Lee Daniels Discusses "Difficult Time in America" and How 'Empire' Paved the Way for 'Star'

The co-creator of both Fox music dramas spoke, again, about casting a white actress on his first-year series.
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"You're going to run away with a sound bite," Lee Daniels told reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour during the panel for his first-year Fox drama Star.

That warning came when Daniels, once again, was asked about putting a Caucasian actress (Jude Demorest) at the center of the fictional girl group for his new music drama Star. When Daniels was asked the same question in December, as the show was launching, and he said it was because the country needed healing, his response raised eyebrows.

Speaking in front of a room of reporters Wednesday, Daniels said he had also faced that very question internally. "Why am I putting a white girl in the middle of this black environment with a sister who is half black with another singer who is an entitled, very rich black girl with a transgender," he said he asked himself. "Why am I doing that? Why am I doing that now?

"We're in a difficult time right now in America," he continued. "I foresaw where we would be right now. When I said 'Heal the nation,' I think it was about personal healing. Sometimes you're misquoted. It's about bringing these girls together and watching these girls come together as a family, as they aspire to their dreams. And though there is racism, I was not saying that there is no racism, that I don't acknowledge racism. Racism is very, very, very real. You're talking to somebody that has experienced it firsthand. I'm not going to let racism define me. That's all I'm going to say."

The series, which also stars Queen Latifah and Benjamin Bratt as the two mentors who help the female trio both personally and professionally as they try to make it the music business, will embrace issues of racism, as well as classism, in the episodes to come.

"Star affords Lee really personal storytelling. When we started to develop this together, he said, 'I want to talk about my past as a manger of talent, as someone who comes from a disenfranchised people, and I want to bring that to the country.' And I was so galvanized by that because I want to tell stories that show a diverse world, because that's the world I live in," co-creator Tom Donaghy said. "We want to see more of that on television, so that was our commitment to each other, I think, to bring that out."

Daniels said that the show will touch on "stories that are hitting the streets of American right now."

He added: "It's a new slice of life in America that I don't think you'll see on any other network or anywhere else, even on cable, the stories we're trying to tell."

The cast predicted that those stories would draw strong reactions from viewers. "Lee didn't set it up to come right down the middle of the road," Bratt said. "He's going to challenge you. He's going to provoke you. … You either love it and get it or you don't."

Daniels said the success of Empire, which was renewed for a fourth season earlier Wednesday morning, gave him the motivation and the inspiration to tell the story of Star. "Empire did lay the foundation for me to dare to dream to have the balls to tell this type of story," he said. "It gave me the balls, because I don't think I would have the nerve to tell this story."

Star airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.