'Empire': Meet the Writers Behind Broadcast's Biggest Hit

The backstories on the 15 voices who drive Fox's hip-hop soap.
Christopher Patey
From left: Blank, Rosengard, Chaiken, Locke, James, Allen, Rodriguez, Strong, Haywood, James, Floyd, Spellman and Escajeda

The writers room responsible for Fox's hip-hop soap opera Empire is every bit as diverse as the juggernaut itself.

"We've got African Americans, Latinos, white writers -- it's this really cool blend of America," says co-creator Danny Strong, who spends his days in the Beverly Hills writers room with showrunner Ilene Chaiken and a newly expanded writing staff of 12 crafting the hit series' melodramatic plot twists and tight, delicious dialogue. 

In late August, the boisterous bunch took a break from brainstorming storylines for season two, which premieres Sept. 23rd, to pose for The Hollywood Reporter's cover story and tell us a bit about themselves. Here, are their stories.

Radha Blank

HOMETOWN New York
PRIOR GIG The Get Down (Netflix)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Cookie — I’m from Brooklyn and Harlem, and I know that voice: strong, unapologetic and still all woman.”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Prince
FAVORITE TV SHOWS Match Game 78 and The Golden Girls

Jamie Rosengard (Writers Assistant)

HOMETOWN Dix Hills, N.Y.
PRIOR GIG Ilene Chaiken’s assistant on Black Box (ABC)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Hakeem! #TeamDimples”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Florence + The Machine
FAVORITE SHOW “Top of the Lake. It’s coming back so it counts.”

Ilene Chaiken (Showrunnner)

HOMETOWN Elkins Park, Pa.
PRIOR GIG Black Box (ABC), The L Word (Showtime)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “I’m a mother. I don’t have favorites.”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Bob Dylan
FAVORITE TV SHOW Orphan Black

Attica Locke

HOMETOWN Houston
PRIOR GIG “Three novels and 50 screenplays that were never produced.”
HOW I LANDED THIS JOB “Danny Strong says it’s because I told him he was cute during our interview.”
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR Andre
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Lightnin’ Hopkins
FAVORITE SHOW Jane the Virgin

JaNeika James

HOMETOWN Tampa, Fla.
PRIOR GIG VH1 scripted development
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Jamal. Cookie’s the heart of the show; Jamal is the soul.”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Nicki Minaj and Lianne La Havas
FUN FACT Fellow writer JaSheika James is her twin sister.

Joshua Allen

HOMETOWN Chicago
PRIOR GIG Hostages (CBS)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Andre Lyon. I can’t help rooting for the underdog.”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Stevie Wonder
FAVORITE TV SHOW “Game of Thrones and House of Cards. I love anything epic with unexpected deaths.”

Carlito Rodriguez

HOMETOWN The Bronx, N.Y.
PRIOR GIG The Leftovers (HBO)
HOW I LANDED THIS JOB “My friend on staff, Malcolm Spellman, pitched me to Ilene.”
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Easy answer is Cookie or Lucious, but seriously, I have fun with all of them.”
FUN FACT He was the former editor-in-chief of hip-hop bible The Source.

Danny strong (Co-creator)

HOMETOWN Manhattan Beach, Calif.
PRIOR GIG The Butler (The Weinstein Co.), Game Change (HBO), Recount (HBO)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR Hakeem
FAVORITE SHOW The Knick
FUN FACT Strong had memorable onscreen roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Jonathan) and Gilmore Girls (Doyle).

Eric Haywood

HOMETOWN Milwaukee
PRIOR GIG Private Practice (ABC), Soul Food (Showtime)
HOW I LANDED THIS GIG “I stalked Danny Strong until he agreed to lift the restraining order. Then I interviewed.”
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR Jamal
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Prince

JaSheika James

HOMETOWN Tampa, Fla.
PRIOR GIG Revenge (ABC)
HOW I LANDED THIS JOB “I’m a fellow of the Fox Writers Intensive Program and was a script coordinator last season.”
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR Hakeem
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Ester Dean
MY FAVORITE TV SHOWS Twinning, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder

Ayanna Floyd

HOMETOWN Toledo, Ohio
PRIOR GIG Hannibal (NBC), Falling Skies (TNT), Hit the Floor (VH1)
FAVORITE CHARACTERS TO WRITE FOR “Lucious, Cookie and Anika — I can’t pick one!”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Mary J. Blige
FAVORITE TV SHOW House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black

Malcolm Spellman

HOMETOWN Berkeley, Calif.
PRIOR GIG Our Family Wedding (Fox Searchlight)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Lucious and Cookie make it easy, but the new Anika in season two is my fave.”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD Fantastic Negrito
FAVORITE TV SHOW Peaky Blinders, UnREAL, Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley

Ingrid Escajeda

HOMETOWN Bonita, Calif.
PRIOR GIG Justified (FX), Better Off Ted (ABC)
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR “Andre is my favorite character, but I love to write for Cookie.”
MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD AC/DC
FAVORITE TV SHOWS Silicon Valley, Game of Thrones and UnREAL

Wendy Calhoun (not pictured)

HOMETOWN Dallas, Tx
PRIOR GIG Nashville (ABC), Revenge (ABC), Justified (FX)
HOW I LANDED THE JOB "I had been pitching the “black version” of Nashville -— which I called Detroit — in the room at Nashville for over a year. I had a blast cracking that room up with my stories, and many of my “dark” soapy twists actually ended up in the country music series. When I read the Empire pilot, I thought I could be free to write my “black version” ideas to the hilt. I could write about my culture and truths I know about black families. I love hip-hop. I’m a Lee Daniels fan, as well as adore many of series regulars cast in the pilot. My moxie went into overdrive. I chased Empire, meeting with Fox executives to make sure they knew how much I loved the pilot script and that I had a clear vision about the series. I resigned from Nashville, hoping I would receive an Empire offer. I was hired for season one. Landing this job is one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken."
FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR "Cookie, of course."
THE MOST PLAYED ARTIST ON MY IPOD "These days, I’m obsessed with the Alabama Shakes. It’s roots rock, but my playlists are all over the map: house music, rap, hip hop, blues, gospel, classical, world – name a style, I’ve got a sample. Brittany Howard’s voice possesses me." 

Robert Munic (not pictured)

Below is a video featuring three of the series writers, who take us inside the process of writing broadcast's biggest show.

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