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Lee Daniels: “I’m giving voice to those who don’t ordinarily have voice”

As Empire, Fox’s high-octane smash, returns for its second season, creator and executive producer Lee Daniels explains why the show resonates with viewers and what’s happening below the surface.

Lee Daniels: “I’m giving voice to those who don’t ordinarily have voice”
Hard truths: Lee Daniels uses the over-the-top drama of Empire to explore real family dynamics. [Photos: Zach Gross, Grooming: David Cox at Art Department]

Fast Company: Empire’s first-season finale in March was the highest-rated for a new series in the past 10 years. How do you approach writing a show that has connected with so many people?

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Lee Daniels: Everything I do has to come from my experience or those of people I know. Situations I’ve been in, or food that I’ve tasted. Experiences that are real and honest to me. Season 1 dealt with a lot of the issues that I grew up dealing with. So now the challenge is: Okay, what stories can I honestly tell? Now people know who I am. It’s a very odd feeling. I didn’t know how famous one could really become from TV. I’ve never really paid attention to it or watched it.

Wait, you didn’t watch TV before Empire?

As a kid, yeah. Like, The Brady Bunch and Good Times. I watched CNN, and then I gave up on that. I watched BBC and National Geographic. And then my boyfriend got me hooked on The Real Housewives of Atlanta and I got seduced into TV that way.

Season 1 of Empire tracked the rise of Cookie and Lucious, the music entrepreneurs and parents whose family is at the heart of the drama. What are some of the story lines from that season that came directly from your life?

I’ve said this before—the whole flashback scene where Lucious throws [his son] Jamal into a trash can is very real. It really happened. Walking down the stairs in your mother’s heels in front of your father is a real experience. Having relatives who are in jail or selling drugs, and then turning that into a real and le­­gitimate business is real. These are people who exist in my family.

The show makes it dramatic. It becomes fun because we have to make light of it. And we have to have entertainment, and we want it soapy, so we’re sort of winking at the camera and having fun with the audience. But you know, under that laughter there’s some serious shit going on and issues being talked about.

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What can fans expect to see in season 2 of Empire?

There’s a financial change that has come with the success of the show. Family members, friends from college, all sorts of people are coming at you. It gets real. So now on the show we’re addressing the African-American experience with money. People with money. We explore Cookie’s and Lucious’s pasts. We explore how their children connect to the impoverished, because they’ve never even experienced what it’s like to be hungry. It’s what my kids are going through right now, when they’re around cousins and stuff. It’s powerful, because it’s real. Does that make sense?

It does, and I’m going to come back to it—

Well, wait a minute. Let me tell you something else. I got a lot of flak for portraying Lucious and Cookie as heroes for being drug dealers, and [what that means for] the representation of the African American. But I’ve always gotten flak, from Monster’s Ball to Precious. And that’s part of being an artist. Telling the truth is unsettling to people. What’s so great about this particular story is that Cookie’s mother will be indicative of my mother. My mother never did drugs, never spent a day in jail, and yet she had kids, inclusive of myself, who spent time in jail. What does that say about a woman who’s gone to church every day, and is a strong single parent?

You tackle a lot of topics on the show that are largely taboo in the black community. Jamal, the R&B star, comes out as gay. His brother Andre has bipolar disorder.

And it’s so very disturbing. Because African Americans want the best possible role models, and we should. But what happens is, anything that doesn’t fit within the norm is dismissed. I just remember the idea of going to a psychiatrist or a therapist of any kind in my day was like, “What are you talking about? That’s for white people. Are you crazy?”

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Empire’s cast is mostly composed of minorities, but you’ve also put a lot of effort into making your writing team diverse. Can you talk about the impact of those choices?

Listen, I can’t win for losing. I get in so much trouble when I talk about making it a point to have African Americans to speak about the African-American experience. But I also have a white producing partner [Danny Strong], and he’s great at one thing that I’m not good at, which is structure. I’m great with specificity, and with nuance and character, but not with story line. I can’t think about what’s going to happen 10 episodes in. That’s what makes us an incredible partnership.

But in regard to the actual verbiage and that kind of stuff? That’s the reason we have this wonderful group of black people, women, and Puerto Rican and Hispanic writers. I’m told it’s historic, really. I’m giving voice to those who don’t ordinarily have voice. It’s something I’ve strived for from the very beginning of my career. And now, to be able to do that in a way that isn’t just in front of the screen, but also behind the screen, is epic. I am the most content that I’ve ever been in my career. I’m proud to get up to go to work.

Do you feel a responsibility to shine a light on things people often overlook or don’t know much about?

The minute I start feeling responsible to everybody, then I start editing my thoughts and my work. And then I’m trying to be safe, and I don’t want to be safe. The concept of responsibility lies in a place of sometimes not being honest.

There are certain films that I’ve passed on that were about historic people. If they can’t be flawed and have their story told in a very truthful way, then I’m not interested. Because no one is perfect.

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Is that the reason you passed on directing Selma?

Ohhh, now your claws are coming out! [Laughs]
I think the reason I didn’t do Selma was bigger than that. We were trying to get the movie financed, and I had already done a civil rights movie, which was The Butler. And I thought doing Selma would have been a repeat. I didn’t want to be known as that guy.

But yeah, Martin Luther King Jr. was a human being. Let’s just say my interpretation of King would have been different.

You’re developing a movie based on Richard Pryor’s life. What have you learned from working in TV that you’re now applying to filmmaking?

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I’ve learned that the studios and the networks aren’t the enemy. Before Empire, I’d never collaborated with anybody before. I was the be-all and end-all. So I’ve learned that, at least with Fox, it’s a collaboration, which is something I didn’t know how to do. I think it’s also made me a better filmmaker, because the art of television moves at a pace that is ferocious. It’s quick, quick, snap snap snap, and you have to make the decisions pretty fast.

You just signed a multiyear contract with Fox to develop, write, and direct new TV projects. What will you be working on under this new deal?

Let me just tell you: Y’all need to strap up, because y’all ain’t ready. I can’t believe they were stupid enough to let me in on prime-time TV! Just sit down in front of the television, have your cocktail, and get ready for Lee Daniels. Because we’re just beginning. That’s all I can say about that.

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About the author

J.J. McCorvey is a staff writer for Fast Company, where he covers business and technology.

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