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‘Empire’ Actress Taraji P. Henson “I’m the American Dream”

June 25, 2015

Taraji P. Henson is at the top of her game these days playing the strong, brash, and fashionable Cookie Lyon in Empire. The television drama series was Fox’s highest rated debut show in over three years, and viewership has skyrocketed each episode since then. Indeed, Henson is receiving Emmy buzz for her role, and she’s already been honored as the Best Actress in a Drama Series by the Critic’s Choice Television Award.

Taraji was not eager to do TV as she’d rather be acting in films. But when she saw the script for the pilot of Empire, she felt it was game-changing and challenging, and saw the potential in playing the character of Cookie. She thought, “Tell her truth…If you stick to the truth, people will love her.” Henson and Terrence starred together as love interests in the 2005 hip hop film Hustle & Flow in which she played Shug, a singing prostitute. Henson only agreed to being cast in Empire under the condition that Howard be cast in the lead male role of Lucious Lyon, a former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul and CEO of Empire Entertainment. Wesley Snipes was being considered for the role of Lucious before that.

As to her childhood, Henson’s parents broke up when she was a toddler, but she says still both her parents were always steadfast in her life. When she was eleven years old, her dad lost his metal-fabricating job, and he resorted to living out of his van. “If he had fifty cents, he would give me a quarter,” Taraji told the Washington Post. With a natural inclination to perform, her dad encouraged her to pursue acting. Thus, when she was a teenager, she tried out for the acting program at Duke Ellington School of Arts–and was rejected, which devastated her.

From there, Henson studied electrical engineering, but failed in her attempts after just one year. But that “failure” didn’t stop her. Her father encouraged her to “get on with what you’re supposed to to;” that meant pursuing her acting aspirations. As Taraji once said, “I don’t harp on the negative because if you do, then there’s no progression. There’s no forward movement. You got to always look on the bright side of things, and we are in control. Like, you have control over the choices you make.”

She then transferred to Howard University and paid for her education by working two jobs: as a secretary at the Pentagon, and as a singing and dancing waitress on a dinner cruise ship. She thrived in the theater setting, even winning a “Triple Threat” scholarship. While at Howard, she became pregnant with her son who was born in 1995; tragically, her son’s father was murdered just two years later.

She relates to Cookie in that they are both examples of the American dream–starting from the bottom, and working their way to the top. “I’m the American dream. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. You know, I had a passion, I had a dream, and now I’ve dived in, and I went for my dream, and here I am.”

Taraji faced many challenges in pursuing her dream, but she stayed positive and kept moving forward. Here’s to you likewise always looking on the bright side of things along your journey.