'Empire': Inside Fox's ambitious, groundbreaking musical soap
William Shakespeare. Sean “Puffy” Combs. Alexis Carrington. This pop culture threesome doesn’t usually come up in conversation—unless you’re talking to the creators of Fox’s new drama Empire. While driving around L.A., writer Danny Strong heard a story about Combs on the radio and instantly began brainstorming a movie about a hip-hop mogul and his family. “The whole idea just flooded through my head: I’d do it like King Lear or The Lion in Winter,” says Strong. “Make the main character like a dying king, and he’s got three sons. Then my next thought was ‘I think I need to call Lee Daniels.’ ” Strong had just worked with the director on 2013’s The Butler; Daniels loved the concept but wanted one major change. “I said, ‘I miss Dynasty and I would love to see a black Dynasty,’ ” Daniels recalls of the Joan Collins-led prime-time soap. “And off we went!”
But Empire is more than just big hair, sequined gowns, and catfights—it’s one of the most ambitious new dramas of 2015. In the first episode, Lucious Lyon (Oscar nominee Terrence Howard), a rapper–turned–music mogul, is diagnosed with ALS and given three years to live. He must choose one of his three sons—hardworking Andre (Trai Byers), artistic Jamal (Jussie Smollett), or immature Hakeem (Bryshere Gray)—to take over the family business. But Lucious also has to deal with the return of his live-wire ex-wife, Cookie (Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson), who is getting out of prison after 17 years and wants half the company.
The series is also an exploration of the music industry, which means it boasts posh locations, insider industry gossip, and more animal print than the San Diego Zoo. Plus, it addresses social issues such as drug abuse and homophobia. Oh, and did we mention it’s a musical? Sprinkled throughout each of the episodes are original songs produced by hitmaker Timbaland and performed by the show’s cast. This is no small endeavor—and it’s one that other networks have spectacularly failed at delivering. (See: Smash.) “It’s terrifying,” Daniels says of his first foray into television. “The pace is incredible. It’s a completely different world I knew nothing of, and it’s terrifying but exhilarating.”
Part of the excitement comes from the feeling that this series is a bold step forward for the network. “It’s a nighttime drama about an African-American family and about African-American culture that largely hasn’t been portrayed on television before,” says executive producer and showrunner Ilene Chaiken (The L Word). But this also brings a certain level of scrutiny for Empire. “Knowing Fox, a company that’s not known for producing black-centered programming, has put $50 to $60 million into this idea and into this world, there’s huge pressure on that,” says Howard. But, he adds, “a diamond is just a piece of coal that does well under pressure.”
Every kingdom needs rulers, and Fox execs knew that they’d need heavyweights to lead Empire to victory. But when they initially reached out to Henson, who was nominated for an Oscar for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she immediately said no. Henson had wrapped up two seasons of Person of Interest in 2013, and told her business team that she was done with TV. Then her manager passed along the script for Empire. “Cookie scares the hell outta me, which I like,” says the actress, 44. “I was like, ‘The NAACP is going to hate me! I won’t be vetted to come back to the White House!’ So that’s how I knew I had to do it!” In Henson’s hands, Cookie becomes a hot-blooded mother lion in Louboutins, sure to be the show’s most quoted character. For the role of her ex-husband, Lucious, producers had been looking at stars such as Wesley Snipes. But Henson had other ideas. During a Skype call, she issued an ultimatum: Cast her Hustle & Flow costar Howard, or she would walk away from Cookie (and that’s before she even officially got the role). “We have a trust level,” explains Henson about her relationship with Howard. “We have an amazing chemistry. I just knew the level we could take these two characters to.” For his part, Howard, 45, liked “the idea of being able to play the modern-day Fred Sanford turned rich and mixed with Archie Bunker.” Plus, he admits that working with Henson raises his own acting game. “Taraji thinks she’s a better actor than me, so it’s a straight-up war,” he says, laughing. “Taraji refuses to be outdone. The competition is extremely hot.”
Once the leading roles were squared away, Daniels needed to bring in someone to handle the musical elements. Since his taste runs more toward oldies (“I’m stuck in the world of Diana Ross and Donna Summer,” he says), the director turned to some trusted advisers: his kids. They told him he had to go with Timbaland. “So I called Tim up and I said, ‘Tim, I need you,’ ” says Daniels. “And he said, ‘Let’s rock and roll.’ We sat down, and the next day he gave me some music just based on the premise.”
While Empire is a musical, it’s rooted in reality. You won’t see characters just bursting into song when the mood strikes, the way they do on Fox’s last musical hit, Glee. Instead, viewers should expect more organic performances, similar to the country numbers on ABC’s Nashville. Chaiken and her writers give Timbaland an idea of where the plots are headed, and he helps craft songs that fit the themes. Columbia Records plans to release music from Empire each week on iTunes, the same strategy it employed with Glee. That show has racked up more than 64 million downloads in five years, a huge ancillary revenue stream for both the network and the label.
Empire is also set to tackle social issues. One major plotline this season centers on homophobia, particularly in the hip-hop community. Of the three sons, wildly talented middle child Jamal is gay. Lucious refuses to accept Jamal, while Cookie is determined to prove that an out gay black man can not only be a star but also run the empire. Daniels hopes that the story, loosely based on his own childhood with a homophobic father, will get people talking about a subject that is often taboo in African-American culture. “I know the impact it’s going to have in the community,” he says. “But doing it is a very scary thing because it’s talking about things that personally happened to you.”
At its core, though, the show is a soapy family drama. “The central story is the competition amongst the brothers,” says Chaiken. “Which one is going to emerge as the heir to the throne, and what’s going to happen to them along the way?” And at the same time, Cookie will attempt to build her own roster of artists, including one played by Courtney Love. “She used to be a huge, big star who made all this money for the label, and then she got into drugs and she fell off,” reveals Henson. “Cookie is going to try and revamp her career. [Love] is going to blow you away.”
“Go big or go home” could easily be the motto of Empire, but Daniels knows that he’s got some pretty over-the-top competition on TV. “I’m addicted to them damn Housewives,” he admits. “I had to do something to trump those bitches. It’s time for cinema to come to TV again! I gotta bring them down.” Alexis Carrington couldn’t have said it better.