Lee Daniels Talks 'Empire' Growing Pains, Letting Cookie Speak for Herself

Empire S01E06 Still - H 2015
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire S01E06 Still - H 2015

Opining on the success of Fox's Empire, Lee Daniels was also candid about the rocky transition from film to television. Speaking during Wednesday's HRTS hitmakers luncheon, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's own Stacey Wilson, the co-creator of broadcast's new No. 1 show had no qualms admitting that there were some difficult moments.

"At first, I bucked the system, because I'm so used to going it alone," he said, also referring to fellow scribe Danny Strong. "This wasn't us fighting with [Butler producer] Harvey Weinstein over a cut, this was a group of people. So I learned to collaborate."

Daniels added that he was about halfway into Empire's 13-episode freshman run before he felt he, Strong, showrunner Ilene Chaiken, Fox and studio 20th Century Fox TV all clicked and they got into a groove. "It was a rough experience — and I don't know one that I would repeat," he said. "I lost my virginity. I don't know that I would want to lose it again."

Joined onstage with a slew of other TV creators — Sarah Treem (The Affair), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Michelle King (The Good Wife) — Daniels also emphasized that the collaborative nature of Empire extends to his cast.

"I trust the actors. … Sometimes they're more aware of the truth than I am," he said. "I'm not married to the word. The situation is important, it's been written, but the nuance is why we've cast them."

Speaking of breakout Taraji P. Henson in particular, he noted that the actress behind Cookie will "add a line or a word that makes it sparkle." (One thing Lee did not discuss was anything related to the series' upcoming second season, where episode count and return date are both variables of much interest.)

There were quite a few new series represented on the panel, and the other creators had their own stories of growing pains. Treem said that she's gotten a lot of flak for The Affair's treatment of infidelity, as well as her own takes on marriage — like one she shared with The New York Times.

"At one point I did compare love to a game of tether ball … that was a mistake," she said, laughing. "People are very, very threatened that true love could have an element of infidelity in it and that one doesn't negate the other."

As for Soloway, the parallels between the characters on Transparent and her real-life family, which serves as its inspiration, have made mini-celebrities out of her mother and transgendered "moppa." 
"They love it," she said. "Everybody is just a teeny bit famous now. My mom told me to stop saying this, but she's not here. She's a TV writer now and she's written a script."