In front of a massive, enthusiastic crowd at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles Friday night, the cast and producers of Empire talked about the "growing pains" they've experienced in the show's sophomore season and teased what's ahead.
Part of the weeklong PaleyFest event honoring TV, Empire's night began with a surprise showing of its return episode, which airs March 30. After a three-month hiatus, the show picks up with Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) knocked out in a pool of blood after an attack, and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) giving the final vote to boot his father Lucious (Terrence Howard) out of the family company. Fans went wild--particularly for one scene in which Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) wields a broom, her apparent favorite weapon of choice. (Henson was not at the event Friday; she was out of town shooting a movie.)
After the screening, host Kevin Frazier, of Entertainment Tonightjumped right into the toughest question of all, asking co-creator and executive producer Lee Daniels if he agreed that the show "went left" in Season 2. "Yeah," said Daniels, sounding soft-spoken and slightly humbled. "It was growing pains and I think it would have happened to any show. We're learning." Endearingly candid, Daniels talked about having felt, at times, like "It's not enough," which created a desire to pile on more drama. But the most important thing, he noted, was "We came back." The audience cheered.
Howard, who was celebrating his birthday Friday night and was serenaded by the audience at one point, leaned into the show's melodrama, noting that Empire's balance of soapy fun and authenticity is tricky to get right. Invoking Star Trek, he said Empire tries to "transport at warp speed, but we try to keep it grounded. These are well-trained actors turning something impossible into something real. But yes," he said, mimicking reading a script, "we do have those moments where it's like, 'What the f--- is this?'"
Frazier also addressed the rumors about star Trai Byers, who plays Lucious' son Andre and who, according to Page Six item a few weeks ago, wants off the show. According to the report, Byers felt that Empire was beneath his Yale Drama School training and thought his character deserved a more prominent role. "There's not a stitch of truth to it," Byers said Friday. "But it really opens the ground to show how media uses their power to perpetrate negativity built on lies versus positivity, which is built on truth. The truth has to ring louder than lies." Added Howard, jokingly: "I begged Trai to say on the show. But he was never leaving the show." (Indeed, Byers has a prominent role in the return episode, including a juicy breakdown. And, based on a turn of events, Andre's arc appears to intensify.)
Most of the talk, though, was an upbeat celebration. The cast really did resemble a happy family that truly enjoys being together. Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Becky, said they're a bunch of theater and music geeks. "It's like high school, but everyone likes you," she noted.
The significance of the location wasn't lost on anyone either. Just weeks before, the same venue housed the Oscars, where the controversy about a lack of diversity among the acting nominees dominated the conversation. Yet Friday's event was a packed house of people from all kinds of backgrounds celebrating a show put on by a greatly diverse group. (Executive producer Sanaa Hamri is Moroccan; executive producer Brian Grazer, is white; Grace Gealey, who plays Anika, hails from the Cayman Islands, etc.)
"I don't have time to deal with racism," Daniels said. "Am I delusional to say that there's not racism in America? Look at Donald Trump," he said, drawing wild applause from the room. "The minute I embrace it, it becomes real to me and I don't have time. ... I make my own way."
Daniels also said he was humbled by Empire's ability to resonate with people of all backgrounds. "It's an honor to see people of color in homes of America...Spain, Italy, [and] to have as my partners white people able to tell these stories."
Empire returns Wednesday, March 30 at 9/8c on Fox.
Watch: Get a behind-the-scenes look at Cookie's wardrobe.