Why ‘Empire’s Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard Are the Most Powerful TV Couple
For TV Guide Magazine‘s first-ever Power Issue, the staff looked at the juggernauts dominating TV, from events to franchises to actors, producers, and other multihyphenates in show business. Here, we take a look at TV’s latest Power Couple. Plus: See why Empire is the most powerful show of the moment.
You’ve heard the rumors: Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard can’t stand each other. But what’s the real deal? When we sat down with them on the Chicago set of Empire—an interview they asked to do in tandem—there was no doubt they can fight like bobcats. But the mutual respect is unmistakable. They were playful, hilarious and—though these two badasses won’t want to hear this—absolutely adorable. Ultimately, they’re in it together. Just like Cookie and Lucious.
The relationship between your characters can change from hate to love and back again several times per episode. What’s with those two?
Howard: Cookie and Lucious don’t have anyone else worthy enough to fight with, so they find reasons to fight with each other. [Laughs] Just so they’ll have something to do.
Henson: I believe they do love each other, but they can’t get it together. And when you can’t get it together with someone, you antagonize them. [Howard pulls out a cigarette.] Are you really gonna light that thing?
Howard: Of course not. [He lights it.]
Henson: Terrence! [She gasps in disgust.]
Howard: Hate is the only passion they can express. They fight because they can’t make love. They’ve known each other since they were 13. They’ve been through so many hardships together.
Henson: Yeah, and those hardships sent Cookie to jail while Lucious got fat and rich. You don’t play Lucious. You play Lucifer! But nobody’s coming between those two.
Howard: It’s honor among thieves. Ride or die.
So they’ll be this way when they’re 80?
Henson: Yes! We all know those couples.
Howard: In Living Color! Remember that old black couple who were always trying to kill each other?
Henson: [In a dead-on impression of Kim Wayans as Mrs. Brooks.] “And we stiiillll together!” [They both laugh uproariously.] That’s why our characters resonate with the audience. Lucious said it to Cookie in the first episode of the season: “How is it I can love your ass and hate you at the same time?”
Howard: We all work really hard on this show, and when somebody sucks, they find out right away because Taraji is quick to let you know when you have no business being in this business.
Henson: I don’t ever say that to anybody, Terrence!
Does she have the nerve to critique you?
Howard: Oh, hell yes, but then she’ll give me an accolade that will bring it all around. She sent me a text the other day that just blew my mind, about how much she liked some acting choices I had made, and this was on a day when I thought she was hating me. The truth is, we’re really trying to impress each other.
Henson: I am not trying to impress you, Terrence.
You got him his role on Empire, right?
Henson: That’s true, and can you please put in this article that Terrence still owes me a Chanel bag for getting him this job? He was outta work!
Howard: Hey, I was on Wayward Pines.
Henson: And where’s that show now? [Silence] Exactly! All I asked for was the black Chanel bag with the gold hardware.
Howard: You’ll have it when we finish renegotiations for Season 3.
Henson: It’s always something with you. I should be like Cookie and just take the money right out of his damn wallet and go get my own damn purse! You owe me much more than that, by the way, Terrence. I should have asked for a Bentley. [Howard opens a bag of popcorn and munches.] Don’t you be making a mess now!
Howard: Taraji and I used to be married in another life.
Cookie and Lucious are obsessed with getting nominated for the ASA awards. As actors, have you ever felt that way?
Howard: Terence Howard doesn’t get nominated for anything.
Henson: [Letting out a shriek]. We are not going there, are we?
What about your Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow? You got a lot of love for that movie.
Howard: That was years ago, but when was the last time you saw Terrence Howard nominated for something?
Henson: Oh, poor me!
Howard: I got the number one show in the world! Show me an actor who can stand up next to me!
Henson: Uh-oh! Here comes the ego. Everybody duck!
Howard: You’re about the only person who can hang with me, so they give you all the accolades.
Henson: Oh, so it’s not because of all my hard work? It’s because I can hang with you? Can you believe this s–t?
