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Taraji P. Henson: 'Empire' shook up the 'too safe' world of television

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Empire made a huge splash in 2015, and so did star Taraji P. Henson, who plays the fierce and fabulous Cookie Lyon on the hit Fox series and was awarded with the Big in TV honor at VH1 Big in 2015 With Entertainment Weekly.

At the event, which recognized the landmark entertainers and pop-culture moments of the year, Henson thanked Fox TV executives Dana Walden and Gary Newman for taking a chance on the show. “You were ready to shift the paradigm of television, [and] you did it,” she began while accepting the honor. “You were not afraid, and that’s how I pick my characters. I pick the sh– that scares the hell out of me. There was some fear there, but look what happens when you take a risk. Life is about not being afraid, so thank you for believing in us.”

RELATED: What it looked like inside VH1 Big in 2015 With Entertainment Weekly

Henson, who is featured in EW’s Entertainers of the Year issue, then addressed the professional challenges she long refused to accept. “I was told all my career ‘Oh, black doesn’t do well overseas,’” she said. “‘Oh black can’t do this, it can’t do that.’ Well then here comes Cookie, and the world fell in love with her.”

RELATED: Taraji P. Henson on why Cookie is everyone’s spirit animal

During her speech, Henson applauded Empire for how it has challenged television and broke down diversity barriers. “The more I do press, the less I’m hearing, ‘It’s black,’ or, ‘It’s a black family,’ or this or that or the other,” she said. “People are seeing talented actors, they’re seeing talented scripts — they’re seeing material worthy of watching. Again, I thank Dana and Gary for believing in this project and seeing that a change needed to come and happen. Something needed to shake up TV. It’s too safe, and that’s not the world. Look around.”

She also encouraged people to use art to continue to push boundaries, and to stimulate talk, whatever that may bring. “We need to use art to make people think, to shake it up, to make you think, to ruffle your feathers,” Henson said. “I’m proud of what we’re doing at Empire. I’m proud that we’re making you think. I’m proud we’re pissing some people off. That means we’re doing our job. As long as you’re having the conversation.”

VH1 Big in 2015 With Entertainment Weekly also honored Nicki Minaj, Aziz Ansari, Amy Schumer, and more. It was hosted by T.I. at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles on Nov. 15. For more on EW’s Entertainers of the Year, pick up the issue, available for purchase here.

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