“I could not do this forever. No. Cookie wears me out!” Henson exclaimed during a recent interview with Variety. “She drains me,” the actress adds with a laugh. “She is emotionally all over the place. Those writers, they just keep pushing my emotions with every episode. By the 18th episode [of each season], I’m dead. I got to get far away. I don’t wear animal print. I cut my hair into a bob. I don’t wear a weave because I’ve got to get as far away from Cookie as possible.”
When asked if she has a number of seasons in mind she’d like “Empire” to stay on the air, Henson quips, “Once it’s syndicated — and then I’m like, ‘Thank you. Goodnight!'”
“I learned this from the women of ‘Sex and the City’ — you’ve got to know when to go out. You don’t want to overstay your welcome. You want to go out on a high. You want to be remembered as the number one show on network,” Henson adds. “I’m going to loose my passion, I know me. And Cookie is enough. I can’t do that for so long.”
While playing Cookie is an emotionally-taxing role, Henson wasn’t always confident that her erratic character would resonate with audiences. When she first read the script for “Empire,” she says she was “scared to death.”
“I thought people would hate her,” Henson admits. “Because of the things that she says, it was very risky, because that’s a character that if it’s not handled correctly, it would turn the audience off.”
Henson could have never imagined the success “Empire” would become — many would say, in large part thanks to her Emmy-nominated and Golden Globe-winning performance as Cookie — but she originally signed onto the Fox pilot because the character frightened her.
“Any role that scares me is a challenge and I don’t back away from challenges. That’s how I pick roles — if it scares me, I have to do it,” she explains. “Cookie scared me a bit and the challenge was, how do I make the audience connect and feel and empathize for her? Once I did that work, I was like, okay, people are either going to love her or hate her. Thank god it worked. Phew!”
It sure did work. “Empire” broke out onto the scene as the highest-rated broadcast series in years, constantly rising in the ratings each consecutive week of its first season. Even though the numbers have dipped throughout its run, the Fox drama still ranks as a top scripted network show, along with NBC’s breakout hit “This Is Us.”
But even with the record-breaking numbers, Henson says she doesn’t pay attention to ratings.
“No. I don’t because I can’t. That would drive me crazy,” she says. “I don’t do it for numbers. Plus, I have people for that,” she chuckles. “Trust me — the night after, I’m getting all kind of updates and I don’t need to look. The numbers find me! Oh god…I just want to do good work. If you do good work, the people are going to come. I believe that. So I don’t sweat about the numbers. That’s someone else’s job.”
Henson admits that the importance placed on overnight ratings is part of the reason why she actually prefers working in film than TV. (This past awards season, she starred in the Oscar-nominated and critically-raved “Hidden Figures.”)
“I’m in a unique position on my television show, ‘Empire,’ because I think sometimes television is kind of corporate, and I’m an artist and my brain doesn’t work like that. What I mean by corporate is that it’s like a government job almost — you’re still acting, but it’s a different set-up,” Henson explains, continuing, “Film, I like better. You have a day to shoot one scene and you get to let it breath, and you have one writer for your character so your character doesn’t feel schizophrenic — sometimes, my characters feel schizo on television because there are so many opinions and so much input…that’s why I like film a little better. One writer, one director, one [studio[ head. Not all those voices.”
While she’s a bit more privy to film work than television, there is still one thing on Henson’s to-do list: directing an episode of “Empire.”
“I feel like I will, but the bug hasn’t hit me yet,” she says when asked if she’d like to direct. “It’s a lot of work. Our show is deep. There are musical numbers. It’s daunting. I don’t know if I could be in it and direct, but that feels like something I should do because I’m an actress and I’m on a television show and you should. Why not? So the answer is yes. I want to learn more.”
“Empire” returns with the rest of Season 3 this Wednesday, March 22 at 9 p.m. on Fox.