Taraji P. Henson, incomparable scene-stealer of Empire, knows Cookie Lyon better than anyone else, even the writers who created her (and most likely, even this woman). In an interview with Vulture — in advance of the second season premiere tonight — Henson said producers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong took her advice regarding Cookie’s backstory and encouraged to her improvise dialogue. As a result, Cookie reflects the deeper character she’d personally imagined after reading the show’s scripts:
The writers are very open to our input… I live with Cookie 24-7. They live with Cookie, Andre, all of them. I have to make everything they write make sense for Cookie. And sometimes that involves creating a backstory they didn’t see.
Henson’s strong connection to Cookie not only informs her performance, but motivates her as well. A veteran TV actress who spent four years co-starring on CBS procedural Person of Interest and multiple seasons on Boston Legal, Henson said the level of creative freedom she experiences on the Empire set is abnormal compared to her past TV roles.
We had this one scene [this season] where Cookie runs in with the law again, and [producer Danny Strong] tells me when she gets in the cop car she could yell out something like: “Black Lives Matter!” So I went to town. That’s why the show is so good: I’m telling you you do not get to do that on television…Sometimes, I literally don’t know what I’m going to say. They tell me, “Oh, you’ll come up with something.” It just comes out. I have no control over Cookie. Once I have on that hair and makeup, then it just takes over. It’s very therapeutic.
Her advice for producers is clear: a script is only part of the formula for bringing great characters to life. We can only hope that other showrunners shooting right now will take it.