Partygoers were rumbling over signature drinks and champagne that Henson — who plays ex-jailbird Cookie Lyon, opposite Terrence Howard’s music mogul Lucious Lyon — deserves an Emmy for her tough-as-nails performance. Fox Television Group Co-Chairman/CEO, Dana Walden, who arrived with Gary Newman, admitted that the L.A. event marked her 13th time screening the pilot.
Surrounded by her multi-talented costars — including Gabourey Sidibe, who was mingling within the same chandelier-adorned cocktail cabana — Henson, dazzling in a sexy sequined dress, sat down with Variety to share her vision of how the series will impact the television landscape.
“Even though it’s a predominantly black cast, I’m hearing people say it’s not,” Henson said with satisfaction. “Its issues, its subject matter [are ones] that everybody, every race, can identify with, and that’s my dream. Because when you put labels on things, it makes others go, ‘Oh, that’s not for us.’ Pain or love or hurt — none of that has color. We all hurt the same…and so, I’m hoping people will just not see this as ‘that black show’ and will just see a family trying to make it in this world.”
The musical drama, which has Timbaland at the helm as executive music producer and features an infectious soundtrack of wholly original songs, delves into homosexuality in the hip-hip community, as one of Cookie’s three sons (Jussie Smollett) is openly gay, and rejected by his father (Howard).
“I think the way we’re handling the subject matter, we didn’t gloss over it. It’s very gritty, it’s very real, it’s very in your face, and it’s not pretty,” Henson said. “And I think it’s going to shed a lot of light on so many lives. It’s going to free so many people. I think it’s going to force families that are dealing with this to have honest, open conversations, and that’s what I only hope for. That’s what you use art for — to change lives, to make a difference.”
(Pictured: Lee Daniels, Gary Newman, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard and Dana Walden at the “Empire” premiere.)
“Empire” premieres Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. on Fox.