Fox's new drama Empire is wrong in all the right ways.
Much like a stereotypical hip-hop song, everything about Empire is lavish and over-the-top. Created by The Butler's Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, it stars Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, a drug dealer-turned-rapper-turned-music mogul who, after discovering he has a terminal illness, must decide which of his three sons will take over his company: the business savvy Andre (Trai Byers), the sensitive gay singer Jamal (Jussie Smollett) or the party boy rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Gray). "What is this, King Lear?" Jamal winkingly notes. Meanwhile, Lucious must also contend with his opinionated ex-wife Cookie (played gleefully by fellow Hustle & Flow alum Taraji P. Henson), who was recently released from prison and is looking to get her share of the business (read: half).
There's a lot going on in Empire, which is key for any good soap opera. But unlike your typical soap, Empire is aggressive in its refusal to conform to political correctness. In one particularly memorable scene, Cookie snaps at Lucious, "I want to show you a f----- can run this company," referring to her decision to manage Jamal. In an earlier flashback, reportedly taken from Daniels' own life, Lucious is shown putting Jamal into a trashcan after discovering him wearing high heels while Cookie does everything she can to defend their son.
While the show is unabashedly provocative, something that might turn many viewers off, Daniels defended the language to the New York Times, saying, "Cookie has earned the right to use it." And though Empire certainly pushes buttons, these moments never seem gratuitous, but true to these characters, who are larger than life and have no interest in what the world thinks of them.
Empire is obviously not a show for everyone, but for fans of melodrama and good music - the soundtrack is overseen by none other than hit producer Timbaland - it's more than worth checking out.
Want to know more? Find out everything you need to know about Empire from executive producer and writer Danny Strong below:
What inspired you to create a hip-hop drama?
Strong: Basically I was driving around L.A., I was in Chinatown, and there was a news story about Puffy and I remember hearing the story on the radio thinking, "Hip-hop is such a great world," you know? And at first I thought it was going to be a movie. And I thought it was such a dynamic, charismatic world and you can have music in it. And then I instantly thought about King Lear and The Lion in the Winter and all of these different ideas kind of flooded into my brain, and I called Lee Daniels and said, "I have an idea." And I pitched it to him and he loved it. And then he called me the next day and said we should do this as a TV show instead of a movie. And that's sort of how it came to be.
How has it been working with Lee on this show?
Strong: It's been great! We got really close working on The Butler. And we worked on that together for many years and just going through getting the movie made and then making the movie and then post and releasing the movie. It was an intense process and I think people either get really close or they hate each other at the end of it. And Lee and I ended up really good friends and I just thought he was the perfect guy for this.
Network shows have really been testing the limits of what they can say and do. Will we see Empire similarly push boundaries?
Strong: I think so. I definitely think you're going to see pushing the boundaries for network television. It would have made more sense for us to go to cable, but there was something sort of exciting about turning this into a network Dallas-Dynasty-type show. It was one of the main reasons we wanted to go network — trying to mold it more like Dynasty than trying to be a gritty cable show where we could have all the violence, profanity and nudity we wanted. We wanted to do something more glossy and heightened. And Lee also said, "Half my family can't afford cable and I want them to be able to watch this show." So I said, "Let's do it on network!"
You have written a lot of serious dramas (The Butler, Game Change, Recount). Are you having fun writing a soap opera?
Strong: Absolutely! I've worked on all sorts of different things. And the things that have been made, I've been very fortunate to have some cool projects made and there were certainly some intense political dramas, but I've also tried to infuse humor into all of them. But it was cool getting to do something completely different. And we want our show to be subversive and thoughtful and to be layered, but also we wanted to fulfill the qualities of a really great, juicy, nighttime soap opera. And doing those types of story lines and those types of dialogue has been a blast.
It's also great to see a soap opera feature an all-black cast, which is something I don't know that I've ever seen on network TV.
Strong: I don't think so. That Diahann Carroll show form the '70s [Julia], was that an all-African American cast? I'm not sure. But we did definitely think there was something very cool and historic about that. But then once we started to dive into it, it started to go away that it's an all-African-American cast because the show really isn't about race issues. It's about this really wealthy family who came up through drug-dealing in Philadelphia. So there's definitely class issues at play and a story about people who had no money having all the money in the world and all the fame in the world. So the kind of race of it all started to fade away for us.
Cookie and Lucious had these tough lives growing up, but their kids are so coddled. How are these two different perspectives going to play out in the show?
Strong: Well, that's what you're going to have to watch! That's the fun part, right? That's certainly the dynamic between Cookie and her family and such a major part of the show, where these three kids have all grown up in wealth. Then you get to see these flashbacks of Lucious and Cookie and their background and see that they were the opposite of wealth. They were these drug-dealing hustlers in Philly and certainly the flashbacks I find particularly emotional, when you see the path and where they came from and what they're dealing with today and what money is doing to this family.
Cookie did sacrifice everything for her family when she went to jail, but now that she's out, is she still so selfless or have her motivations changed?
Strong: Cookie's in it to win it, you know? Cookie believes that this empire is half hers and wants her empire back and she also wants Jamal to succeed. You're going to see her doing everything she can in full Mama Rose fashion to turn Jamal Lyon into a star. But she's also a mother and she wants to have relationships with her other boys too. So those two goals — to turn Jamal into a star but to also have relationships with her other two sons — are in conflict with each other. That's certainly what she's going to be struggling and dealing with over the course of the season amongst other things.
I can't imagine anyone except Taraji playing Cookie. She seems to be having the time of her life in this role.
Strong: Yeah, that is a very special performance. I've gotten to work with some amazing actors and been so fortunate to and Taraji's definitely one of the best I've ever worked with. She is just a powerhouse, so funny and charismatic and dynamic and really moving and touching and bringing such emotional depth. She does it all. And Terrence is a killer actor. He has this energy and vibe that's so different than hers. And the two of them together, I think it's really special.
The music is so crucial to this show. How did Timbaland end up coming on board?
Strong: Lee Daniels asked his kids, "Who should I get?" and they all said Timbaland. And he went after Timbaland ferociously and when Lee goes after something ferociously, he usually gets it.
How does the music factor into the show?
Strong: In multiple ways. At times, the show functions like a musical, where you have musical numbers where characters are singing or rapping a song that reflects upon their struggles that are going on in their lives. Except because the show takes place in a music industry it organically works. It's not as if we stop the story for a character to break out into song. It's because they're recording or performing in front of an audience and we're able to have the best of both worlds. And sometimes the music is just how music is, where it's used as accompaniment or score.
You have so many great guest stars coming on this season. Which ones were you particularly excited about?
Strong: Oh gosh, I don't know. I was really excited about the idea of Naomi Campbell because we haven't seen her in a major acting role. And it's a major role and she's so good in it. And really the whole concept was so excited to me. And it was Lee's idea. He said we should have Naomi Campbell do this and I thought, "Wow. If she can pull this off it would be really exciting." And she more than pulls it off. She's terrific on the show.
Can you tell me a little bit about her character?
Strong: All I can say is that she is having a relationship with Hakeem, the youngest son.
Wow. That's an age difference.
Strong: Right?! And it certainly is. And Naomi is one of the more stunning people I've ever seen. She's just hypnotic and she's hypnotic in the show. She's just so charismatic and lovely to be around. She's doing a really terrific job. It's really exciting to watch.
Empire premieres at 9/8c on Fox.