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Taraji P. Henson on How ‘Empire’ Season 4 Will Dive Deeper Into Cookie’s Prison Past

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Evil Manners,” the Oct. 11 episode of “Empire’s” fourth season.

Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) has a lot on her plate these days. Not only is she dealing with the emotional heartbreak over the love of her life and father of her children, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), not having any memory of their relationship, but she’s also trying to keep the extent of his memory loss a secret from anyone outside of their immediate family.

“Her biggest struggle is that he doesn’t remember her,” Henson tells Variety, likening it to dealing with a loved one who is suffering from dementia. “It’s very hard when they look you in the eyes and they don’t remember who you are. It hurts. And you sit there and you try to explain, but they have no recollection of you existing in their life. That is painful, and that is more hurtful to her than anything else.”

And as the fourth episode of the fourth season of “Empire” revealed, that pain, coupled with the fact that she was turned down for a loan due to Diana DuBois’ (Phylicia Rashad) influence, is taking its toll on her, triggering more intense and violent flashbacks to her time in prison than previously explored.

Henson talks with Variety about seeing more of Cookie’s 17 years behind bars, keeping control of the company in Lucious’ absence, and her interest in producing over directing.

Cookie finally told Lucious the truth about why they were apart for so long. Do you think she was trying to protect him from some of the darker parts of their history by holding it back for this long?

I don’t think she’s trying to protect him at all. She can’t say anything because that damn nurse won’t let her! She needs him, but she doesn’t want to jeopardize his recovery, so she’s keeping her mouth shut because she has to.

What do you feel she will gain by telling him now?

It’s for some kind of closure. They never talked about it, even when she first got out, so finally she can get some closure.

Is this version of Lucious a man Cookie will start to be attracted to, or is she always going to fight to get her Lucious back?

She likes the part that he cares, but that’s not the part that she fell in love with, let’s be clear! He’s cute and kumbaya and all that, but if she wanted that she would have stayed with Taye Diggs or Malcolm or some other guy. Her heart is with Lucious, it ain’t with Dwight!

Cookie is often very stoic when facing adversity, but how important is having her family as support now?

That’s why she moved back into the mansion. She needed to be there; she needed to be hands-on. And she didn’t trust [Claudia] from the onset, and she needed to be up close and personal with Lucious to make sure she could get her man back and keep her eye on him.

And Eddie (Forest Whitaker) is a new support system, too. Could things turn physical between them, if not really romantic, as they reconnect?

The way Forest plays him, he’s very mystical. I don’t know if he likes me! But she trusts him because that’s somebody from Lucious’ past and their past that they trusted before.

A lot of what Cookie was going through with Lucious and the business triggered memories of her time in prison. How will she deal with the trauma she went through back then?

You’re really going to see her in prison. You’ll see who her friends were in prison, who she hung out with, how she acclimated herself. She’s a fighter, and you’ll see how she fought in prison, and how she kept her sanity. Seeing her in jail [shows] new ways of her strength. She’s a tough cookie, period, in jail or out. That’s just who she is. She speaks her truth, she lives her truth, and she’s unapologetic. That’s who she is.

Will we see anyone from her prison days turn up in present day?

We’re on episode 10, and that hasn’t happened, but I don’t know if that means it won’t happen later.

There’s a lot going on this season with the deal between Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Diana lingering.

She’s going to kill him! She still doesn’t trust [Diana], even after that supposed truce.

And getting the money Empire needs to push forward with their big plans for the anniversary year. How is Cookie handling being the boss?

People were doubting her because she’s a woman, and they’re used to Lucious heading the company. So Eddie plays a good second to Lucious and makes everybody feel more comfortable. You know how they do us! She had to go and get a man to make everybody feel better. But you can do anything you put your mind to, I believe. And there is a lot going on. I get the scripts, and a lot of time I’m like, “Geez, how are we going to pull this off!?” But it’s not my problem, so I just hit my mark. And then they get in that editing room, and it’s like, “We shot that!?” It reads different than what you see. It’s kind of hard to see it on the page sometimes, even as an actor. I’m not a director, so I don’t see it like that, so it’s very hard to see it when it’s just on the page. Sometimes it even sounds weird coming out of my mouth, but then when we see the show, we’re amazed.

Since Jussie Smollett will be directing an episode, do you want to do one as well?

I’m not interested, no. Directors don’t sleep. I love sleep too much, so no thank you. As a producer, I know what talent works, what’s good and what’s not, and that’s why I’ve chosen the scripts I have in my career. A lot of them are classics because I know how to choose scripts, so I think I’m a better producer than director.

What are you most excited about producing these days?

I’m looking for good scripts, good work, good stories. I have my “White Hot Holidays” that’s become an annual show, and that’s coming back up. So I have some things out there that I’m actively producing. I don’t just put my name on things. Know that if you ever see “produced by Taraji,” I’ve been in the trenches from the moment I got that project to the very end. I want people to take me seriously. When they see my name as a producer, they know I got my hands dirty.

With Cookie’s kids constantly pushing out new music and trying to remind Lucious of his own magic, do you see her ever stepping in on a song?

She might, I don’t know. They’ve tried, but I just see how much work the boys have to do when they perform. They’re young, and that’s what they do. I like to perform, but my thing is more theater. It’s not the same. If I was playing a character who was a singer and would go out and command the stage, that could be fun.

New episodes of “Empire” are on Fox Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

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