TVLine's Performer of the Week: Empire's Taraji P. Henson

A weekly feature in which we spotlight shining stars

THE PERFORMER | Taraji P. Henson

THE SHOW | Empire

THE EPISODE |Pilot

THE AIRDATE | January 7, 2015

THE PERFORMANCE In the one-hour premiere of Empire, protagonist Cookie Lyon pulls an Alexis Carrington Colby and crashes a board meeting of a major record label; schemes her way into a seven-figure salary mere days after finishing a 17-year prison stint; alternately threatens, flirts with and rails against the ex-husband Lucious (Terrence Howard) who rose to fame and fortune thanks to her sacrifices; and — for good measure — beats down her disrespectful rapper son with a broom.

On paper, this all might sound just shy of ridiculous. But thanks to an electrifying performance by Oscar-nominated Taraji P. Henson, Cookie becomes the blazing sun around which the addictive Empire universe revolves. Sure, there are campy elements to the role — executive producer Lee Daniels has said he envisioned the show as a “black Dynasty” — but Henson’s keen sense of when to tap into Cookie’s humor, toughness and vulnerability (sometimes all at once) is one of the main reasons the show cannot be dismissed as a mere guilty pleasure.

EmpireTake the flashback scene in which Cookie and Lucious’ grade-school age son teeters into the family’s crowded dining room wearing his mother’s heels and scarf. As homophobic Lucious bolts toward the boy, carries him into the backyard and (horrifyingly) dumps him into a metal trash can, Henson brings to stunning life a rapid-fire chain reaction of emotions: Surprise, dread, panic, horror, and finally, rage. Henson informs Cookie with a genuine maternal ferocity that leaves her cradling a scared Jamal while kicking out at Lucious with a reflexive, unhinged violence.

Henson keeps that streak of menace just beneath the surface of present-day Cookie, too — narrowing her eyes to let folks know when her patience is wearing thin, punctuating sentences with the word “bitch” like she’s still in the prison yard — and it makes Empire a better, more unpredictable show. She may be penniless and powerless when she arrives on the scene, but Cookie somehow controls every interaction — whether she’s plotting with eldest son Andre, camping it up to charm Jamal and his boyfriend, demanding respect from petulant youngest Hakeem or negotiating with Lucious. Like her character, Henson seems to be holding the reins every second she’s on screen, as well, and we can’t wait to see where she steers us next.

unnamed-5HONORABLE MENTION | Ridiculous royals are nothing new at all to television and film comedies. (See: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, lots.) Yet Timothy Omundson has found his own highly entertaining wrinkle to bring to Galavant’s more-clueless-than-ruthless King Richard. Whether grumbling (in song, impressively) about Madelena’s adoration of the show’s titular hero, “butching up” to hopefully breach said wife’s “vow of chastity” or letting slip a tiny fist-pump upon scoring a big win, Omundson’s meddling monarch is one almost worth rooting for — especially given his queen’s bratty antics.

BonnieHONORABLE MENTION | When the Braverman clan arrived at the hospital on Thursday’s Parenthood with questions about Zeek’s health, Camille calmly told her children, “Of course he’s all right. He’s your father.” Little did the family know, Camille was internally falling apart, and Bonnie Bedelia shined in her portrayal of a mother and wife trying to keep it together while grappling with a catastrophic loss. Bedelia infused heartache into every one of her scenes, even in moments that required no dialogue. Her soft sobs in the hospital chapel, the defeated expression on her face as Dr. Gordon discussed surgery for Zeek — even the actress’ quietest movements were enough to communicate Camille’s fear, anxiety and sadness. It was, quite simply, Bedelia’s finest hour.

Which performance knocked your socks off this past week?

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42 Comments
  1. sladewilson says:

    I love me some Taraji. And she went in as Cookie…. I’m glad she’s back on my TV every week….

  2. Joey says:

    All great great great choices this week.

  3. Alicia says:

    I kept thinking as I watched Parenthood that she should make this weekly award from you. :) Simply beautiful acting.

  4. TigerLIL says:

    I love me some Taraji I mean she has got to be the funniest person on TV but I mean she is crafty. This is what Viola Davis meant when she said she took the time to hone her craft this is the way I feel about the acting chops of Taraji she evidently took the time to hone her craft. This is a good lesson to young people who are coming into any profession, hone your craft become an artisan at what you do that is the only way you will stand out and get to the top of your game. I loved her performance and she reminds me of three of my aunts back in the day when they were roaring through their 20’s and early 30’s some sure fire messes, street wise and all of them were drop dead gorgeous women but extremely complex and in Taraji I see them all…lol I think shes got a hit on her hand…lol

  5. TAL says:

    Reblogged this on Cerulean Chronicle and commented:
    Attention ‘Empire’ fans! TV Line has named ‘Empire’s’ Taraji P. Henson the “Performer of the Week.” Congratulations Taraji! This honor is well-deserved!

  6. Esther Massimini says:

    Simon Baker in the ‘birthday’ scene at the end of ‘Green light’ (the Mentalist)

  7. Dude says:

    Hell yes! Taraji was amazing p! Easily the best part of the show.

  8. BTM says:

    I’m tempted to recommend that you retire Performer of the Week and just let Ms. Henson have it forever. Everyone else can vie for Honorable Mention.

  9. ChicagoDan says:

    Good thing we all knew the PR Spin that Taraji wasn’t quiting TV by choice to focus on movies, etc. Shame on POI/WB for their actions. Glad she found a role worthy of her immense and skilled talent.

    • Gabby says:

      Yeah, that PR spin was ridiculous. Henson did not even star in any films after she was written off POI except for a small part in “Term Life”. “No Good Deed” (2014) was filmed after the 1st season of POI.

