Courtney Love on 'Empire': It's a Tribute to Whitney Houston

The singer-songwriter-actress talks with THR about her renewed focus on acting and what to expect from her recurring role on the Fox hip-hop drama.
 Chuck Hodes/FOX

One of the things Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's hip-hop soap opera Empire is becoming known for — aside from its record-breaking ratings — is its growing roster of iconic musical guest stars. And in Wednesday's episode, "Out Damned Spot," the streak continues when the Fox drama introduces recurring guest Courtney Love as Elle Dallas, another acclaimed member of the Empire Entertainment roster.

"Back in the day, I wouldn't play rock stars. I got offered a lot of [those] parts, and I turned them down, but it's a new time, and it's a new dawn, and I'm really committed to doing this full-time whether it be theater or television or film," Love told The Hollywood Reporter of her acting aspirations, which also recently included FX's Sons of Anarchy.

Read more 'Empire': How Lee Daniels Made TV's "Black 'Dynasty'

THR caught up with Love to discuss joining Fox's breakout drama and what to expect from her character.

How did the idea of appearing on Empire first come up? Was there ever consideration of coming on in a cameo role as opposed to taking on a fictional character?

I had been hearing from different friends for about two years that Lee had wanted to work with me or was talking about working with me — we know a lot of the same people, and we've both been around a long time — and I have a friend who implored me to text him. I felt really weird about it. ... This was about four or five months ago, and I texted him, and he called me immediately and said, "I think I have a part for you." We talked about what the part would entail, but it was never a question of being a cameo or anything like that. He had given me the character's name and the back story and all that ... and then I didn't hear from him for about three or four weeks and he called me ... and the back story had changed in the writers' room, but it's liquid when you do TV. And that was that.

What was the back story originally?

She was always going to be Elle Dallas [but] she was supposed to be R&B royalty, but I'm not a R&B singer; I'm a rock singer. It was kind of funny; he had given me a Labelle song to sing, and I think the crew at Fox is still cringing because I tried singing this Labelle song ["Messin' With My Mind"], and I just can't. It's not my thing! (Laughs.)

And how would you describe Elle when the Empire audience actually meets her?

She is the first really huge seller on Empire Entertainment, and she makes sure that Lucious (Terrence Howard) knows that! She's got a lot of entitlement, and I think she's just lost.

She goes from presenting herself in a very strong, assertive way to then being revealed as quite vulnerable. What is her greatest struggle in trying to get back on top?

I think she's no longer relevant, and she's not making relevant music, and because she has such a big drug problem, she's not really paying attention to what's relevant and what's not; she couldn't care less. It's made clear in ["Out Damned Spot"] that Elle sold 147 million records as opposed to my paltry 8 [million] (laughs), so I look at Mariah [Carey] and Whitney [Houston] and some of the big divas that have sold those kind of numbers, and what Whitney was like the very short amount of time I spent with her, and Mariah, who's great — I adore her, but she does have a retinue; she's an industry unto herself. I kind of wanted to bring some of that [to Elle]. She's trying to get relevant again, but until she gets rid of the drug problem she's not going to be able to focus on being relevant again.

Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Elle seem to have parallel stories in terms of both of them looking for a comeback. How does their relationship progress as episodes go on?

Taraji is so amazing to work with; she's such a force. Taraji as Cookie has set up camp, and definitely Anika (Grace Gealey) wants to take her down. I'm part of [Cookie's] army; she comes and saves me from the gutter, and you'll see what the result is. It is redemptive, and then something happens that I can't tell you. (Laughs.) But she needs Cookie; even though she doesn't really know Cookie, she needs her, and I think Cookie's the best thing that's ever happened to her. Lee Daniels likes things real; he likes things dark; and he likes things honest. And Taraji's such an honest actor it gave me a lot of empowerment to also be just super honest and in no make-up and make [things] bigger and really give it up and not be vain or any of that stuff.

Read more 'Empire's' Taraji P. Henson on Cookie's Careful Planning, Loyalty and Greatest Vulnerability

Elle does step into the recording studio in "Out Damned Spot." How did you craft her style of music and her process for recording — how much are you pulling from your own?

The idea is that she's lost her voice. Lee's kind of paying tribute to Whitney in a way, and he wanted somebody that symbolized [that] initially — somebody who had this fantastical voice and lost it. I've never had a fantastical voice. I have a very definitive rock tone to my voice. The original song is given to me, but I went to this producer who's affiliated with the show in L.A. and we worked for three days on it, which is kind of long for a television song. And when the cameras were on I just tried to sell the hell out of the song as if I wrote it, because I'm not used to doing material that other people write. So it's really about trusting the people picking songs and them understanding my range — and I think they do because I kind of terrified them when I sang that Labelle song! (Laughs)

Coming off a great run on Sons of AnarchyEmpire is a very different type of drama. What has been the biggest challenge with this new show and role?

I came from film, where there's one director, and in television it's a different person every episode. So that's something new for me, and that's interesting. It's been baby steps from Sons of Anarchy, where I didn't have a lot to do, to Empire, which offers a lot more meaty scenes. I'm really just happy to be back doing what I love to do.

Empire airs on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Are you looking forward to seeing Love's big musical return? Sound off in the comments section below. Check back to THR's The Live Feed after the episode for our weekly Empire postmortem.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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