Howard: Here’s what was crazy about Emmy night: I’m sitting there in the audience watching all these actors from shows that get one third of the numbers we get, and they’re all hanging and talking and congratulating each other. But nobody came up to me and said, “Congratulations on Empire!” They just ignored what we’ve done. I’m, like, “Really?” I’m big on telling people, “Great job! Amazing numbers!”
Was that your experience as well, Taraji?
Henson: Not at all! I had a lot of friends who were nominated that night, like Jon Hamm, Don Cheadle, Viola Davis. Everybody was great. It was like a big party.
Howard: What I’m getting at is that awards are not where our success lies. Taraji said something that I’ve thought deeply about. She said, “If Empire had been on NBC or on CBS…”
Henson: I didn’t say that.
Howard: Yes, you did. You said, “If Empire…”
Henson: Don’t you misquote me, Terrence. I did not say that.
Howard: Well, what I heard Taraji say was…
Henson: You hear a lot of voices, Terrence. You make sure you’re not mistaking those other voices for mine.
Howard: She said, “Empire would not have done as well on those other networks.” That’s because Fox put 30 to 40 million dollars into promoting our show.
Henson: Fox saw an opportunity to change the game. For me, our numbers are what’s important, because all I’ve ever wanted is to do my art and use my gift. I never got caught up in all that, “I gotta win this trophy!” stuff. It’s always great to be nominated and it feels so good, but I don’t want to make my career about attaining an object. Because you know what happens if you don’t get that object? You get bitter.
Howard: When Taraji got the nomination for the Emmy, she didn’t jump for joy or anything like that. You know what she loved more? Seeing all those little girls on YouTube being Cookie. That’s when you know you’re iconic.
Henson: I love those little girls!
Howard: That’s her greatest success—affecting all those disenfranchised people out there. Nobody else could play Cookie like Taraji does. Nobody. [Henson smiles sweetly, then cocks a suspicious eyebrow.]
Would you two be this close if you were filming in Los Angeles?
Henson: We’d never see each other after work if we were shooting there. We love Chicago, but we don’t know anyone here. That helps with the bonding.
Howard: Do you have to pay for anything in Chicago?
Henson: Of course I do. What are you getting at?
Howard: Every time I go out for dinner, they’re like, “No, Mr. Howard. Your money’s no good here.”
Henson: What? Are you kidding me? They’re probably scared of you! Jussie [Smollett] and I went to Terrence’s place the other night, and we all fell asleep on his big-ass beanbag chairs until 2am. When we left, Terrence was still sleeping. He was snoring and digging in his belly button. He had his shirt pulled up and his stomach hanging out. He looked like Baby Huey. [Howard laughs.] I asked Jussie, “Should I take a picture?” He said, “No, no!” Jussie always wants to video me looking like hell, but he spares you!
Howard: They fell asleep first! You should have seen Taraji. She was knocked out cold like she was in a coma. She was looking like this. [His body goes limp, and his mouth hangs open.]
Henson: So we leave and Terrence wakes up an hour later and calls Jussie going, “What happened? Where you at?”
Howard: I thought we were having a sleepover. I serve good food, good wine, and they leave me!
Henson: We party all the time. This cast genuinely likes each other. We’re family.
You know every cast says that, right?
Henson: Yeah, and some of them are lying! We bowl. We karaoke.
Howard: We do push-ups! I’ve never seen this happen on a set. After we finish a scene, the boys all do push-ups, including half the crew. The goal is to hit 100 and only Jussie, Trai Byers and I have reached it. No matter how tired we are, it pulls us back together as a group. It’s great motivation.
Henson: I just step over them on the way to my dressing room.
Howard: Taraji don’t do no push-ups!
Henson: Pretty soon you won’t either, Terrence. Because you’re getting old.
Howard: I am. It’s true. It’s so hard being around all these young guys on the show. In a couple of seasons, I’ll be in Depends.
Henson: Yes, you will. And you know what? [Laughs] I still won’t have my purse!