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‘Empire’ Boss on Cookie’s Dinner Scene: ‘The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown Down’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead if you have not seen the Oct. 7 episode of “Empire.”

Now that Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is out of jail, the war between Empire and Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) new record label, Lyon Dynasty, is on.

If the dramatic dinner scene was any indication of what Cookie has up her gold-embellished sleeve, Lyon Dynasty isn’t going anywhere anytime soon — even though Lucious stole Valentina (Becky G) from Hakeem and the label. “The gauntlet has been thrown down and that conflict will only intensify,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety of the feuding family.

Wednesday night’s episode also welcomed guest star Pitbull, who performed as himself, and exec music producer Timbaland, who also made a cameo, marking the first time his voice was heard on a track (“Bout to Blow,” which was performed by Timbaland and Hakeem and co-written by the producer and Bryshere Gray). Kelly Rowland also returned as Lucious’ “abusive” mother in a deeply moving flashback.

Here, Chaiken sheds more light on Lucious’ mother and his conflicting relationships with his three sons. She also teases what’s to come with Valentina, Freda (Bre-Z) and Anika (Grace Gealey). The showrunner also shares a behind-the-scenes story from that dinner table moment.

Let’s talk about that dinner scene. How did the idea come about for Cookie to pull the runner off the table?
In season one, episode six, there’s a very memorable scene in which Cookie turns up at the restaurant and she thinks that she’s there for a hookup with Lucious and it turns out he’s announcing his engagement to Anika and she’s wearing a fur coat with nothing but sexy lingerie underneath. Originally, as scripted, she turned over the table. At the time, we thought, “This is maybe too much — there’s so much happening in this scene that Cookie doesn’t need to actually turn over the table.” And I was just worried that Taraji would feel like we’re just pushing her too far because this was during the era of Cookie barging into offices and all that so we just pulled it back. A little later, we were doing an event and Taraji said to me, “But I do want to turn over a table one day.” So there you have it. And now, she came up with this fabulous moment to end the scene, which I think was unbeatable.

That moment at the dinner table was so Cookie and fun to watch, but also very reflective of Empire vs. Lyon Dynasty. How bad will it get between Lucious and Cookie?
That dinner scene, that’s the declaration of war. Hence forward, it’s on. There will be strikes and counter-strikes and escalations.

So there’s no turning back with Lyon Dynasty? Cookie and Hakeem are sticking by their record label.
Yes. They both are passionate, each for his or her own reason. They both have a lot to prove. Hakeem really feels passed over — his entire life objective is to prove to everyone, even his mother, who’s now his partner, that Lucious chose the wrong son, and that he’s been overlooked and underestimated. It’s an incredible arc of growth and determination for him. Cookie came back to get what’s hers and had the rug pulled out from under her just like she pulled that runner from Lucious’ table. She’s done this once and she’s now going to build her own. I think she believes that with great conviction.

Not only did Lucious get dissed in his own home, but also at his own party. He looked deeply upset when Hakeem came out on stage at his party.
He does. It enrages him. And beyond that, Lucious isn’t a man who likes to be humiliated in any way, and if there’s ever a way to make Lucious Lyon more dangerous, it’s to shine a light on him in public in that way.

Lucious makes a comment in the episode that Hakeem will come back to Empire. Does he still want him back or does he feel betrayed since he’s left for Lyon Dynasty?
He wants his family under his control and he wants to own Hakeem. I think in his heart, he’s always believed in his talent and needed to teach him a lesson, but really still wants that artist and that son to be under his own thumb so he can make him into the artist and man that he thinks he ought to be.

Lucious’ relationship with Andre is also not at a high point right now. What should we take away from their sad scene together?
We’re beginning to learn about Lucious Lyon — his childhood, his past, what made him who he is, the damage. We’re getting new insight into the damage that might have made this man that certainly has some of the qualities of a sociopath, and also certainly some fine characters. We’re learning that in a way that we never have before. Lucious Lyon had a mother who was mentally ill. That’s something that his family doesn’t know and, in particular, Andre doesn’t know. The audience is learning ahead of Andre. It’s incredibly meaningful to Andre’s character and identity, as well.

