On the way to the bathroom of the Empire set you’ll pass it. A jail cell – a touch bigger than the usual 6 by 8 feet – plonked in the middle of a large sound stage. Inside there are three photos stuck on one of the walls. A closer look reveals one of which is a woman holding a baby, with a man sitting next to her and two small boys on either side. It’s a picture we saw briefly, in a cell we saw briefly, on the first season of the hit TV series. It’s the cell where one of the most formidable characters on TV today was made. And it’s a cell Cookie Lyon, played by the inimitable Taraji P Henson, will be returning to again during the second season.
“I asked for it,” says the Oscar-nominated actress, on her character’s return to prison. It won’t happen literally, but rather in the form of flashbacks that will show more about what happened to the matriarch of the Lyon family, who was sent to prison because she took the wrap for her husband’s (played by Terrence Howard) drug misdemeanours.
“I wanted to know what happened to Cookie; how was she able to keep it together and not break? How was she able to come out of there, get her family back together and become a citizen that’s contributing to society. You know, she pays taxes now. Who walks out of jail after 17 years, able to pay taxes – and a millionaire? Who does that??” she asks, her arms flapping the white feathers of the top she’s wearing. It’s paired with jeans, but it still gives Henson a bit of a flamboyant flair, not unlike her character who has become notorious for donning velvet and leopard prints.
But it’s from Henson’s own cupboard – bought from Top Shop. The 45-year-old actress explains viewers will see a bit of Cookie stripped down this season, as the audience gets to learn more about her backstory. “What drove her? What kept her alive in those walls for all that time? I’m interested in knowing that. And I think that’s why people love her so much and give her a past. Because she represents humanity. America. The dream. I [Cookie] had nothing. Basically, I started ‘from the bottom now I’m here.’”
Henson believes its Cookie’s tenacity that endears her. “She could have made all the excuses in the world. But no. What she did – and I think that’s why people are so drawn to this show, crazy as it is, is what her and Lucious were able to do – was take all the negatives and turn them into positives. Their sons won’t be statistics; they won’t know poverty. They are millionaires. They came out of the projects. A lot of people didn’t make it out. Now – did they do it the old natural, you know, good American way? Kinda sorta,” she cackles – the spirit of Cookie ever close the surface of bubbling over.
Henson also admits she’s been “obsessing and binge-watching” a lot of Orange is the New Black – a show that too has gained acclaim for pushing boundaries of what’s possible in this new TV-watching landscape. Which means we’ll be seeing a lot more of the “real” Cookie, including removing her hair. “Oh, I go there!” she says. “Absolutely. I went there. It’s one that I’m so nervous, because we really went there. The madness of it all. Being in a cage. I read that script and saw I gotta take the wig off. I was worried, but I thought, ‘ohhh, okay, you asked for this.’ “
For the most part, the show won’t alter the formula that’s worked so far – Cookie’s stinging one-liners, music that charts before the episode is over, big-name cameo appearances. But there are a few changes. Among them, fellow Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe is now a full-time cast member, after her character Becky was promoted by Lucious before he went to prison, from assistant to head of A&R. “She’s no longer getting people tea and making other people’s phone-calls,” says Sidibe, flipping her hair. “She’s making her own calls.” Sidibe says her character wants to be Lucious, the owner of a major record label, even though she has no claim to the throne. A mini-Cookie in the making? Time, and future episodes will tell.
And the music?
For Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal, the pressure to make Season 2 a hit is real. “It’s like when Michael made Off the Wall, and then went on to make Thriller. This is our Thriller, “ he says, referring to Michael Jackson who has had a major impact on the actor-singer’s song-writing. Smollett, who wrote Season 1, Billboard charting-trackYou’re So Beautiful for real-life bestie Gabourey Sidibe, won’t reveal who has inspired songs for the new season, but he will say he’s growing musically, as his own career develops alongside that of Jamal’s. “The cool thing is that people really want to work with all of us now,” he says. “Before, we had to lay a pavement and prove we were legit. Now we really have been embraced by the music industry.” The second season will see producers like Swiss Beatz and Ne-Yo be involved in the soundtrack. “Terrence [Howard] too, is writing and producing a lot,” says Smollett. “It’s cool to see.” Add in Bryshere Y Gray collaborating with Ne-Yo and Swizz Beatz and yeah, it should be very cool to see.
Empire airs on the Fox Network in the US on Wednesdays and in South Africa on the Fox Channel on DSTV, Thursdays at 9pm.