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Taraji P. Henson Talks Diversity at ‘Empire’ Screening: ‘We Made it to the Mountaintop’

The room was electric during a screening of the first hour of the “Empire” season-one finale followed by musical performances and a Q&A with the cast Thursday at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles.

With every twist, side-eye and underhanded remark in the soapy hip-hop drama, fans leaped from their seats and screamed at the screen, spraying popcorn all over the theater floor. It’s the type of visceral reaction that showrunner Ilene Chaiken, who penned the penultimate episode titled “Die But One,” must love to witness firsthand.

Chaiken said that since the show has been so successful, fans have high expectations for the finale. “Empire” delivers gasp-worthy moments in every episode, so the finale has even higher stakes to deliver something truly shocking, she said.

“We’re making this for people to come and watch it, and when they love it like people seem to be loving ‘Empire,’ there’s nothing better,” she said.

In the Q&A portion of the evening, Taraji P. Henson (Cookie Lyon) stole the show, much as she does on the series itself. She talked about a recent interview with the Hollywood Foreign Press, remarking that not once did they bring up the fact that “Empire” is a black television show. They talked about subject matter and about the concept of humans going through changes in life.

“Love and hate and loss has no color. For me, that’s what I was hoping this show would do,” she said before shouting at the top of her lungs, “Martin Luther King, we made it to the mountaintop!”

The audience roared in response.

The evening was filled with quips and banter between the cast members. Trai Byers who plays oldest Lyon son, Andre, addressed the fact that his character has yet to sing in the show.

“You need a straight person, you know, in this whole thing,” he said.

Jussie Smollett, who plays Andre’s gay brother, Jamal, jumped in with, “No pun intended.”

Watching how comfortable the cast is together onstage, and considering the immense popularity of the show, it’s easy to forget that for many cast members, “Empire” is their big break and, in many cases, has changed their lives.

“I went from recording in small studios in Philly to now I’m recording with mega-producers like Timbaland and working with Taraji and Terrence,” said Bryshere Gray (Hakeem Lyon). “I’m just absorbing everything right now. I’m like a sponge.”

Grace Gealey, who has made her television debut as series antagonist Anika “Boo Boo Kitty” Calhoun, said she’s still getting used to seeing herself on screen.

“It’s still kind of uncanny to see me up there, and it’s so weird. It’s just been kind of unreal,” she said.

But the show does not lack for star power. In addition to the central couple played by Henson and Terrence Howard, the first season has featured parade of guest stars including Raven-Symone, Mary J. Blige, Cuba Gooding Jr., Estelle, Jennifer Hudson, Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love. At the event, Smollett shared his season-two guest-star wishlist.

“I would love for Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Kanye West,” he said. “And Brandy, because how much do we love Brandy? Come on.”

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