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Courtney Love: I Channeled My Inner Mariah Carey for Empire

Watch an exclusive clip

Liz Raftery

Miss World is becoming Miss Empire.

Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) may be running the titular record label on Fox's breakout drama, but on Wednesday's episode, viewers will meet the woman who built it all: Elle Dallas, played by Courtney Love.

In what will undoubtedly be seen by some as a winking nod to Love's own struggles (past and present), Dallas is introduced as a former chart-topping artist who's on the downward trajectory of her musical career, thanks to her voice and general appearance being ravaged by age and addiction. But in spite of some similarities between them, Love says Elle stands on her own.

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"I'm not playing myself," the Hole frontwoman tells TVGuide.com. "I did get some distance between me and Elle, because back in the day, I would never play rock stars. ... I got offered Joplin and other rock stars and I just would never play them. It's a new dawn. I'm 50 and this is a second shot at acting in general, and I'm so blessed. ... I love [creator] Lee [Daniels] so much for giving me this part and letting me come back to something that's juicy and really exciting."

Love says she drew inspiration from Mariah Carey and other musical divas to tackle the role. So it's perhaps fitting, then, that it's Empire's queen lioness herself, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who's tasked with restoring Elle's career on this week's episode. And for anyone who doesn't think Cookie's capable of being flustered, just wait until you see her fangirl out in the presence of Elle (whose music she credits with saving her life).

Read our full Q&A with Love to find out what it was like acting opposite Henson, and what she did in preparing for the role that made Fox executives "cringe."

How did your role on Empire come about?
Courtney Love: As it turns out, me and Lee know so many of the same people. Between the two of us, we have seen it all, but for whatever reason our paths never crossed. ... Three years ago, when I was starting to get really bored with touring, and really wanted to get back into acting ... I heard from another person and another person and another person, 'You should call Lee Daniels. You should call Lee Daniels.' ... I texted him, 'Hi, Lee. It's Courtney Love. Huge fan.' And within a minute, my phone rang. He's not a texter, he's verbal - which I love, because so many people just go on text these days. And he said, 'Listen, I'm doing this little show and I think I have a part for you in it.'

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What were you told about the character?
[Lee said], 'I was thinking about a Whitney [Houston] character, but I would modify it for you.' We kind of talked about her backstory and where she came from and how she had been integral to Empire by selling 150 million records - which I don't know anything about. I mean, I've sold maybe eight. That's on a good day. But, you know, getting into the mindset of a real diva - an Aguilera, a Mariah, a Madonna, those kind of sales - which, as an alternative rock artist, I've never known. So, two weeks passed, I didn't hear anything. I thought, well, maybe it was a unicorn. Then he called me and he said, 'I'm sending sides over and I want you to play this part of Elle Dallas.'

How did you prepare for the role?
I've been in acting class hardcore. I'm the oldest person in the acting class. They're all, like, 20. But my acting class teacher is hard on me, so that's really good. ... I kind of took the diva-ness of Mariah [Carey], who I know socially and really like, but she's always with four people. She's got a bodyguard and stuff like that, which I don't need. Mariah is her own universe and I adore her, but she's hilarious. Some of Whitney [Houston] and the tragedy of Whitney. A little [Amy] Winehouse I think. We're following a little of that story. So I mixed it up. A little Stevie [Nicks]. ... I always steal from Stevie anyway.

Many people have criticized you over the years for various things, some of which are issues that Elle also faces. Was it cathartic for you to play this part?
'Various.' (Laughs) It's the entire alphabet, A to Z. For one thing, [Elle] is on a lot of drugs, which I haven't been in many years, but (sarcastically) jeez, I had to do a lot of research for that. She's hiding that, so that was acting because when I did [drugs], I never hid it - or, not very well.

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It's a pretty brave performance that's somewhat unflattering at times.
I really wanted to just give it 100 percent, and not let [Lee] down, because I know he was depending on me to give it my all. They were like, 'You sure you want this many blemishes?' I'm like, 'Give me more zits! More scabs!' Make it raw and real. And then I had to do ADR, which is when you do your voiceover, and see myself on a big screen. I mean, I am not 30 anymore, but it's cool. I'm down with it.

How much input did you have in the music you sing on the show?
The only glitch was the song [Daniels] wanted me to do. It's not written as a rock powerhouse. It was written as R&B white royalty. And I can't hit those notes. I'm not Mariah. So they sent me this Labelle song - it's not a hit. It's a deep cut called "Messin' with My Mind." Patti LaBelle is an institution, who is very famous for hitting crazy notes. So, I got on the phone with, I think it was about five or six Fox executives. (sings off-key) "Messin' with my mind!" My voice cracked and they're still cringing from it. It so didn't work. And so, we decided on a cover. ... In this episode, I fail at the song anyway. We do "Take Me to the River" by Al Green, which Talking Heads did, Annie Lennox did. It can be done as a rock song. I flew down to Miami and worked with Timbaland on it, and that's the song that you hear.

Do we get to hear Elle perform any other songs?
In the next episode I do an original song that's much more in my register. ... I worked with one of Timbaland's guys, this guy Rafael Saadiq, and we worked really hard on it. It's an original song, but I'm not used to doing songs that I didn't write. So, I really had to pull out every trick in my arsenal, anything I've stolen from Michael Stipe or Bono. And I studied some Whitney and some Mariah.

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In the grunge era, you were kind of a woman in a man's world, and it seems like Cookie is also in that position on Empire. Do you think that the characters of Elle and Cookie make a statement about women and legacy artists in the music industry?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Does Cookie listen to hard rock? Yeah, she does, apparently. ... She's somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor and Alexis Carrington. [Taraji's] brilliant in this.

You have some pretty raw scenes together in this week's episode, first in a hotel room and then in the recording studio. What was it like to work with her?
I was so honored to work with her. She blew my mind. And because she was so giving, when the camera was on me, it made me up my game. ... It's an absolute delight to work with the cast. It's incredible. Taraji Henson is major. I don't know where the hell she's been. She's going to be such a superstar out of this, and she so deserves it. She's so giving and generous as an actor. I love Terrence as well, but I didn't work with him as much. ... It's a flawless, wonderful cast and crew.

Are you surprised the show has been such a success?
No one knew it was going to be a hit. I'm just finding that out now. I just got back from Berlin. I didn't even know. Someone in Berlin said to me, 'Oh, you guys are crushing it.' I'm like, 'What?' It's huge. No pressure there.

Will we be seeing more of Elle as the show goes on?
I've just done two episodes, and they're on hiatus til July, so we'll see what happens with my character. It's kind of left in the air what happens.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox. Check out an exclusive clip of Love as Elle Dallas below: