s what this story is about.”





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