Taraji P. Henson: Talking Cookie, and the Impact of ‘Hidden Figures’

Courtesy of The New York Times

If you love Taraji P. Henson as the music executive Cookie Lyon in the Fox drama “Empire” or as the mathematician Katherine Johnson in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” savor those performances, because you likely won’t see anything like them again.

“I don’t like to repeat characters,” Ms. Henson said. “I’m an artist to the bone.”

“Hidden Figures,” the real-life story about three African-American women working for NASA during the space race, was a fixture on the awards-season circuit. “Empire,” in its third hit season, returns to Fox on March 22 and has become appointment television in an age of binge-watching. Later this month, Ms. Henson begins production on the movie “Proud Mary,” in which she plays an assassin who discovers a maternal instinct.

Mathematician. Music executive. Assassin. What else is on her wish list?

“I would love to be a Marvel superhero,” she said. “I’m dying to get into some comedy. I think I’m a stronger comedic actress than a dramatic actress. You guys just fell for the drama side.”

In a telephone interview from Chicago, where she is shooting “Empire,” Ms. Henson, 46, discussed Cookie’s future and more. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Bringing the real-life Ms. Johnson onstage during the Oscars was quite a moment.

It was a proud moment. It was beautiful to be a part of bringing her out to get her just due. But at the same time, she’s confused, she doesn’t know why she’s getting all this attention because in her mind she was just going to work — that’s the most beautiful part of it. She’s like, “What’s all the fuss?”

“Hidden Figures” helped inspire a larger conversation about African-American women onscreen.

I think Hollywood sees that there are interesting stories that we haven’t heard before — that was one of a million. We were all very serious about doing it justice. That movie was bigger than any of us.

In the “Empire” midseason finale, Cookie helped stage an intervention for her son Jamal [Jussie Smollett]. Moments later, she discovers that her new beau, Angelo [Taye Diggs], may have a checkered past of his own. Where will we see Cookie’s character going next?

You’ll see her put on her business hat. She can’t pop off like she used to, so it’s about containing herself. But there are times when she’s pushed. She’s consistently fighting for her family.

On some level, isn’t she also fighting for herself?

I don’t think it’s for her at all. If it is for her, it is the joy of watching her fruition come to life — all her effort and things that she wants for her boys, her family. That’s what she’s fighting for at the core.

You’ve worked with Terrence Howard [who plays her ex-husband, Lucious Lyon] before — much of that electric rapport is scripted?

A lot of it is just me and Terrence. The producers and writers let us go, because when it’s natural, you can’t write it. They give us the skeleton, the bones, some of the meat. We add the gravy, the stuff that makes it taste better.

What’s the best “gravy” you’ve added?

Her one-line zingers. They won’t call the character Anika; they call her “Boo Boo Kitty.” That was just an ad-lib from the first season that’s carried over. That’s the one everyone remembers.

That creative freedom must be great.

Yeah. That’s the only reason why I went back to TV.

Cookie has made up for a lot of lost ground since returning home from a long prison sentence. What hasn’t she done yet that you would like to see her do?

I would like her to really, finally find love. Isn’t that what every woman wants? Someone that gets her and is going to love her for who she is.

Well, Angelo seems to be trying to nurture a relationship with her.

As long as Lucious is in love with that woman, you know what is going to happen.