Empire star Taraji P. Henson on saying goodbye to Cookie: 'She gave me a second life in this industry'

Derek Lawrence
With the Jussie Smollett drama seemingly behind them, the team behind this show is focused on crafting its final season — one that will pick back up with the unknown future of troubled couple Lucious and Cookie.  Sept. 24, 9 p.m., FOX

“Lot of drama coming your way, just like Empire is known to do,” Taraji P. Henson tells EW of Empire’s sixth and final season. Ain’t that the truth.

After five seasons of betrayals, deaths, and even a ghost wife, the drama went to new levels earlier this year when what started as an alleged homophobic and racial attack on star Jussie Smollett took more twists and turns than an Empire story line. Smollett was eventually arrested for filing a false police report (the charges have since been dismissed), leading to his removal from season 5’s final two episodes and co-creator Lee Daniels definitively saying the 37-year-old actor won’t return. His character Jamal’s absence will be explained by him moving to London with his new husband.

“We miss him immensely,” Henson says of her TV son, whom she’d “absolutely” love to see back. “As a mother in real life, as a mother in television, I lost one of my babies — and that hurts.”

But with the Smollett situation seemingly behind them, the Empire cast and creative team are now focused on crafting a “big and dynamic” conclusion. “This is the end of a great legacy” says Henson, who is annoyed by any suggestion that the series was canceled. “Everybody is putting their best foot forward to bring it down with a bang.”

And with Cookie refusing to go on the run with Lucious (Terrence Howard) in the season 5 finale, Henson says it’s finally time for her character to “save herself and love herself,” which means breaking away from Empire and “making her own way.”

“Everything has been about doing something for her family, for her husband, for her sons — when has Cookie ever done anything for her?” Henson says. So, following up on Cookie’s growing social media popularity, she’s the newest host on a The View-type show called The Tea Talk. “You can imagine the claws that are tossed back and forth,” Henson says with a laugh. But the Cookie and Lucious relationship is no laughing matter, with Henson saying of the troubled couple: “The love is not lost, but the romance is.”

While the Lyons’ future might still be unknown, Henson is sure of one thing (other than the “baaaaad shopping habit” that the character gave her). “Cookie has meant so much to me,” she says. “She gave me a second life in this industry and made me a pop star in my 40s. Cookie was a movement. Long after I’m gone, people will be talking about Cookie.”

Empire returns Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.

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