'Empire' Showrunner Breaks Down What to Expect From Fox's Hip-Hop Drama

Ilene Chaiken talks with THR about how the Lee Daniels drama balances story and music as well as how the complicated family dynamic will play out going forward
FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of Fox's Empire.]

Welcome to Empire Entertainment. Fox's ambitious hip-hop drama from creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong follows the infamous Lyon family as they balance changing dynamics and the shift of power now that the patriarch (Terrence Howard) is passing the business to his sons and the matriarch (Taraji P. Henson) has returned from prison with her eye on a piece of it, too.

It all seems ripe for family drama to abound, especially because Daniels previously told The Hollywood Reporter that with the show, he wants to make "a black Dynasty." Add in seasoned executive producer Ilene Chaiken (The L Word) as showrunner and the characters and their journeys are bound to become even more complex.

During the Empire pilot, eldest Lyon son (Trai Byers' Andre) was a part of a plan to pit his two younger brothers (Jussie Smollett's Jamal and Bryshere Gray’s Hakeem) against one another as competing artists, with the former managed by their mother and the latter by their father. Each character, save for Lucious who is already on top in two of the three, is struggling to find his own way in the family, the business and the world of hip-hop. Some are more aware and accepting of the struggle than the others. It is that drive to find their place and prove themselves that drives their actions thus far and sets up a lot of conflict to come.

THR spoke with Chaiken about what that will do to the characters, the Lyon family and the business in the first season.

The Empire pilot introduces a lot of fast-moving parts right away. From the actual plot points of Lucious' illness to Cookie's release to the boys trying to release albums — but also the deeper issues that the characters are facing trying to find their place in the family and in the world of hip-hop. How have you struck the balance of plot in the weekly episodes?

How I approach ensemble drama [is] when you tell your stories, they guide you, and there will be episodes that focus [more] on one character or story than another, and that's the gift of having an ensemble cast. It keeps it fresh and exciting; it gives it places to go; and there are so many great and intense storylines that are set up in the pilot, and every one of them wants to be mined richly.

The central premise of the show does involve a competition for the throne among the three sons, with the complication of Cookie coming back and saying, "Hey, wait a minute, I'm here to get what's mine!" So their stories intersect repeatedly, but they also all have personal stories, and we try to be, in a sense, true to life in the way we tell those stories.

Tonally, do you feel like "soap opera" is an accurate way of describing the path you directed your writers to take?

People have all different reactions to the [term] "soap opera." That goes for internally among my writing colleagues; that goes for the cast as well; [but] we're all talking about the same thing, whether you call it a soap opera ... or you want to call it "serialized melodrama." Whatever you want to call it, it is that thing. ... We're not here to say, "Well you might have thought it was a [soap opera], but we're going to do something different." It's very much what Lee presented to the world in the pilot, which is a big, serialized drama with big moves and gasp-worthy moments and a lot of great, juicy character drama.

Right now it does feel like each character has his or her own struggle to find acceptance, albeit in different ways. This showed itself most heavily through Jamal in the pilot; will that focus remain in the coming episodes?

I would say that every one of the sons has a big story and is equally as important, [but] the Jamal story is powerful — incredibly powerful — and the most accessible, the most definable, and so you might come away from the first season of the show feeling like it dominated in a way. I don't reject the notion that it's a central storyline, by any means.

This is a time in the music industry when a lot of popular artists are coming out as gay. Is Jamal's main hurdle with his father, or will the show explore more of his own internal concerns about being too open?

His own internal concerns are very much a part of it. His father is obviously a huge and painful obstacle for him, but as a gay person he would internalize that struggle, and his father isn't the only person in the world who confronts him with homophobia.

How will the show explore Jamal working through those things?

Everything is reflected in his music, and the music is a big part of his story — it's his weapon, it's his gift, it's his magic power — but his relationships primarily with Cookie and with his brothers and of course the adversarial relationship with his father, which is also a relationship that is laced with a lot of complicated, twisted love, those are the dramatic touchstones for Jamal.

When you and your writers were breaking stories, how did you work in the musical performances and original songs? Were they tent poles in acts you wrote around, or did you leave room for them only when the story seemed to call for it?

The music is always determined by the story. ... We knew we wanted there to be several songs in every episode; we didn't necessarily know what the story would be. The story dictates the songs, and the songs often reflect the themes and the drama of the episode. Occasionally they're more specific in the way that rap can be. You know, rappers actually do rap about what's going on and what they're thinking, and so we were able to do that without being corny, if you will. As we broke stories, we'd say, "He's going to be in the recording studio now, so we need the song he starts to write," and in the sense that music is story, that song becomes a part of the story. "We see him writing it here, and he's struggling, and he's blocked, and then he goes to someone else who helps him to overcome his blocked system" — that's just an example of how we use music and story. And we need that next iteration of the song, and then we may actually see that song performed at the end of the episode or in another episode. We really evolved the songs in the same way that we evolved the scripts.

So you didn't have a certain amount of songs per episode in mind?

Exactly. We knew that there has to be more than one song in every episode, and sometimes it's just a couple, and sometimes it's wall-to-wall, depending on what's going on in the story.

There are a number of notable guest-stars from the music world (Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell, Gladys Knight, Fabolous) scheduled for the first season but not necessarily playing themselves. How were decisions made about who should play a fictional character vs. a version of themselves versus a straight cameo as themselves?

