Empire executive producer Danny Strong said he disagrees with Terrence Howard over the star’s insistance that the n-word should be used on the Fox hit series—and also said the network pushes too much for stunt casting on the show.
“I disagree with Terrence,” Strong told a theater of Empire fans at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas on Saturday. “I don’t think we need to use the n-word on the show. If we were on cable, yes. But we’re not on cable. We’re a network show. It’s not a documentary on hip hop. It’s a soap opera set in the hip-hop world and tells a heightened story. And that’s why you’re able to watch the show not notice there’s no profanity.”
Strong explained that even though the real music industry is saturated in profanity, the show has to craft its own world where the absense of profantiy still feels authentic. The producer also noted that the entire debate over the issue has exclusively occurred in the press. “You have something like that Terrence says, Taraji [P. Henson] responds, [executive producer Lee Daniels] responds — you have all these quotes. Guess how many discussions happened about this between us personally? Zero. It’s just something Terence said.”
Howard had previously said in an interview with EW: “I’m mad that we don’t say n—- in the show. Why is TV showing something different from the reality of the world? Why is there a thing called censorship that stop people from hearing everyday talk? We use n—-every day. It’s become part of a conversation—why aren’t we using it in the show?”
Yet one fan asked the Empire producers why it was okay to use a certain gay slur on the series.
“That was really important to Lee in particular, who’s gay,” Strong said. “But I agree, it was a great moment. [Cookie] is throwing [Lucious] homophobia back in his face. To use one of the most offensive homophobic slurs is one of the most powerful ways to do it.”
Strong noted that Fox wanted to cut the word from the script, but producers convinced them by citing a precedent: “You used it on Glee!”
Moderator Jarett Wieselman of BuzzFeed asked Strong about all the famous-name stunt casting on the show, and if there’s any concern about the series feeling inauthentic. “It’s personally frustrating,” Strong said. “I just don’t think we need to stunt cast so much, and there’s pressure to. I don’t think we need to do it. I want to hire people that are talented that [like when Strong was an actor] needed the job and it’s a great opportunity—as opposed to somebody who’s so famous who’s going to do this fun little thing for pocket change. I wouldn’t say it’s a source of tension [behind the scenes], but it’s a source of disagreement. And at times, I agree. It’s a show about superstar musicians so hiring super star musicians completely works. Hiring Courtney Love was a great piece of casting. I wanted to hire somebody less famous, and Lee was adamant about hiring Courtney Love and he was right.”
Also from the panel:
— Executive producer Wendy Calhoun said she was warned before the series launched, “If this show fails they won’t let another all-black drama on television for 20 years.” She also said, “We felt like the show was so much bigger than us. The fear of failure was so great. I couldn’t even let myself go to that place, I wouldn’t have been able to get it done.”
— The Empire writers room talks a lot about HBO’s Game of Thrones. “We’re telling a modern day hip-hop soap opera, but trying to frame it like an epic, mythological kingdom of a show.”
— Strong said season 2 of Empire, which returns this fall, will include a flashback story that will serve as an origin story for one of the characters. The producer also said some have asked how they’re going to make the show “bigger and better” for the next season, yet he thinks that’s a mistake and instead plans to simply continue the story that captivated viewers the first time around. “If we try to make it bigger and better, we’d probably make it worse and lamer.”