Taraji P. Henson Empire
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire” returns Wednesday night with its third season, and star Taraji P. Henson says the Fox hit goes back to its roots in Season 3.

“Every year, there’s so much pressure that comes with being the No. 1 show on broadcast television. I just don’t want us to put that kind of pressure on ourselves because whatever we’re doing is working so don’t change it,” Henson told Variety in an interview this summer. “That’s my focus – to make sure that it doesn’t get too big and that we don’t get ahead of ourselves. A lot of times you find in television that a show started off one way and then got kind of lost and I think we’re all very cognizant of making sure that we don’t lose this special thing we had that first season. I think we’re all scrambling to keep that.”

The Emmy nominee admits that it hasn’t set in yet that “Empire” is still the top show on broadcast TV. “They have to remind me of it and I go, ‘Are you sure? Did all the numbers come in?'” Henson says with a laugh.

Here, Henson teases Season 3, tells Variety about her new love interest and shares her goals for Cookie…

You mentioned the “special thing” that “Empire” had in its first season. What do you mean by that?

It has to be about the family – that’s what we learned in the first half of the second season. It’s not about the guest stars, it’s about the family. That’s what garnered all of that attention because America and then the world started identifying with this family. It has nothing to do with color. People just saw themselves in these characters.

Right, but speaking of guest stars, what can you tell me about Taye Diggs’ character?

So they tell me Cookie is going to have a love interest. So they asked, ‘Who do you think?’ And I knew Taye Diggs, but I didn’t know him – I never hung out with him really, but I was a fan and every time I see him it’s cordial and always the same energy, so my publicist one day was like, ‘What about Taye Diggs?’ And I was like ‘What about Taye Diggs!’ And I sent that up the flagpole and Ilene [Chaiken] was like ‘Oh my god.’ And here we are – so, Taye Diggs, you owe me a Chanel bag!

Does Taye Diggs have a quick appearance, or is he a bigger character that we’ll see again?

Oh, we’ll see him again. What’s happening is that Cookie is trying to separate herself. She’s done with Lucious. Although she has to run the company, she’s trying to find herself separate from him. It’s been too many years. It’s time to let go. For some reason, he doesn’t want to let go. I don’t want it to become Cookie has a love interest all the time because then it becomes about a woman needing a man. I know me and I’m the type of woman that if I’ve been hurt to the core, I need a minute to collect myself and to make sure I’m not going to make the same mistakes the next time. The love of her life broke her heart at the end of last season and she didn’t see that coming. She decided to be vulnerable and open up her heart to someone else other than Lucious and he broke her heart – so twice in one season! Taye, his character has to work for her. He’s gotta work.

What are your goals for Cookie going forward this season and beyond?

I’m always interested in the backstory. I mean, 17 years in prison is a long time. What happened to her? What is she made of that it didn’t break her? It’s almost like she didn’t miss a beat in those 17 years. What does that take for a woman to survive those kinds of conditions? That’s what I’m interested in, and I don’t think we’ve really dealt with it. We’ve hinted at it with those little flashbacks, but I really want to dig into what it takes for someone to come out of an institution and not have it break her.

It does look like we’ll see more backstory in Season 3, according to the teaser of the season.

Yeah, they do young Cookie and how her and Lucious met. We have years to explore so there’s no rush.

How long would you like the show to go on for?

One hundred episodes! [Laughing]

I wonder why?! You are so fantastic in this role though. It’s like you were born to play Cookie.

I mean, Cookie is a lot. You wonder why I drink? [Laughing and holding a cocktail] I literally try to squeeze every single human emotion into her in every episode. I’m like, can’t I just have a happy episode with no drama?

What did the Emmy nomination mean to you?

I’m doing something right, I guess — they keep nominating me! But it’s just a bonus. I didn’t come to Hollywood to win awards. I came here to work, and to fall in love over and over again with this craft that I love and studied. It’s more about the craft and how many characters can I check off my bucket list. The awards and accolades, that’s just a reassurance for me that I’m doing the right thing. It’s more about inspiration to me and how can I touch a life through my work as an artist.

Watch Taraji P. Henson tease “Empire” Season 3, including Mariah Carey’s role:

 

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