How did Lucious’ mother (Kelly Rowland) shape him into the man he became?
He loved her in a way that only a child could love his mother, and she hurt him in a way that a mother could hurt a child by not being there for him and being abusive to him.

Jamal is also upset with Lucious because he’s focusing so hard on Freda. Will Lucious really work hard to make Jamal a huge star?
Lucious respects Jamal’s talent and his ability, but there’s always going to be a little discomfort between them. Jamal is still his gay son and he’s not as comfortable hanging with him, and he’s kind of running from it in a way. Hakeem is more his kind of guy, and Jamal recognizes that Lucious is not working with him and putting the time in with him that he put in with Hakeem and that Cookie has put in with him.

Is Freda going to be Empire’s next breakout star?
Clearly, it’s a little bit of a twisted relationship because Lucious killed Freda’s father (played by Chris Rock in episode one) and Freda doesn’t know. Lucious has the hubris to believe that can all be overcome because he’s the greatest artist there ever was and it’s a gift to Freda. And I think that there’s a little bit of this feeling that he can atone for the sins that he perpetrated on her by taking her under his wing. He also just sees a real talent and he wants to own it because he always wants to own talent. He can put everything off the side for that — not everybody else can, but Lucious can.

Speaking of talent, Lucious stole away Valentina (Becky G). That’s a low blow to Hakeem, both personally and professionally. How will he react?
Hakeem is either going to fold because he got hit so hard or it’s going to just reinvigorate his conviction. That’s what remains to be seen — is he going to give up now that his father has beaten him down so hard?

Is there any hope for the girl group, now that Valentina left Lyon Dynasty for Empire?
Cookie never really believed in the girl group all that much, but wanted Hakeem to have something that he was excited about. So the question is, will Cookie continue to support this or is she going to try to re-focus Hakeem? Because she desperately needs him to be producing as an artist and working on things that are going to pay off.

Now that Valentina is going over to Empire, does that mean will see more of her working with Lucious?
No, not this season. We love Becky G, but we made a two-episode deal with her to play this great little story arc, but we won’t be seeing her again this season. But we had a lot of fun with her, and she really is a little spitfire.

Another spitfire: Anika. Is Boo Boo Kitty on Cookie’s side or Lucious’s side?
The Lyons are going to make that girl crazy. She got caught up with a very twisted family, and there’s no way that it’s not going to take a toll on somebody who I think started out as a pretty wholesome person.

Timbaland performed for the first time on the show. He’s the exec music producer, but why did he want to get in front of the camera and sing on the track?
That was a little kind of stealthy way of giving the audience a gift. He wrote that song and I think it was one of the best songs that Hakeem has ever done. If we’re doing warring kingdoms, and we’re having Pitbull performing on Lucious’ side, to have Timbaland on the Cookie side, it just felt like it signaled a real battle.

 How was it having Pitbull on set?
It was so awesome to have Pitbull on the show, and it’s one of the first huge superstars we’ve had on “Empire” who came and performed as himself. Really a cool thing for us to be able to do in our second season. And, of course, Pitbull would be a friend of Lucious Lyon.

Speaking of guest stars, I noticed the second Beyonce name-drop this season in tonight’s episode. Any plans to have her on the show?
It goes without saying: we’d love to have Beyonce on the show. If that ever were to happen, it would be fabulous and thrilling. I think I read somewhere that we reference Beyonce a lot, but I think that’s just the world of the show — people in that world reference Beyonce a lot, and in the world of Empire, it’s a given that these folks would be talking about Beyonce. She would be a touchstone.

Any details on Mariah Carey’s guest role yet? Would she play herself?
There’s nothing official yet. Nothing official to report. It’s still at the conversation stage and very much schedule-driven. Something that we all really, really want do, but we haven’t yet figured out if it’s going to work with everyone’s schedule.

So she hasn’t filmed yet?
No.

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