From “Buffy” Extra To Creating An “Empire”: The Unlikely Journey Of Danny Strong

How a bit-part actor stepped up to become one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood, co-creator of Empire, and burgeoning director.

From “Buffy” Extra To Creating An “Empire”: The Unlikely Journey Of Danny Strong
Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, and Jussie Smollett star in Empire.

When Gilmore Girls lands on Netflix with a limited-series run in November, one of the characters confirmed to return is fan favorite Doyle McMaster. We can only speculate until then on what the former Yale newspaper editor and Paris boyfriend has been up to in the interim, but one thing is for sure: the last decade can’t possibly have been as eventful for Doyle as it’s been for the actor who plays him.

Danny Strong[Photo: Scott Kirkland, courtesy of Fox]

Danny Strong started out frequently typecast as a nerd on shows like Saved by the Bell: The New Class and the Clueless TV series. Around the time of his low-key breakout moment on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though, he began honing an entirely different skill set: screenwriting. By the time Gilmore Girls was wrapping up in 2007, he had sold his first screenplay, the political HBO movie Recount. Another political project for HBO followed–Game Change, the story of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 election–but it was Strong’s next collaboration that was perhaps the most consequential of his career so far. In teaming up with Lee Daniels to write The Butler in 2013, Strong had no idea he would find a partner with whom he was creatively simpatico. Together, he and Daniels would go on to create Empire, television’s biggest story in 2015, and reap an Emmy-filled bounty from it.

Aside from writing a pair of well-received HBO movies and co-creating Empire, Strong has also written two entries in the Hunger Games franchise, along with next year’s Rebel in the Rye, which he also directed. Fat chance that Doyle McMaster has had a fraction of that much success since our last trip to Stars Hollow. With Empire now in its third season, Co.Create spoke with Strong to find out some of the decisions that have guided his career from bit-part actor to one of Hollywood’s top writers.

A Big Moment On Buffy, 2000

“I was pretty stunned when I got that script,” Strong says. “The cold opener of that episode was me in a desk, spinning around, saying, ‘Sounds like you could use my help,’ which was a departure for me. I was surprised that they had so much confidence in me to play this dynamic role that they had written. I was very flattered. I didn’t feel I had shown them that I was capable of that, although I felt like I was capable–I just didn’t know that I’d shown them that. So when Joss had given me that much confidence to carry an episode like that, it was just really, really exciting to get that script.”

Taking a Swing, Late-1990s

“The first script I wrote was this sort of hipster wannabe Swingers-type comedy,” Strong says. “I was really inspired by the fact that Jon Favreau had written that movie Swingers, that was based on his life as an actor living in Los Angeles. At the time I was an actor living in Los Angeles, so I was literally doing all the things that he did in the movie in my real life. Like, I was sort of the awkward guy always pining for the girl, very much like his character. And that he had turned it into a movie that he starred in and what it did for his career. And then the next several scripts I wrote were all high-concept comedies sort of in the vein of Liar Liar and those Jim Carrey movies that were really popular at that time. They just weren’t that funny.”

[Photo: Chuck Hodes, courtesy of Fox]

Politicalized By The Iraq War, 2003

“I wasn’t a political junkie before, but I was incredibly outraged by the Iraq War. Then I started paying very close attention, reading everything,” Strong says. “Also, after several years of writing these comedies that I couldn’t get made, I kind of had this moment of crisis where I just had to figure out what I was doing, why I was writing, what the point of all this was. And I had this moment of epiphany when I looked at all my scripts on my bookshelf and realized that I had spent five years writing movies that I would never want to see. And I decided I needed to write something I genuinely would want to see. And then I didn’t write anything for months, until I saw this play called Stuff Happens, which was about the buildup to the Iraq War. And seeing this play and having done a lot of political theater made me realize, ‘Oh, this is the kind of stuff I should be writing.’ And then when the play ended, I made a pact with myself that I was gonna write something like Stuff Happens. And within 60 seconds the idea of the Florida recount came into my head. That was the beginning of Recount.”

[Photo: Chuck Hodes, courtesy of Fox]

Acting For Love, Not Necessity, 2010

“All through my twenties, I made my income as an actor, that was my livelihood. So every job felt high stakes for me, and it felt hard to get any jobs as an actor. Unless you’re a star in demand, every single acting job that you ever get is a challenge. But once I started writing, it was different,” Strong says. “When Gilmore Girls ended, my writing career had just begun. I had just sold Recount. So I actually quit acting for a few years before I did Mad Men. I moved to New York and I was totally focused on my writing. I was incredibly happy. It was the first time I ever didn’t have auditioning hanging over me since I was 18 years old. And then Mad Men came about because my manager was always trying to get me to come back to acting and that was my favorite show. So when he got me the audition, I said, ‘Okay, well, that one I’ll go in on.’ I loved being on the show. I was actually very disappointed when the character was fired, just because I loved the show so much, but it certainly didn’t have the same impact it would have had on me in my twenties when I not only would have been sad to be off the show but freaking out about how I’m going to pay my rent this month.”

Empire executive producers Lee Daniels, Brian Grazer, Danny Strong, and Ilene Chaiken[Photo: Frank Micelotta, courtesy of Fox]

Dawn Of An Empire

“One of the things that I did with Empire, in the pilot and absolutely in season one, was put dynamic social issues and politics into the story, and then the staff very much embraced it in season two, although they certainly were involved in it in season one as well. I was able to draw back a bit on Recount and Game Change that way,” Strong says. “So in episode two of the first season, one of the characters gives a drunken speech about how Obama is a sellout. I don’t think Obama is a sellout, but this rich, spoiled kid did. And it was a bombastic moment in the show that certainly ruffled a lot of feathers. It was actually the first time Rush Limbaugh ever liked anything I had written. But its infusing social justice, social issues, provocative current day issues into it, which is very much a part of the DNA of the show, and it comes from my own sensibility of wanting to tackle these kinds of stories and Lee Daniels feeling the same way. I think that’s why we ended up doing two projects together.”

[Photo: Chuck Hodes, courtesy of Fox]

Beyond Self-Driven Vehicles, 2016

“I am long past viewing my writing as an outlet to further my acting,” Strong says. “I’m not looking to make Swingers for myself anymore. I just don’t really seem to want to do it. I started off writing comedies and then shifted into political films. I’ve sort of written a variety of different genres at this point, and I’m directing now and I love it. But I still continue to act, and it’s sort of fun to get hired on someone else’s projects for a few days. As soon as I finished Rebel in the Rye, I acted in a project almost a few weeks later. I showed up on set and they were two hours behind and the relief that I felt–that it was not my problem, that it was not my responsibility–was so profound.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.