William Shakespeare is the clear inspiration for the new Fox drama Empire — a sudsy retooling of King Lear set in the world of hip-hop — but there's no way in hell that the Bard could have ever imagined Cookie Lyon! Played with fire and fabulosity by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, Cookie emerges in the series' first episode from a 17-year stint in the slammer for running illegal drugs — the profits of which went to the creation of Empire Entertainment. This hugely successful record company conglomerate is run by Cookie's ex-hubby, Lucious (Terrence Howard), a street thug-turned-rap superstar, and it's about to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Cookie, who knows she can bring down Lucious with one juicy leak to the press, wants what she feels is her fair share of the company. That would be half.
"Cookie is my hero — a tell-it-like-it-is everywoman who has made the ultimate sacrifice for her family," says Henson. "Lucious was every bit as guilty of the drug charges that sent Cookie to prison, but she took the fall so that he could build a company and create a future for their kids." Henson is quick to clarify that she does not advocate drug peddling. "But Cookie and Lucious did what they had to do to break the cycle that affects so many African-American lives in this country," she says. "Their children will never have to know what it's like to live in the ghetto and go without food or electricity. It's like Cookie is the 'hood version of Mama Rose from Gypsy."
And Lucious is Lear. Recently diagnosed with ALS, the Empire CEO knows that he will be incapacitated within three years and must now choose his eventual successor from among his three sons. Andre (Trai Byers), his power-hungry eldest, graduated from Wharton School of Business but lacks the star quality Lucious deems necessary to run the company. Middle kid Jamal (Jussie Smollett) — a sensitive, gay singer-songwriter — is a supreme embarrassment to Lucious. The youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), has extraordinary potential as a hip-hop artist and is Lucious's favorite. But the kid is a bratty fame whore with an epic sense of entitlement. What to do? Without revealing the dire reason he'll be stepping down in the future, Lucious challenges his offspring to battle it out for the crown.
Not all the credit for this can go to Shakespeare, though. Empire was cocreated by Lee Daniels, the Oscar-nominated producer-director of Precious and Lee Daniels' The Butler, and Danny Strong, Emmy-winning writer of HBO's Game Change. The openly gay Daniels admits that a lot of this has been ripped from his own life.
"Jamal is me, and his relationship with Lucious is based on my relationship with my own father," says Daniels, who revealed in a 2010 episode of the SundanceTV docuseries Iconoclasts that his dad, an abusive police officer who died in the line of duty, tried to beat the gay out of him. This is reflected in one of Empire's most harrowing flashbacks — one that ends with an effeminate 5-year-old Jamal, wearing Cookie's high heels, being savagely hauled out of the house by Lucious and stuffed into a garbage can.
The similarities don't end there. Daniels, the father of college-age twins Clara and Liam (biologically, they're his niece and nephew), admits that Hakeem is somewhat based on Liam: "My son is not as extreme as Hakeem...but almost. He's entitled. He doesn't know another way of being." Daniels takes full responsibility for that. "Like Lucious, I've worked hard for my children, and they really don't know from where I cometh," he says. "It's my job to protect them from the atrocities I experienced as a kid — stealing for my family to make sure my siblings ate, watching people get murdered. As a result, they're sheltered kids in fancy schools who don't even know that much about the civil-rights movement. I wanted to bring that to Empire."
But for all its messy family dynamics, the series is also a flashy, trashy, shock-a-minute good time that boasts a vibrant original soundtrack executive produced by Timbaland and is loaded with cool guest stars (Gladys Knight, Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell) and Aaron Spelling--esque glamour. "I have a great love for soap opera," confesses Daniels. "This is my black Dynasty."
His leading lady is certainly ready to give Alexis Carrington a run for her dirty, sexy money. "Cookie is every actor's dream," says Henson, who loves that her character will try to one-up Lucious by managing Jamal's career. "She has no problem with her son's sexuality — in fact, she's willing to promote it," says Henson, who hints that she might see a little gay action of her own as the series unfolds. "Come on, Cookie was in jail with women for years, and she's very free. Everybody has needs!"
Henson wouldn't even have this delicious gig if she hadn't been dropped from Person of Interest, on which she spent three seasons as homicide detective Joss Carter. "If I was still on that show, I'd be looking at Empire and going absolutely nuts," Henson says. "I'd be like, 'Who the hell is this lucky bitch playing Cookie?'"
Empire premieres Wednesday, Jan. 7 at 9/8c on Fox.