Taraji P Henson. Picture: Supplied
When we meet the Lyons family in season four of Empire, Lucious’s memory has still been affected by the explosion in Las Vegas. 

He doesn’t even remember how much he and Cookie annoy each other. But what is in store for the rest of the season? In this interview, that is exactly what we find out from Lee Daniels (creator, writer and executive producer), Taraji P Henson (who plays Cookie Lyon), Terrence Howard (Lucious Lyon) and Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon).

There was a fight between Cookie and Lucious in season three, and the director has said the scene was supposed to end with the two having sex. Taraji and Terrence, you lobbied to change that because you felt strongly they shouldn’t have sex then. Why?

Taraji P Henson: As a woman, I felt that the power would be lost if she’d had sex with him. You get to a place where love is so deep that sex can’t even help it. And that’s a young way of communicating with your significant other. Cookie’s trying to evolve. 

She really loves this man. She just snapped and destroyed the entire empire, and then to get to that peak of passion, it just felt like it was taking a stronger stance to walk away.

The cast of Empire Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray, Trai Byers and Taraji P Henson. Picture: Supplied

I think a lot of women in relationships can understand that moment when you know you need to walk away. Because things happen with women when you have sex with men - oxytocin flows, that’s why you’re getting connected. 

Cookie’s had three sons, she’s served 17 years in jail, so there’s no time to play now - she’s protecting herself. That’s why I fought hard for that - I just thought it was a stronger choice. We have many years to deal with this couple, and it’s a very complex relationship.

Lee, what’s it like when actors come to you with such requests?

Lee Daniels: The actors know the characters as well as we do at this point. And when they come to us, most times they’re right, so we work with them.

Can you talk about Forest Whitaker’s role as Lucious’s old mentor Uncle Eddie in season four, and what it means to have him join the show?

Lee Daniels: We are so honoured to have him be a part of the show. It’s like home because we worked together on The Butler - Terrence, him and I - and it just felt right. He’s respected and adds credibility and a new dimension to our show.

Terrence Howard: Forest has been a mentor to me in my own personal life. 

The role I played in Crash was initially Forest’s role - Forest had stepped out to do his directorial debut and recommended that I come and play that character. And so for him to be a mentor of mine on this show one of the things we haven’t seen with Lucious is who his past friends are.

For me, to tap into someone with integrity and backbone as an actor, that’s one of the things you want when you consider yourself a serious actor - to have someone to sharpen your teeth against.

That’s why me and Taraji have such a wonderful chemistry. Somebody is always going: “Only one person is going to take the frame at the end of the day.” It keeps the competition up, it keeps the integrity of our work up.

So being able to work with somebody like Forest, I don’t know who’s going to take the frame at the end of the day, and that’s a blessing for me and for the audience as a whole. It raises what we’re doing on the show.

Taraji P Henson: I’m not competing with you, Terrence.

Terrence Howard: I’m competing with you! (laughs)

How much do you hear from fans about what they want from the show, and how much do you try to feel that out and respond?

Lee Daniels: The fans know the truth, and you listen to your fans. They’ll tell us if they don’t like something. They’re very clear, they’re very loud and when they’re unhappy, we know.

Jussie Smollett: I’m a cast member, but I’m also genuinely a fan of the show. So I listen to the fans. I’ll be the first one to call Lee and be, like, “Lee, the streets are talking.” And he listens. He’ll be, like, “What are the streets saying?”

Terrence and Taraji, you are brilliant together on screen. Where does that chemistry between you or your characters come from, and do you see them ever reconciling?

Terrence Howard: What happened that day with us deciding not to do a love scene, it was because this is such a drawn-out thing. If you make love right away, you can say goodbye to the relationship.

There a scene at the end of Bunkie’s funeral when I'm supposed to back Taraji up into the coffin. Well, this monster wouldn’t back up - she holds her ground no matter what, so we end up having our war right there.

And that’s the beautiful thing about being with a really brilliant actor. Joe Frazier did his best work with (Muhammad) Ali. I hope that we will always have this.

Taraji P Henson: I just knew what these characters needed. Obviously, these two have a friendship first - they fell in love when they were really young, so when I got the script, I knew it had to be somebody I trusted as an artist. And in life we’re friends. If you see us, people will always call us Cookie and Lucious, but that’s us in life. This is my guy here. And I knew I needed this.

The cast of Empire Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray, Trai Byers. Picture: Supplied

However many years this show goes, that’s a long time to spend with a person, and with the complicated places these characters have to go, I could not see doing it without him. It was a no-brainer for me.

I think that’s a big part of the success (of the show), because when you talk about Empire, that’s who you think about - Mamma Bear and Papa Bear. So yeah, absolutely, in real life that’s how we are. It only helps the characters.

* Empire is on Fox every Thursday at 9pm.

IOL