Fox’s smash hit “Empire” returns with its third season this fall, and in anticipation, star Taraji P. Henson was joined by exec producers Ilene Chaiken and Sanaa Hamri on Monday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
After the Season 2 cliffhanger that left someone dead and split up Cookie (Henson) and Lucious (Terrence Howard), is there any hope that the power couple at the center of the show could get back together?
“Cookie is going to try in Season 3 to leave Lucious. She’s going to try to move on,” Chaiken teased on the panel to which Henson quipped, “Whether or not he lets her!”
Regardless of the ups and downs of Lucious and Cookie’s relationship, Chaiken promises that the core storylines will veer back to the central Lyon family.
“We learned that the stories that work best and that we love telling most are about the family, and that always will be our focus,” Chaiken said. “No matter what’s going on at Empire, it’s always about the family.”
Despite the family being at the center of the show, “Empire” will bring on some A-list guest stars, per usual. — including Mariah Carey.
“She was great. She’s fabulous. She’s beautiful to look at,” Henson said, revealing that she shared scenes with the superstar. “She brings a sense of what Mariah brings to the music industry. She brought it to our show. I’m grateful she spent time with little old us.”
Henson also spoke about guest star Taye Diggs, raving, “He is funny! Who knew Taye Diggs was so funny? He’s a riot. He’s funny and I enjoy working with him. And he’s easy on the eyes.”
Asked by a reporter if Diggs will play Cookie’s love interest, Chaiken teased, “He certainly would like to be.” She added, “His story is all about Cookie. It starts as a Jamal (Jussie Smollett) story and like everything else, everyone intersects with him, but it’s primarily a story about Cookie so that’s my coy way of answering your question.”
Henson chimed in, “He’s going to have to work because Cookie has had her heart broken way too many times.”
Hamri chatted about other Season 3 guest stars Birdman and French Montana. “They were really great with the acting just as artists because they were real — they were just being as real as possible,” she said. Chaiken also noted that some minor characters from Season 2 will be back this season, including Morocco Omari who plays Lucious’ surprise half-brother, Tariq.
The big question of Season 2 — did Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) or Anika (Grace Gealey) die? — will be answered at the top of the season with Chaiken saying, “The question that was posed gets answered in a fabulous and heart-stopping way.”
On the topic of killing off characters, Chaiken said, “Apart from some specific trends that we fell into a bit, what we try to be mindful of is that even though we’re telling stories, you can’t do that lightly. Killing is not your go-to move. It’s a huge move and we always challenge ourselves to go somewhere else before we go there.”
Said “trend” was the kill-your-gays trope that was brought into the social conversation after shows such as CW’s “The 100,” AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and “Empire” killed off lesbian characters. “Empire” said goodbye to Marisa Tomei and Naomi Campbell’s characters. “The kill-your-gays-trope, I personally didn’t think that we were falling into it,” Chaiken said. “I’m respectful of the way that it’s been taken up in the public conversation. Any time we go near any issue like that, we try to be mindful of it and be responsible.”
Another topic brought up at TCA was the ongoing conversation regarding a potential “Empire” spinoff.”There certainly could be, and we talk about it, and I think the show offers so many opportunities,” Chaiken teased. “There are potential spinoffs with Lucious and Cookie’s characters, sure.”
As for “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels’ other new Fox show, “Star,” Chaiken said a crossover episode is a possibility. “We haven’t talked about it yet. I think the show needs to launch first, but certainly there’s potential for it,” she said. “They’re both grounded worlds in music so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
“Empire” returns to FOX on Wednesday, September 21, 2016.