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Lee Daniels on Fox's 'Empire': 'I Wanted to Make a Black 'Dynasty'' (Q&A)

The Oscar-nominated director talks with THR about Fox's newly ordered hip-hop drama series, including advice from Oprah Winfrey and the challenge of tackling PG material.

Lee Daniels
Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP

Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels has added another line to his growing résumé: TV show creator.

Fox announced Tuesday that The Butler director's hip-hop family drama Empire received a series order for the 2014-15 season. A collaboration with Butler writer Danny Strong, Empire stars Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, the ex-wife of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who heads the hip-hop record label at the center of the series. The show also reunites Daniels with his Oscar-nominated Precious actress Gabourey Sidibe, who most recently appeared on FX's American Horror Story: Coven.

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THR spoke with (an elated) Daniels just moments after the announcement about transitioning from film to TV, which of his famous friends said she didn't think he could ever do a series and whether he will maintain the tradition of wearing pajamas to work.

Congrats on your series order for Empire. How does it feel?

I'm trying to adjust! I'm just so thankful for Fox. This is really some cutting-edge stuff, it's really out there. They understood my and Danny [Strong]'s vision and they embraced it. They encouraged us to create these incredible characters who are based on real people, family members of mine. I think people will be surprised by the subject matter. They won't know what to make of some of our situations.

But why do TV now after having such a huge hit last year in The Butler?

Every time you think you have it, there's another medium. I want to learn. I want to stretch my muscles as a director and work under different circumstances. When it was pitched to me — Danny pitched it as a movie, like King Lear — I said, "Danny we should be doing TV. We've had a film career; let's switch up the game a little bit." So it's stuck. Who would have thunk it?

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Are you prepared for the rigor of doing TV? It's fair to say that you're a pretty emotional guy.

Actually, everybody said I couldn't do a TV show.

Who said that? Why?

I can't say. Someone very famous said it when I was directing her in The Butler. Her name starts with "O." (Laughs.) She said, 'You can't do TV!' It's because she knows me so well. Fox doesn't know me and that's why that gave me a TV show. No, it's really wonderful. I'm a filmmaker. I'm always searching for the truth in everything I do. I demand it from my writing partner and my crew, actors, and so hopefully we're making people think. We're making statements about sexuality, the African-American experience, what happens when you come from extreme poverty and hit it big and you're a billionaire? What is jail really like?

But why broadcast? Cable would have afforded you more freedom to make the content edgier.

It would have been easy for me to go to HBO, Showtime, Starz — but it was almost like The Butler; it was so hard for me to be PG-13 in that. It was so hard that I was scratching my skin off while I was directing. My shit is R. It's out there. It's sometimes even X. I was uncomfortable doing PG-13. So how do I push myself further? Let's do this PG! Also now working with notes? That concept is incomprehensible to me. I only get notes from actors. But Fox and the studio have been like, "What do you guys want? Let's make it happen." We didn't get everything. I asked for everything because I'm a pig. A couple things were cut, but for the most part we got what we wanted. We have a great team of writers. But here's the thing: It's all done through the music. Timbaland has done some music that is off the chain. So we experience it in a very honest way. It's not staged. We are Glee without the G. (Laughs.) I came up with that two nights ago.

How will music be integrated into the narrative of the show? Similarly to Glee?

Actually, it's more like Nashville. And The Sopranos, because there is not much violence. And Dynasty. I wanted to make a black Dynasty. You sit there and go, "No, this bitch didn't! Oh my f---ing God!"

There are few shows currently on TV, hardly any on broadcast, populated and created by and for black people. Is America ready for a hip-hop series?

(Yelling) Honey, we are here! We are here! And we're here with social issues. And we do it through humor. If you know my movies, you know that. I'm winking at the camera saying, "Gotcha!" We're not hammering it over your head. I've never been so humbled. There's always something else that God has planned.

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How will social media figure into your show-creator duties?

I have to call my cousin and he will tell me. I'm not illiterate when it comes to that, [but] I'm so f---ing backwards. But my kids tell me to Instagram, so I do that. I have a few thousand followers. But I think, when my cousin and kids saw the pilot — "Dad, everyone is going to be tweeting about this!" — what does that all mean? Oprah knows. I have to talk to her.

Are you ready for the critical onslaught that is social media?

Well, even my 18-year-old daughter said I couldn't do TV. She said, "Dad, you don't know this world. This isn't Precious in the '80s! This is now." So I had to go out and bring some soul into the process. What's happening now in music: There's no Michael Jackson or James Brown. There's no sweat. There's no imperfection. All that truth is gone in this overproduced business. I mean, I watched the Grammys and didn't like anything. For me it's about being new school with an element of old school. I think Amy Winehouse was the last truth in music. My daughter saw the show and said, "I can't believe you did it!" And I said, "Go over there with Oprah!"

Will you wear your signature pajamas on set or choose something more traditionally suitable for making television?

I'm going to show up in my pastel very expensive pajamas and change into my underwear for bed. Why would things be different just because it's TV? There you go!

FOX