Until recently, Taraji P. Henson was concentrating on finishing up her time as Cookie Lyon on Fox’s “Empire,” but on March 14, production was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were almost finished,” Henson told Variety, via a video conference call to promote her Netflix film “Coffee & Kareem” on March 31. “We were at the finish line.”
“We had 20 episodes to shoot,” the star explained. “We were in the middle of episode 19 and then this happened. So, we just have about a week and a half to go, about 10 more days and we’ll be finished.”
After Henson’s interview with Variety, Fox announced that “Empire’s” final season would be cut short by two episodes and the series finale will air on April 21. Sources told Variety that footage from episode 19 will be edited into the finale episode. News of the sixth season being cut short was revealed during a promo following Tuesday night’s episode, with a voiceover saying, “Get ready for the shocking final three episodes of ‘Empire.’” But, on April 14, series co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong released statements hinting that the show may find a way to shoot the planned finale after all, though sources with knowledge of the production said that there is no current timetable for “Empire’s” potential return.
The final run of the Fox drama was already a momentous run for the star, who made the leap into directing, helming the 13th episode of the season, which aired on March 17. Henson summed up the experience as “amazing,” saying “‘Empire’ is my home, that’s my language, that’s what I speak.”
But Henson admitted that she didn’t watch her own performance while she was behind the lens.
“I had my 1st AD and the director’s producer … watch it and I’d be like ‘Do we got it? Because I felt good,’” she laughed. “That’s something I can’t do whether I’m directing or acting, I cannot watch myself. That’s why I have to work with directors that I can trust because, once I give it to you, I don’t want to see it until you put it all together, because I’ll get in my head.”
While not returning to the set of “Empire” to finish out the series is surely a disappointment, Henson is currently focused on lightening the mood for audiences with her latest film “Coffee & Kareem.”
The Netflix comedy riffs on the usual buddy cop storyline, following Ed Helms’ Detroit police officer Coffee as he attempts to bond with his girlfriend’s 12-year-old son Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh). When Kareem demonstrates exactly how disappointed he is that his mother is dating Coffee by trying to hire a convict to kill him, things inevitably go awry and the two are forced to team up and go on the run. Playing Vanessa Manning, Kareem’s no-nonsense mother and Coffee’s new girlfriend, Henson got a chance to “be funny, while also being a badass,” and definitely not a damsel in distress.
“I’m always looking for characters that I haven’t portrayed before … or genres I haven’t done before, so this excited me. I’ve done action before, I’ve done comedy, [but] I’ve never done action comedy,” she explained.
“It was really fun working with Ed — because, you know, he’s a comedic genius,” Henson continued, adding that the cast often improvised on set. “We would say the funny line that they wrote and then, [director Michael Dowse] would be like, ‘If you don’t mind, I’m gonna keep the camera rolling and I’m going to throw some other things at you,’ and I said, ‘And I’m gonna throw some things at you.’ And he said ‘Let’s do it!’ I love working like that, because a lot of the stuff that comes out of Cookie’s mouth is ad-libbed, straight from the hip, it’s in the moment. So, I’m good at that.”
In addition to bringing the laughs with “Coffee & Kareem,” Henson is also promoting other forms of self-care on social media, reminding her followers how important it is to take care of themselves while self-isolating amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a struggle, [but] you have to find the light. I have to keep myself busy. If I sit too long, it starts to get dark, so I find projects for myself, things to make me feel good,” Henson said, listing off a few hobbies she’s found to keep her on track while in self-isolation, including learning to do gel nail polish and give pedicures.
Henson is a longtime advocate for mental health causes, launching the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 and working to help break the stigma against mental illness (the actress battles depression and anxiety), particularly in the black community.
“It’s a big deal because we just don’t deal with it. We just think we can pray all of our problems away. And I believe in God, but, you know, you’ve got to work on your mental [health], it’s not a simple as a prayer,” she explained. “But being bold enough to even say, ‘Hey, I feel dark’ or ‘I have this darkness inside’ — most people are afraid to say it. So that was why it was so important to me to be a face [of it] … then maybe they’ll go, ‘Oh my God, I’m not alone.’”
And for now, Henson is binge-watching along with the rest of us. Her must-see list includes Netflix’s “Ozark,” “Uncorked,” Octavia Spencer’s Madam C.J. Walker limited series “Self-Made” and (of course) “Tiger King” — “That was bizarre,” she said of the much buzzed-about series.
“I will say this,” Henson added. “Thank god I’m an actress because when this is over, the streaming services are going to be thirsty for content because everybody will have seen everything.”
Additional reporting by Will Thorne.