Lee Daniels Breaks Down 'Star' Premiere, Black Lives Matter Inspiration and Escapism in a Trump Era

The co-creator discusses the show's journey to "finding its place," and hints at an 'Empire' crossover.
Annette Brown/FOX

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

For a cast of virtual unknowns, there was a lot of star power packed into Wednesday night’s premiere of Star. The series opened up with 17-year-old Star (Jude Demorest) breaking away from her foster family, rescuing her sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) from an even worse foster family, and grabbing her Instagram friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny) to start a girl group. The trio quickly traveled to Atlanta in search of the sisters’ godmother Carlotta (Queen Latifah), only to learn there’s more to launching a new group than they had hoped.

From Star stabbing a man and leaving him for dead to her posing as a stripper in order to land manager Jahil (Benjamin Bratt), as well as the girls’ first performance at a sport celeb’s house, the series packed a lot of story into the first episode. And that’s not even including the introduction of Carlotta and her church, a complex transgender character named Cotton (Amiyah Scott), or the Derek character (Quincy Brown) and his activism.

To get a better idea of the show’s vision and its take on music, spirituality and making it in Hollywood, THR spoke with co-creator Lee Daniels. Here he talks the showrunner change behind the scenes, escapism in a Donald Trump era, and the likelihood of a potential Empire crossover.

There’s a lot packed into the pilot. How do you plan on maintaining that pace going forward?

We had to cram so much in so that we could explain the characters as they unfold throughout the series. We introduce them all in those first 45 minutes and as the series continues, we are then introduced to each of the girls individually and their backstories, and that’s inclusive of Carlotta and Jahil.

As you’re telling those stories, are there comparisons to your own journey in Hollywood?

Yeah. This comes at a time where for me … it’s a little bit of everything that goes on. A little bit of the current life that’s going on, with the Derek character and the Black Lives Matter movement, it was written a little bit because of that. A little bit of what my feelings are for my son right now, and my friends of color that have kids that are at that age. It was really important to see that without hitting people over the head with it. And also a part of my life that I never discuss, which is when I first arrived in Los Angeles as a young kid, the things I have done. It’s really crazy because I’m watching the girls and they’re so naïve and so not ready for the ride that they’re going to go on. They parallel. Their real lives parallel what happened in my life as a kid and also what’s going to really happen to them. So it’s exciting. And even with Jahil, that’s a character who’s loosely based on me.

Is that part of the reason you wanted to cast unknowns in these roles?

Yes. For some of them, it’s their first time acting. It’s exciting working with young talent that are doe-eyed and naïve and that we don’t know.

In the pilot, there’s a strong juxtaposition of fantasy with hardcore reality. How do you balance that going forward?

The season is finding its place right now. We dip in and out of it, sometimes you think you’re going to get a fantasy and you’re not. I’m not sure if it’s going to work or it’s not going to work, we’ll find out. But right now every third or fourth episode we come out of the fantasy and don’t do it. The fantastical is part of the magic of the show, but don’t get used to fantasy in every episode of the show.

What about the balance of religion and some of the soapier elements, like Star in the strip club, for example?

It’s so scary. It’s the scariest thing ever because it’s so hard to discuss the subject matter without being preachy. It’s the hardest thing I have in this show is to keep that fine balance of bringing swag to the church. As a storyteller that’s the hardest thing, is to not seem preachy. For me, I’m seducing people into spirituality … or trying to. I was with my son and daughter when they were 13 or 14 and we were in the Bahamas, and my son turned to me and told me he was an atheist. I didn’t know how to process that. I realized that I had grown up in the church — my mom made sure I was there — but I had been so busy trying to give my kids the life that I hadn’t had, that I missed that boat in bringing spirituality into their world. It really is the only thing that I have that keeps me centered. So I said, “Listen. If you’re on a plane, and that plane’s going down, I don’t know who you’re going to scream for, but I’m screaming, ‘Help me, God.’”

Part of the craziness of what’s happening in the millennials today is that I don’t believe there’s a really strong foundation of spirituality. We’ve sort of veered away from it. I’m not making a stand, but I think our generation has lost a higher viewing and that’s part of the lackadaisical, laissez-faire attitude that the younger generation has that has gotten the current president [to be elected] president.

How has your vision for the show shifted since Donald Trump’s election?

It’s shifted a little bit. It threw a wrench because I wasn’t able to watch television. I wasn’t able to watch the news … I’m still not. It’s being in a state of denial. My partner Tom Donaghy, who is the co-creator of this, sent me a making of Bewitched, behind-the-scenes. I remember escaping into that and feeling so comfortable for the first time in a while. I realized that during that time it was the Vietnam War. I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched were on because Americans didn’t really want to deal with the hard truths. We knew what the hard truths were. You could turn on the news to see — it was ugly. So I said, “OK, let me make this less in your face about politics and more about the magic and dreams behind making a girl group.” Dreams can come true. It sort of shifted. I started out wanting to make a political statement through music and it sort of shifted.

How does Chuck Pratt (Melrose Place) fit into that as the new showrunner?

He brings centered-ness to my insanity and a structure to my storytelling. I’m able to say, “This is the story I want to tell, help me tell it over this season. How do I break it down?” He can de-compartmentalize way better than I can. He helps keep my brain organized so that the story is broken down into those 12 episodes.

Could Empire and Star ever exist on the same plane? Could these girls ever audition for Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), for example?

(Laughs.) … Um… yes. Yes. And that’s the first time I’ve said that.

Would you care to expand on that?

No.

Star kicks off its first season run Wednesday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

What did you think of the first episode? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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