Taraji P. Henson Reveals the Reason She Almost Turned Down Playing Cookie on 'Empire'

"Don't cage me. Let me breathe. Art is supposed to be free."

(Image credit: Getty Images)

With Taraji P. Henson's Emmy-worthy portrayal of Cookie Lyon on Empire, many good things have been born: a fierce new fashion icon, timely Halloween costume inspiration and ultimately, an incredible career revival for the 45-year-old actress. However, all of these feats almost never happened—and it's because Henson wasn't initially interested in stepping into Cookie's Louboutins. 

"Television to me always felt like a caged little box," she said during a panel at Entertainment Weekly's EW Fest. "By that I mean, to me, it always felt like a genre for the writers. I'm like a true artist, I need to be free. Don't cage me. Let me breathe. Art is supposed to be free."

That "need to be free" resulted in a few stipulations made on Henson's part if she were to accept series creator Lee Daniels's plea for her to join the cast; the most important, she reveals, was being able to have her say in who would play her on-screen son, Jamal Lyon. While sitting next to Jussie Smollett (who eventually nabbed the coveted role as Cookie's second-born), Henson recounted the moment she laid out her ultimatum: She, along with her costar, Terrence Howard, refused to do the show unless Smollett was offered the part. 

Like her TV alter-ego, Henson is hard-pressed to find an argument she can't win. "I kinda meant it!" she joked later on about her casting demand. However, a knowing smile gave away that she most definitely wasn't kidding. It's a gesture that Smollett will always appreciate. 

"It's allowed me to allow people in just a little bit more. It's made me walk in my truth," he explained of the profound affect playing Jamal has had on him. "In many ways, [we are] going through parallel journeys, except he's a billionaire. I'm a hundred thousandaire baby. There was a time when I was a one-inaire so this is a huge deal."

Yasss, Boo Boo Kitty, a huge deal indeed. 

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Evan Real