With 'Star,' Lee Daniels Mixes Singing and Soul-Searching: "This Show Is Making God Cool Again"

The 'Empire' co-creator and star Queen Latifah discuss how religion heavily influences the new Fox music drama.
Annette Brown/FOX

With plenty of song-and-dance numbers, Fox’s new drama Star could easily be mistaken for a show about life in the music business. Then again, because most of its main characters live within walking distance of the poverty line, you could see it as a thought-provoking examination of a forgotten section of America. It’s even possible to consider it an Empire spinoff, since this is writer-director Lee Daniels’ first series since creating that Fox hit (and it premieres Dec. 14 right after Empire’s midseason finale).

You’d assume all this, and you’d be 100 percent correct. However, at its core, Star dives deeper to discuss one of Daniels’ favorite topics.

“I think we’ve lost our sense of spirituality,” explains Daniels. “So part of what I wanted to get across with this show is making God cool again. The plan wasn’t to hit you over the head with it, but just to get back to how it was when I grew up. I did it with a strong belief in a higher power. I don’t think the kids today have that.”

It was a message that quickly resonated with his longtime friend and Star headliner Queen Latifah. “Hopefully the show will bring people to Jesus and save some souls. Projects with a spiritual element have always been cool to me. It’s always important for me to find things that let me go deeper. So Star is kind of like me saying thanks to God for letting me use my talent to help connect with anyone out there who may need some sort of inspiration.”

In the series, Latifah plays Carlotta, whom she describes as “a troubled woman looking for redemption.” Carlotta used to be a skilled singer but fell on hard times and now runs her own beauty salon. Then she unexpectedly ends up a surrogate mother to two sisters (Brittany O’Grady, Jude Demorest) whose deceased mom was her former singing partner. The girls are joined by a friend (Ryan Destiny), the daughter of a famous rocker (Lenny Kravitz). Under Carlotta’s watchful eye, the trio attempt to launch their singing careers.

Latifah says she and Daniels “have talked for years about different television projects that either he liked or I liked." That included everything from “an ode to [the documentary] Paris Is Burning to something involving a girl group. So when it came to create Star, he took some of those ideas and did a mashup that has become a whole new concept.”

As he was developing that concept, he knew that while he wanted to explore the idea of a girl group, there had to be other elements to the story as well.

“My spirit was telling me at the time that we were at the precipice of civil war in this country,” Daniels says. “Something major was happening. So part of the embryo of Star was talking about how people are really feeling in the streets. I wanted to talk about the atrocities of our foster care system, the racism that exists within black culture and the homophobia even in the gay community. Then I tried to use Carlotta and the girls to show what it’s like to try getting to the top, what you have to do today to get there and when you’re on top, was it really worth it?”

Daniels admits he wrote Carlotta with Latifah in mind. They first met working on his 2009 film Precious and ever since then, he wanted to do something that showcased her singing talents. He also knew she would quickly connect with his goal of “exploring the church through rap and R&B music.” To make the plan work, though, he needed more than Latifah. He also had to find three talented young actresses who could hold their own on a concert stage.

With the help of his casting director sister Leah, he eventually came across the relatively unknown O’Grady, Demorest and Destiny. O’Grady and Demorest had some TV experience, with O’Grady appearing in series like Trophy Wife and The Messengers while Demorest had a handful of film credits and a recurring role on the TNT series Dallas. Destiny, on the other hand, had only worked in a couple of little-seen indie films.

All three actresses loved the idea that they could showcase their musical skills in Star, but like Daniels, they also saw the show as something more than just a traditional TV drama.

“If you love music, you’ll want to watch,” explains Destiny. “But we’re also touching on so many other things, like race and how girls relate to each other and female empowerment. These girls definitely go through a lot of drama but the cool thing is that what they deal with only makes them stronger.”

Adds O’Grady, “This is a show about young women growing up in America in different circumstance, different economic and racial backgrounds. I hope we can inspire women out there to really think about who they want to be and not be defined by any stereotypes.”

To that end, according to Destiny, the show’s writers spoke with all three actresses early on in production “to talk to us about our own struggles. I told them about a girl group I had been in, for instance, and they pulled a lot of great drama out of what I experience.”

The same is true for Latifah. “Some of my experiences from a life in the music business are a part of this. I can relate to some of what all these characters go through, like having the escape of God to bring you through tough times. I know how hard it is to stay on the right path and I think anyone can relate to that. I’ve known people who crashed and burned badly. I know how the hustle is, how tough the business is, how life can throw you for a loop. That helps make this show raw and real and magical at the same time.”

She is very aware of how close her young co-stars’ roles mirror their actual lives, noting that they “really bring their own character to their characters, discovering something in common with them. Which makes it much more real when you watch them.” While she hesitates to call herself a mentor to O’Grady, Destiny and Demorest, she does admit she’s learning to appreciate the responsibility that comes with being the star on Star.

“I’m growing into the mentor role, I suppose,” Latifah explains. “I’m finding I have to be that to some degree but do it without stepping on people’s toes. I try to lead by example, as well as to teach and be supportive. When you see you can help out, you do. People have done that with me throughout my life, so now I can return the favor.”

That’s something her young charges deeply admire. O’Grady appreciates “how she doesn’t take things too seriously but when it’s time to work, she works. She’s so approachable and a very powerful and peaceful presence to have around. She’s herself all the time and I’m learning to be more like that too.” Destiny, meanwhile, calls Latifah “the most humble person I’ve ever met. She’s so chill, you wouldn’t even know what a big star she is. I love how she’s super chill and has shown me by her example that no matter what happens, you can always stay personable and cool and relatable.”

Apparently, there’s just one thing the cast hasn’t heard much of from Latifah — singing.  She does sing in the premiere episode, and at least one other after that. (“Every several weeks you’ll hear Carlotta,” she says. “Carlotta likes to sing in the church.”) Daniels insists that he’s hoping to get more out of her, but has to really plot out how to convince her.

 “If I get three songs out of her in the season, I’ll be happy,” he explains. “I trick her into doing it. I wait until we’re having a good time eating or something, get her going and then sock it to her with my please for her to perform.”

Star premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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