Taraji P. Henson Gets Candid About 'Empire' Atmosphere Amid Jussie Smollett Controversy

Although Empire actor Jussie Smollett is no longer around the set of the FOX drama thanks to the 16 felony counts he was indicted on earlier this month, co-star Taraji P. Henson says the general feeling on set is still "great."

"It's a great atmosphere," she told Entertainment Tonight while promoting her upcoming drama The Best of Enemies on Sunday.

The 48-year-old actress said the popular series hasn't really changed in Smollett's absence, despite the drama, unwanted media speculation and legal quandaries surrounding him.

"Cookie's on a really emotional roller coaster this year," she teased of her celebrated character, Cookie Lyon. "She's finding herself."

She admitted that because they're finished filming, she knows which Empire character was killed off, which the show has been teasing, but says she won't spoil it. Many fans theorize that Smollett's character is the one inside the coffin, especially since he has reportedly been written out of episodes that he would have otherwise been expected to shoot. He's still appearing on episodes that were shot before his alleged attack on Jan. 29.

In Henson's new film, The Best of Enemies, she plays Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina who frequently faces off against the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan, C.P. Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell. The two enemies are forced to work in close quarters when they co-chair a community meeting regarding desegregation in their city's school system.

Henson said she was drawn to the role in the film, which opens April 5, because the message is still "very relevant" in modern America.

"You know, racism is still here and we're still dealing with and that's why these movies are important. And the reason why I love this movie is the approach is different," Henson shared. "Ann realized that she had to change her approach. [She and Ellis] were both… very passionate about what they believed, but on opposite sides of the spectrum. And it wasn't until she fell back and she had to see him as a human [that she realized] barking and yelling at each other, that goes nowhere. That's hate. Hate never wins."

Meanwhile, earlier this month, Smollett pleaded not guilty to 16 felony counts in Chicago. His next court date is set for April 17.

Smollett was arrested on Feb. 21 after being charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report claiming he was the victim of a hate crime. When reporting the January attack, he claimed he was assaulted by two masked men yelling racist and homophobic slurs at him and who poured what he believed was bleach over him and put a noose around his neck.

Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson claimed the actor staged his alleged attack to promote his career and because he was "dissatisfied" with his Empire salary.


"As far as we can tell, the scratching and bruising that you saw on his face were most likely self-inflicted," Johnson alleged during a press conference following the arrest. " ... Empire actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career."

Smollett has maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, which initially saw celebrities coming out in droves on social media to support him after they thought he was the victim of a hate crime.