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The Tao Of Cookie: Behind The 'Empire' Character's Many-Layered Persona

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Taraji P. Henson's Cookie refuses to be marginalized or dismissed.

The hip-hop drama chronicling the ups and downs of record mogul Lucious Lyon and his family became the breakout hit of last year, and the breakout hit of the show was Taraji P. Henson's character, Cookie Lyon.

Cookie is the ex-wife of drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (portrayed by Terrence Howard), and the character is famous for speaking without a filter.

Just out of jail, she makes a beeline for her grown son Jamal's apartment. Jamal is gay and apparently, not the best housekeeper. After a long hug, Cookie looks around the loft and tells him, "For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place."

That is Cookie for you — loving and supportive, but still able to bring the truth.

Code Switch's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke to Empire writer Attica Locke about why Cookie seems to have struck a chord.

Interview Highlights

On why fans love Cookie so much

The number one reason is quite obvious: it's Taraji. I mean, she just embodies her in a way that I don't think anybody else could have done. And I know that Taraji, when she plays Cookie, says she's pulling from her father. She says her father was somebody in her life who would just say anything.

And I think Cookie is a part of all of us that just wants to say some wild stuff, but socialization tells us you can't just pop off at the mouth like that. So we kind of lock it down. But she doesn't have that — she has complete and total permission to say whatever comes into her head.

On Cookie's authentic voice

If you put a bunch of black people in a writer's room, and they're led by Lee Daniels, they're just going to say some stuff. The show is not concerned with the white gaze at all. We were playing inside baseball with black culture the whole time. And we were given free reign to do that, certainly by Lee, also by Ilene Chaiken, who is our executive producer, and by Fox. They let us be wholly and completely black.

And absent that white gaze, Cookie is free. There's just something to that. And there's something to the way the show does not privilege pedigree over what she brings to the table. Her type of humor, her type of wisdom, is being showcased in a way that I don't think we've seen in a black character on TV.

On why the character resonates with black women, especially

I think everybody knows a Cookie; she's your aunt, or she's your cousin, she's your great-aunt, your grandmother. Everybody has got that one black woman in their life who spoke the truth unapologetically, unabashedly and bravely. And I think that as we — black folk — go through our economic ascent in America, that stuff gets tamped down in the office.

There is such an excitement about the fact that someone can move across this publicly traded company talking like that, speaking that kind of true black woman wisdom and humor.

On Cookie's parenting style

We were writing season one last year when Ferguson jumped off. We had a keen sense that Cookie is aware of the world in which she's raising these three black boys, these three black men. And she takes complete ownership of them being safe and present in the world.

On how she'd describe Cookie in just a few words

Hot mess, excellent mother, fabulous dresser.

She's a hustler. People say things like, "Cookie ain't all right, but she ain't all wrong either." So she gets some stuff wrong but she gets some stuff dead on right.

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