'Empire' Co-Creator: "Everyone Wanted to Play Cookie, Even Our Executives"

Chuck Hodes/FOX

Danny Strong on writing black characters with co-creator Lee Daniels ("I think initially he was apprehensive") and developing the show’s powerful breakout female lead.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

You are a white actor and writer from Southern California’s South Bay, which means the world of Empire is very far from your own experiences. Does that make the show difficult to write?

I never write about anything that has anything to do with my own life, so when people ask, "How did you write this African-American show?" it’s like, well, how do I write anything? It’s the same process I use for anything I work on.

What was your research process like in capturing the hype and culture of hip-hop?

I watched a lot of interviews with Kanye, Jay Z and Diddy. (Laughs.) There’s also this really great documentary on BET about the history of hip-hop which is awesome.

How did the show change most after opening the writers room?

The key element in moving past the pilot phase was Ilene Chaiken, our showrunner — it was the greatest hire we could’ve made. She’s brought numerous sensibilities, and one is that she just really gets soap plotting. There’s all types of turns, and Lee and I love them for this world. She has been such a fundamental part of this dynamic. Now it’s our show, all three of us.

Lee Daniels said during our Drama Showrunner Roundtable that he does not like it when white people write for black people. How have you reconciled that in your partnership?

I think initially he was apprehensive, but he really loved my script for The Butler and it was sort of a slow roll from there. I didn’t find it contentious at all, but I definitely felt that he was uncomfortable with a white writer telling this African-American story. But I think after our first couple of note sessions and meetings, he got over it pretty quickly. We worked on that script together for years, so I guess his statement doesn’t apply to me or Ilene.

Was the character of Cookie as exciting to you before Taraji P. Henson signed to play her?

When it was on the page, it really popped. Everyone was joking that they wanted to play Cookie, including our executives. It was a running joke. Cookie was conceived in a way that was a unique character we hadn’t really seen on TV. And then Taraji, a brilliant comic actress and a brilliant dramatic actress, she took what was pretty cool on the page and really elevated it. Literally our second day, Lee and I were just giddy over her performance — we knew how entertaining it was and how powerful it was.

Empire ended the season as the top series on broadcast, averaging a 7.1 rating among adults 18- to-49. Did you have any idea it would hit as big as it did?

You have some insecure conversations right before you premiere, but I was optimistic. I called my agent the day before and said, "What do we need?" I didn’t really know because the numbers of what’s considered a success on network television are constantly shifting. He said: "You need a 2.0 rating in a key demo, and everyone’s happy. A 2.5 rating is great; high 2s is a home run." I didn’t envision it being this massive. There really isn’t a template for it in being the first black soap opera on a network, maybe ever. We were definitely going into these uncharted territories.

And you were still working when the show took off?

When everything exploded, we were writing the finale. I’d seen all the episodes, and I felt like the season was really strong. I remember telling Ilene, "I just really want to stick this finale." Ilene and I wrote that together, and I think we did. I think we delivered, and I’m really proud of that.

Did knowing so early about your season two renewal affect how you crafted the rest of season one?

We were so deep into it, we couldn’t hold anything back. You saw how much plotting we had and how we were constantly trying to turn the story over and over and over again at a crazy pace. I think that’s part of the fun of the show. Holding back on story is not something we can be accused of.

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