Empire creator Lee Daniels talks about his gritty new girl-group series with Queen Latifah, Star, the influence of Dreamgirls and Paris Is Burning on his work, and the Fellini-esque musical he is developing about his life.
How will Star compare with Empire?
It is the complete antithesis of Empire. I don’t know whether you ever saw the first 15 minutes of John Waters’ Female Trouble, but these girls will do whatever it takes. They’ll murder. They’ll f— you. They’ll rob you. [The characters] Star and Simone are very, very poor. They come from the foster-care system, and we explore the atrocities that happen there.
The show debuts in early 2017. Where are you in production?
We’re shooting the second episode. I just left a rehearsal for a vogue number. That performance that Teyana Taylor did at the MTV Video Music Awards? Well, we’re going to get down in the dirt with mine. You’ll see the girls with the gay boys voguing in a way [TV audiences] have yet to see. It will be very much like Paris Is Burning, which influenced me growing up. I told Queen Latifah that we should remake Paris Is Burning as a musical.
You also have said that Star is inspired by Dreamgirls.
When I was 16, I stole my mother’s Eldorado, and I snuck into Dreamgirls on Broadway. I haven’t been affected by anything in that way until I saw Hamilton. Dreamgirls affected African-Americans. Denzel Washington said Dreamgirls was the reason he was in the business. So when I decided to put Star together, I started thinking about movies and situations that have influenced me.
What are the challenges of creating dramas around music and musicians?
One is making sure the stories are seamlessly married to the music and vice versa — that a show tune doesn’t come from out of nowhere.
When you were casting, what was more important: musical talent or acting chops?
Ultimately, I go with the actor. It’s really hard to find someone who can act — to be the definitive character that you’ve written — and can sing. Really hard. So when Star — Jude Demorest — walked into my office, I knew that the universe was working for me. She was so eerily the character that I wrote. I told her to her face, “I don’t like you,” because I didn’t want her to know how much I did like her. It took me forever to find Jamal and Hakeem. She came in right off the bat.
That had to be devastating for her to hear.
She reminds me of that often.
Did you write Queen Latifah’s role in Star with her in mind?
I did. She plays Carlotta, a woman that had a hit in the ’90s but ended up in the streets. Carlotta has turned her life over to God, but she’s still a gangster. She walks on both sides of the curb — in very expensive wigs.
What does she represent to you as an artist?
She’s a true crossover, similar to what Diana Ross accomplished in the ’60s. Yet she remains a girl from the hood. And her voice — she sings gospel in our first number, but a new type of gospel. We’ll also hear her sing some R&B and do some classic and current rap.
You have likened Empire to Dynasty. What classic TV show does Star most resemble?
It’s more like Good Times: very edgy.
People forget that about Good Times.
As we’ve progressed as a society and in entertainment, we’ve become so politically correct that we can’t tell the truth. It sucks, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. You don’t know what I had to do at Fox to get the word “faggot” in the Empire pilot.
Empire set ratings records in its first season and then had its audience decline. What lessons did you learn from that?
We were not prepared for the hit. I was set to do the Richard Pryor biopic, and I didn’t think the pilot was going to get picked up. So then we had to scramble for story for 12 episodes. Then we were shocked when the ratings kept climbing and climbing. And then they picked us up for 18 episodes. You try writing 18 episodes of story and music. That shit’s crazy! It was a tsunami hitting me.
What will change in season three?
At the beginning, I spent a couple of weeks in the writers’ room. I said, “We’ve got to focus on the family, and I want to talk about what is happening right now in America and in my life — how I’m scared for my 20-year-old son.” And I want Cookie to do something else other than scream and beat her sons with brooms.
When you say you’re scared for your son, what frightens you?
He’s a black man in America. I have been in denial about it for so long because I’ve kept both of my kids very sheltered from the world that I come from. And in so doing, when you step out of that bubble and you go into the real world, it’s a real wake-up call. My kids are the same age as Taraji [P. Henson’s], and we’re going through the exact same thing. Terrence Howard, too. We’re phoning each other terrified because we’ve worked so hard to keep our kids protected, and now we find that they’re thrown into the abyss of what America is really about. And they’re not a part of Hollywood. My son wants nothing to do with it.
Is there another musical scene or genre that you think would be right for a TV show?
My publicist will kill me, but I’m in talks about doing a musical film about my life. I’ve had a pretty interesting life. I’ve come from the projects. I’ve been homeless. It’ll have original music and sort of be like Fellini’s 8 1/2 or All That Jazz.