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Half of the ‘Empire’ Midseason Premiere Was Shot as One Take Because Taraji P Henson Said So

Writer and director Craig Brewer tells TheWrap actress dared Terrence Howard and Demi Moore into shooting episode ”like a one-act play“

(Spoiler alert: Please don’t read ahead unless you’ve seen Wednesday’s midseason premiere of “Empire”)

“Empire” returned tonight with a midseason premiere that was mostly — well, a long, awkward confrontation at a table between Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious Lyon (Terrance Howard) and his abductor Claudia (Demi Moore), who are all hanging out in a cabin in the woods.

And while it may look like just another installment of “Empire” at first glance, the slow-burning episode “Birds in the Cage” was an impressive feat for the Fox leads and their A-list guest star. As co-executive producer Craig Brewer tells TheWrap, the majority of the episode was shot in singles takes, at the request of Henson.

In our return to Season 4 (now helmed by executive producer Brett Mahoney, following former showrunner Ilene Chaiken’s exit), Cookie comes to save Lucious, who was kidnapped by crazy Claudia in the winter finale. While the nutty nurse is unsuccessful in gaslighting our Lyon into believing he’s her beloved Dwight, she does stir up more drama between Cookie and Lucious than we’ve ever seen before. The two of them get real in front of their captor, as they relive the dark years Cookie spent in prison and what that did to their marriage.

“Just to be clear, we have acts between commercials and we’re a six act show,” Brewer, who wrote and directed the return of “Empire”s fourth season, said. “There is a moment where they are talking to each other in this conflict that you mentioned for half of act four, all of act five and half of act six. So imagine sitting down and trying to film essentially 15 to 20 minutes of people arguing and having this conflict.”

“And so I sat down with the three of them at the very table where the moment was about to take place and I said, ‘How do you guys want to tackle this? You want to do it bit by bit? Do you want me to break it down and then we shoot one part of it and then we move on to the other one?’ And Taraji turns around and says, ‘Well how are we gonna do that? No, no, no. Let’s just shoot the whole thing as one play and you just shoot it over and over again. That’s how we’re gonna do it.'”

“And I said, ‘Guys, that’s a lot of dialogue for you all to commit to memorizing right now.’ And I will never forget this moment, Taraji turned over her script and said ‘Bring it’ and looked over at Terrence and he was like, ‘Alright’ [and] flipped over his script. And then Demi Moore did the same thing. And I was like, ‘Action?'”

Then what? Well, Brewer says they “knew every word.”

“They were on tilt, ready to go. A brilliant performance, right off the top. And I was like, ‘Alright let’s do that in a wide shot and then we’ll break this down.’ We went through this whole thing like a one act play.”

End scene.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.