      • Jim says:

        Think like a man too was after POI.

        • Gabby says:

          No. Google. “Think Like A Man Too” was filmed Summer of 2013 in between Seasons 2 and 3 of POI. Taraji did not finish POI filming until October 2013. TLMA went into production and was released in June 2014.

          FYI, the first “Think Like A Man” was filmed after Taraji filmed the POI pilot and just before she started filming the rest of season 1 of POI. Basically, she was able to film three films WHILE working on POI.

  10. Tran says:

    She deserves it even though POI fans still missed her as Carter. Sarah Shahi should have been one of the honorable mentions for her character’s demise.

  11. msb says:

    I would have loved to see Mark Harmon on here. He killed it this week with an awesome episode. His reactions with dealing with the women from his past went from hilarious to heartbreaking and it was so great to watch.

  12. DW says:

    I have yet to see any performance this year that tops Matt Czuchry’s this week on The Good Wife. Award worthy and just simply incredibly on target.

    • Edward says:

      I would say for this week I would give the honors to Archie Panjabi. I though she gave a stellar performance complimenting an already stellar Matt Czuchry.

    • B says:

      ‘this year’? we’re only 10 days into 2015, that said taraji p henson was brilliant this week

    • abz says:

      He’s been great, but Taraji was perfect on this show and definitely deserved it.
      Also, I have to agree with Edward, the performance that stood out the most on this past week’s episode was actually Archie/Kalinda’s IMO. She gave an amazing performance.

  13. abz says:

    Taraji P. Henson was amazing! I still miss her as Carter, but so glad to have something to watch her on. That scene with Luscious throwing Jamal in the trash and her reaction was heartbreaking. At the end of the episode, I just kept wishing there was another episode to watch right away.

  14. rachelle says:

    Taraji is a fantastic actress. She made me feel everything Cookie was feeling. I never watched Person of Interest, but I’m so happy she’s back on TV!

  15. JM says:

    Taraji is simply amazing. This character is completely different from Carter on POI and yet, she fits it perfectly. She can play any role, and that is the sign of a truly great actress.

  16. Jenna says:

    This was a no-brainer. Taraji was awesome, and the premiere of Empire was all that. I tuned in hoping not to be disappointed, and I thoroughly enjoyed the full hour. Acting, writing, production, songs…all top notch.

  17. Clarence Harris says:

    Empire is the new thing for tv

  18. Rebecca says:

    Great choice with Camille! I wish everyone from this episode could have been nominated!

  19. evababy says:

    Great choice. Taraji was electrifying. Cookie could have easily been an uncomfortable caricature. But Taraji made her complex and sympathetic and fearless. I am was so hurt when she was killed off of POI that that show has been dead to me since then. So glad she is back on tv.

  20. monieet@aol.com says:

    Taraji, all the way. POI what a loss letting her go. Ms. Henson went on to bigger and better things. Only one person could play this role and play it the right way. Love, love you Taraji. Always a FAN.

    • abz says:

      I believe it was actually her choice to leave the show.

      • Gabby says:

        No, she was informed of the creator’s vision to write off her character. She just did not want to be on a TV series for 7 years. Nolan informed her that he was writing off the character. Henson has said that she did not quit, but she had signed on knowing that the series could and would kill off characters at any time, and she was fine with the decision. The show’s creator and the President of CBS confirmed that it was a creative decision.

        • abz says:

          Oh okay my mistake. Yeah I just quickly googled the interview she did with TVLine a while back because I remembered her talking about how she never planned on staying with the show till the end and she said: “… I don’t think I’m there in my career yet, where I ride out a show until the wheels fall off. I’m still getting calls by big-time movie directors and I still have a lot of movies I want to do. So that was always the plan…” I guess that’s why I thought it was her choice. Although maybe she did express to them at some point that she wasn’t interested in continuing long-term.

  21. Runner says:

    Absolutely correct, sir. That character could easily become a cartoon with a lesser actor, but clearly Taraji is at the top of her game. Well chosen. I hope she wins many awards for her stellar work.

  22. LA Hope says:

    I think that NCIS´s Mark Harmon and Brian Dietzen had some very, very great scenes in this week´s episode, but Law and Order SVU´s Kelli Giddish gave a powerful performance in Forgiving Rollins too.
    Both episodes were so emotional, it was amazing.

  23. Nichole says:

    I would have given an honourable mention to Colin Hanks for his cameo on Mom this week as the upstairs seemingly nice straight guy with the BDSM bedroom, he was hilarious!! Not often I laugh out loud at something funny, but he had me in stitches, so well played!! :D

  24. lORI aMPEY says:

    Taraji P Henson!!! Yes Yes Yes she did that

  25. Terri says:

    Bonnie Bedelia should have won it hands down this week!!!

  26. Jackie says:

    Wow, this really hit’s home, when you have someone that’s down with you, in your corner, and I mean in it, holding it down while you are away, you don’t take everything from her and the children. How dare you. But you know there should be more cookie’s……..love your son’s cookie, Lucious you have done great with the money you and your women made……you should have visited cookie, things may have been different. I’m enjoying it, great cast…..

  27. claire says:

    omething to watch, it got me more interesting to because my Favorite actress is in there miss Taraji P Henson.I don’t like her wardrobe especially when she’s wearing one dress for more than 2 scene.but other than that good job the show look good especially not too much commercial that’s a plus

  28. Bonnie Bedelia (Parenthood) and Taraji (Empire) are amazing actresses and part of the ingredient that makes the shows they’re in outstanding.