It felt real and interesting to be able to do a show in which sometimes Love comes on and she plays a character, and it's not her, and you might see a little bit of her in it, but it's not her story. And then sometimes, for example, Anthony Hamilton plays Anthony Hamilton. And it makes it feel more real because Lucious Lyon would know all of these people and have those relationships. So, sometimes it's driven by the performer who says, "I'd really like to do something on Empire, and I'd really like to act ... I'd like to play a character." And sometimes we'd say, "We really need somebody to play themselves or somebody really like themselves," and we'd just go with it in a way that feels like it's creating a rich, believable world.

With Lucious' illness, it seems like this is the time the Lyon family should really band together to ensure a bright future for the business, but instead they’re competing. Are they their own worst enemies in that regard, or will there be power plays made from outside the family as well?

There are external adversaries and external factors, but the primary drama is among the members of the family. And then, as happens, while they're in competition with one another, and in some ways in adversarial relationships with one another, when an external adversary comes along, it draws the family together. All of those things, you'll see happening in the course of the first season of this show. As in life, they're at one another's throats, but there is a lot of love among all of them, and in different moments you'll experience different facets of those relationships.

What is the motivation behind Lucious not telling anyone about his illness so far, and how long will he continue to keep the secret?

It's important to keep it a secret, in part for personal reasons, just as a person wants to feel powerful and appear powerful doesn't want to be perceived as ill, but also he's taking the company public, and he's value for that company. So, it does become a story point, and when and how that information gets revealed and whether it ever gets used as fodder, that's all in the mix. It's definitely a factor.

The pilot episode used quite a few flashbacks to better illustrate the family dynamics over the years — especially when it comes to who Lucious and Cookie are as people and as parents. How does that device continue?

We are using flashbacks throughout the series, [but] there's not a formula for it; we don't say, "We must do X number of flashbacks per episode!" It was beautifully done in the pilot, and we wanted to continue it as a motif in the show, and we try to use them as much the same way Lee used them in the pilot: to deepen story, to shed a new light, to show another side to this person's experience in a way that has an impact on the present-day drama.

We're playing with different timelines of the flashbacks [as well]. We talked about whether we would try and do a flashback story that takes place in the past and plays chronologically alongside the present-day story, but firstly I think that even in the pilot, that's already kind of precluded because those flashbacks take place at all different times. And it turned out to be just too much of a conceit, and it constrained us; it wouldn't have allowed us to tell the stories that we needed to tell. So, we do use flashbacks I think really effectively. We love it, and we go where we need to go.

The show is very male-dominant thus far, though Cookie is certainly a force to be reckoned with. What does her journey look like, and what other female characters will prove to be powerful players?

Well, there's nobody as powerful because Taraji [is] such a force, so it would be tough to match her! But yes, there are other female characters in the show who will give her a run for her money.

I think that though she is incredibly tough and strong and audacious, I think even in the pilot she's vulnerable, and in fact that's what makes that character so engaging and just everything. She is audacious and yet her vulnerability is palpable. Her drive is consistent; she's there to get her company, to build it and her family back together, but it changes over the course of the season with events and with knowledge — with an understanding of what happens, what can be changed, what can't be changed, and the recognition that she might have come out with a fantasy of putting her life back together, but now she has to deal with the reality of who Lucious is, who her sons are and what really can happen and what happiness ultimately will look like for her.

Cookie and Jamal have a special bond. Jamal and Hakeem seem to be very close and at their best when together. Yet, at the end of the pilot the line is drawn in the sand professionally. How does this impact the characters' personal relationships?

The line is definitely drawn [as] Cookie and Jamal vs. Lucious and Hakeem with Andre as the spoiler in all of it. We play that out, and we're very true to it, and by virtue of being true to it, everything changes, as everything always does. And [Jamal and Hakeem] is one of the deepest and most delicious storylines to play out; that relationship just was — and is — powerful. I think most people who saw the pilot just loved seeing those two boys together, and they have such a deep connection that it's instantly heartbreaking to think that they're pitted against one another. It's not going to happen instantly, but what we want to tell is the story of how it happens.

With which character do you feel the heart and soul of the show lies, and is it fluid since it is an ensemble show?

I think that there are moments where every one of these characters are the heart and soul of the show. It's the family and the relationships and the alchemy of all of these characters together. There's no question that Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson are the biggest names and also the drivers of story and the glue that binds both of these characters and this cast together. They really have led this show; they love it with a passion, and they really set a high bar that all of their colleagues have striven to clear. But I hope that each of them — and each of these characters — has their moment.

Fox has been promoting Empire in very big ways since the show was announced as picked up during upfronts. Do you concern yourself with that kind of attention at all when you’re breaking stories and writing the first few episodes?

Of course. I think most writers and producers that have worked in television know how rare it is to get the kind of support that we're getting from Fox. It's thrilling; it's gratifying; and it's unnerving!

We concern ourselves with it to the extent that they're very involved; they're our partners — our creative partners, too [sibling studio 20th Century Fox Television developed the show] — and I've certainly had the experience of knowing that [the studio or network] don't really care all that much, on other projects, and not getting the kind of feedback and support but also involvement that we're getting on this show. It's been a great collaboration, but I'd certainly be lying if I said we don't concern ourselves with it. We talk every single day, and we talk about what it is we're doing and how to do it as best we can to fulfill the promise of the show.

Empire airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Are you in?

Twitter: @danielletbd

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