Terrence Howard skipped over the shrimp and roast beef at a summer Fox party, opting instead for an oversize, uncooked corn cob. When informed that his dinner was meant purely for decoration, the Oscar-nominated actor balked.
“It’s good for you!” he said, biting into his raw meal. “You should try it.”
Either Howard has unusual culinary tastes or he was covering up for his mistake with acting skills that have made him half of TV’s most electric team.
“Empire,” which returns Wednesday, had firmly established itself as a network hit, thanks in part to unapologetic soap-opera twists (Howard’s character, Lucious Lyon, starts the fourth season with a case of amnesia), butt-shaking music (an upcoming episode features Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”) and high-profile guest stars (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker has a recurring role this season).
But the main draw continues to be scenes between Howard and Taraji P. Henson, who previously made beautiful music together in 2005’s “Hustle & Flow.”
When Henson was cast as Cookie Lyon, a feisty ex-convict determined to win back her piece of a record company and the sons she had with its steely CEO, Lucious, she immediately recommended Howard.
“When I got the script, I knew it had to be somebody I trusted as an artist,” said Henson, who won a Golden Globe last year as best dramatic actress in a series. “This is my guy here, you know. You’re talking about a show that might last seven or 10 years. That’s a long time to spend with a person. And the complicated places these characters have to go? I could not see myself doing it without him.”
Interest in “Empire” has cooled somewhat since its initial two seasons, when it finished fifth in overall ratings. But while the show has slipped out of the top 20, it’s still a draw for die-hard fans eager to find out what happened to Lucious after an explosion last season robbed him of a leg, his memory and, perhaps, his ruthless nature.
In this season’s opening two episodes, Lucious’ soul is in play between a mysterious nurse (Demi Moore) and Cookie. It doesn’t take a die-hard follower to figure out who has the edge.
Howard harks back to a scene from an early episode in which Lucious unsuccessfully tries to intimidate his ex at a funeral.
“He’s trying to back her up into the coffin. Well, this monster wouldn’t back up. She holds her ground,” Howard said. “That’s the beauty about being with a really brilliant actor. Joe Frazier did his best work with [Muhammad] Ali. We wouldn’t know Frazier had he not fought Ali. It’s that kind of battle. That’s one of the things you want when you consider yourself a serious actor, having someone to sharpen your teeth against. It keeps the competition up and it keeps the integrity of our work up.”
At this point, Henson chimed in: “I’m not competing with you, Terrence.”
“I’m competing with you,” replied Howard.
At the party last month, Howard didn’t offer many clues about what this season has to offer; he himself didn’t know. Although the table read for the Prince episode was the next morning at the show’s Chicago studio, Howard hadn’t even glanced at the dialogue.
“Years ago, I believed in prepping for a character for three months or at least three weeks. But anytime I try to have a rehearsed conversation, it’s the most unrealistic conversation,” he said. “But if I read the script at the table read and am completely unaware of the arc or where the character is going, I’m more organic and listen more actively. Taraji tends to work like that, as well. We spend the time sussing each other’s eyes out, seeing where we’re going.”
Not that the pair don’t have opinions about where their characters are going. Last season, a furious Cookie destroyed Lucious’ office with a baseball bat. As originally written, the scene was to end with the two making love. The actors balked.
“I felt like the power would be lost if she had had sex with him,” said Henson, who displayed a quieter form of strength in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures.” “To get to that peak of passion, it just felt like it was taking a stronger stance for her not to fall for flesh and just walk away. You know, Cookie’s a grown woman. She’s had three sons. She’s served 17 years in jail. There’s not time for play now. She’s protecting herself. So that’s why I fought hard for that.”
Executive producer Lee Daniels sided with his star — and not because he was afraid of being on the receiving end of a bat.
“The actors know the characters as well as we do at this point,” said Daniels, who directed Howard in “The Butler.” “And when they come to us, most times they’re right, so we work with them.”
If Daniels really wants to appease his dynamic duo, he’ll give them a chance to show off their comedy chops in a feature film, something Henson in particular is dying to do.
“A comedy is a no-brainer, right?” she said. “Duh.”
A remake of “Adam’s Rib,” perhaps? Sounds a lot more scrumptious than raw corn on the cob.