The title of Lee Daniels’ latest venture, Star, might very well identify this celebrated producer-director-writer. His films include Monster’s Ball, ‘Precious and The Butler, while two seasons ago he roared into series TV with Fox’s smash music drama Empire.
But Star, a sort of Empire encore, refers instead to the lure of stardom on an ambitious singing trio, and, more specifically, to the fiery young woman calling the shots. Her name happens to be Star.
Star is played by Jude Demorest, who joins real-life fellow newcomers Brittany O’Grady (as Star’s sister Simone) and Ryan Destiny (as Alexandra) in portraying this defiant threesome out to beat the odds in the show-biz sweepstakes and make a fresh start in their lives.
Star, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST on Fox, also features Queen Latifah as the girls’ surrogate mother and Benjamin Bratt as a down-on-his-luck talent agent. It was co-created by Daniels, who directed the first two episodes and has been heavily involved in all the subsequent writing and editing.
“We want to get it off the ground in the right way,” he says, copping to a bit of weariness from his heavy involvement. “It’s a delicate time. You really have to get people hooked into the characters.”
While Empire depicts the glitzy but cut-throat world of music at its pinnacle, “Star” is planted at the gritty entry level.
But how did the series come about?
Daniels explains that, after feasting on movie success, he resolved a while back to give TV a try.
“I did a pilot. I thought, ‘OK, I can check that off my bucket list.’ I assumed it wouldn’t get picked up. Then it got picked up.”
It was “Empire.”
“Then Fox said, ‘You want to do another one?’ I said, ‘OK.'”
He stewed over what that new series should be, and gathered what he calls “a hodgepodge of things that inspired me: Dreamgirls, Valley of the Dolls, Sex and the City; a girls’ show with music and a little bit of edge.”
Plus original vocal-and-dance numbers.
“It’s hard enough telling a story,” he declares with a roll of his eyes. “I must be a masochist to want to add music! It has to be seamless – you can’t just bust out into a musical number. But I enjoyed it so much with Empire we did it again.
“And I wanted to talk about race, about where we are racially in America. So the lead girl (Star) is white, her sister’s half-black, and, just to turn things upside down, the third girl, who is black, is the rich girl.”
That was the show as envisioned.
“Then he became president,” says Daniels, perhaps getting a little ahead of himself. But his point is clear:
With half of its 13 episodes completed, Daniels worries that the ground has shifted under his series as it has with so much else. “This show is a little bit about what’s going on today, but now it’s more of an escape. Because I think people just can’t bear what’s going on now. The show is for those of us who can’t bear it.”
But for Daniels – a gay black man who, growing up, felt like an outsider in his “West Philly” neighborhood – escape isn’t really what he aims to give his audience. Actually, he wants to share a bit of what he’s learned living what he calls, sardonically, his “zany life.”
“When I was 7, I watched somebody killed,” he says. “And also when I was 10. “I’m 57 (on Christmas Eve) and I’m alive, without HIV, and that’s a miracle: I watched so many friends die in my arms, many of whom I had slept with. So when you’ve got a foundation of bullets whizzing by you or somebody dying in front of you, and parents who didn’t embrace you, you have a wealth of stuff at your command. I only just now started going to therapy. But before that, all my therapy was my work. I just spilled it out.
“My work is all about from whence I cometh,” says the man who found his way to Los Angeles and landed his first job as a receptionist at a nursing agency. “I’m living a dream today. I’m blessed. And I’m here to give you what you’re craving, which is a story that you can identify with; voices that you don’t hear and faces you don’t see. At least, not onscreen every day.”