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Taraji P. Henson Talks ‘Empire’ Season 2 and the Cookie Phenomenon

What can you expect from the Lyon’s Den this year? Just as much brazen fun as Season 1.

TV’s latest, greatest family dynasty that rules the new Empire on FOX returns for a second season Wednesday night. The hip-hop drama outrageously dressed as a primetime soap turned out to be the surprise breakout hit of last season, showing impressive ratings growth every single week. Led by a refreshingly diverse cast, the show has mainstream appeal – and that’s a big deal.

The entire cast of characters is delicious but there’s no denying one in particular has become a phenomenon: Cookie Lyon (“Yeah, that’s my name. Take a bite”), the ex-inmate and ex-wife of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard).

Played to the hilt by Taraji P. Henson – who received a Best Actress Emmy nomination for her role right out of the gate – Cookie is the scene-stealing queen of sass.

“I think she is everybody’s spirit animal,” Henson told a small group of reporters following an Empire press conference this summer in Los Angeles. “Or their alter ego. She lives in truth. One thing she’s not is politically correct.”

Empire Season 2 Cast Photo

Cast Pictured L-R: (Bottom Row) Bryshere Gray as Hakeem Lyon, Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon, Trai Byers as Andre Lyon (Middle Row) Grace Gealey as Anika, Kaitlin Doubleday as Rhonda Lyon (Top Row) Gabourey Sidibe as Becky, Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon and Ta’Rhonda Jones as Porsha in ‘Empire.’ (Photo: James Dimmock/FOX)

“I would say that probably 80 percent is Cookie and maybe 20 percent is Taraji,” Henson says of how much of her own personality comes through.

The character’s wild wardrobe and even wilder zingers have become her trademark. If you love Cookie’s over-the-top outfits, just wait until this season, when the formidable music maven (and occasional FBI informant) becomes a little more fashion forward. “Remember, she was in jail for 17 years, so she was a little rusty,” Henson told reporters of Cookie’s fashion sense. “She came out behind the curve ball of fashion, but for our second season, wow, we’re getting so much love from the fashion houses, it’s crazy.”

“We’re also going to see more of her backstory,” Henson teased, “what that 17 years was like in prison. We start to delve more into flashbacks.”

Cookie also has two love interests coming her way, Henson revealed to reporters, joking, “I live vicariously through her.”

Season 2 picks up approximately three months after where we left off – with Lucious in jail for Bunkie’s murder (but, hey, at least he’s no longer dying). Expect Lucious to still play a pivotal role in the plot (and do some rapping in the prison yard) even though he’s behind bars.

Empire Season 2 Lucious Lyon Photo

Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon in the “Without A Country” episode of ‘Empire.’ (Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX)

Also look for more family members to be introduced this year, from both Cookie and Lucious’ sides, and you can count on at least one of them being a troublemaker.

Three more things to expect this season: a slower pace, more episodes (18 episodes this season versus 12 last year), and way more guest stars [more on this below].

The latter can be a trap for a new show. Adding too many new characters and compromising the established ones can be more dangerous than Cookie and Boo Boo Kitty alone in a room together, but Empire creator Lee Daniels (The Butler) and showrunner Ilene Chaiken (The L Word) insist they won’t be tinkering too much with the formula that’s made the show a success.

“We want to continue to do Empire,” Chaiken told TV critics at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. “We want to continue to make the audience gasp and laugh and scream and cry.”

“If we can bedazzle you with [big name guest stars], that’s okay,” added Daniels, “but we have to stick to the family. The family is what the story is about.”

And if the Season 1 theme was all about who will inherit the kingdom, Season 2 finds the battle for Empire records still very much on, despite middle son Jamal taking over the family biz in the first-season finale, according to Chaiken.

Let the hip-hop Game of Thrones continue!

Empire Season 2 Taraji P. Henson Photo

Pictured L-R: Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon and guest star Marisa Tomei as Mimi Whiteman in the “The Devils Are Here” Season 2 premiere episode of ‘Empire.’ (Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX)

Check Out Who’s Checking into Empire for Season 2 — The Guest Star List (so far):

· Marisa Tomei plays a recurring character named Mimi Whiteman, a lesbian billionaire who wants to take a bite out of the music business.

· Vivica A. Fox has been cast as Cookie’s older sister.

· Chris Rock plays a drug kingpin behind bars with Lucious.

· Ludacris is in the mix as a prison guard.

· Kelly Rowland will appear as Lucious’ mother in flashbacks, which will show where little Lucious gets some of his musical talent.

· Adam Rodriguez is set to play a love interest for Cookie.

· Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz and Pitbull also will be making cameos this season.

Empire returns Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 9/8c on FOX.