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Danny Strong was all of 8 years old when he began sending letters to what was then the William Morris Agency. A latchkey kid in Manhattan Beach, he’d watched Silver Spoons and Diff’rent Strokes, thinking, “I should be on TV.”
By 10 or 11, he’d found a kindred spirit in Quentin Tarantino, then just a “bombastic clerk” at Strong’s favorite video store. “I started spending all this time talking to him, and he’d recommend movies to me,” says Strong. “They all started calling me Little Quentin. It’d be like, ‘Quentin, Little Quentin’s here.’ ”
In his 20s, Strong landed acting roles in TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, later, Gilmore Girls. By his 30s, he’d added screenwriter to his résumé, penning the Emmy-winning political dramas Recount and the follow-up Game Change for HBO, and writing Lee Daniels’ The Butler for the big screen. In his 40s, Strong made his directorial debut on the J.D. Salinger film Rebel in the Rye, and, with Lee Daniels, co-created the Fox juggernaut Empire.
Now, three years shy of 50, Strong is set to debut his first limited series, Dopesick, a star-studded look at America’s struggle with opioid addiction. From his New York City apartment that he shares with his fiancee, the bicoastal writer, director and actor (yes, that’s him on Billions) Zoom-ed in for a conversation about his trajectory: hits, misses and what’s next.
Is it fair to say you have one of the most eclectic résumés in Hollywood?
Honestly, I’ve always been driven by what excites me. After Recount and Game Change, I was dying to do another political piece, but nothing that came my way ever felt like it was going to be as good. So I thought, “I’ll try something else,” and it was as simple as, “That sounds interesting,” or “That’s outside my comfort zone.” And, really, I would do it if I thought it could be good. There were a few I did just for the money, and it was so stressful — always on a rewrite job — so I stopped doing them. My agents were like, “Are you sure? It only takes a few weeks …” I said, “No, I don’t want to burn a bridge with a studio over a project that I’m not passionate about.”
Interesting. I’d figure it would be the opposite: that your own creations would be more stressful.
If I’m creating or adapting, I’m doing it because I love it — not trying to fix your fucked-up script.
Early on, you had aspirations to be a big tentpole guy. You did write two Hunger Games movies and a Dan Brown film that stalled. When did that change for you?
Writing The Lost Symbol, the Dan Brown one, was so stressful. It was the first time I’d ever called a producer after a draft and said, “I don’t know, man, I’ll do as many rewrites as it takes, but this may be terrible.” I’d never done that before or since. One of my friends actually read it and said, “Man, I think that’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.” I was like, “Whoa, OK. We’re in some trouble here, baby.”
That sounds terrifying.
Oh, yeah. And The Hunger Games was really tough, too. But they were happy with the first one, and so they hired me to write another, and then that was really stressful. Eventually, another writer came on, which has maybe happened to me twice in 15 years. It was just really an unsatisfying experience. Honestly, I felt a little bit like a contestant in the Hunger Games.
How did Dopesick materialize?
John Goldwyn saw my movie Rebel in the Rye and loved it. He asked me, “What do you think of the opioid crisis? Is there a movie on the Sackler family.” I started researching, and it very quickly felt like this is much bigger than the Sacklers. I thought it should be like Traffic, with intertwining stories, but I wanted to do it as a limited series. Because I could make this as an independent film — beg, borrow and steal to get 6 million bucks, beg actors to be in it, and then I go to a festival and two critics could kill me in a day.
The material is bleak. Did that concern you or potential buyers?
No one wanted it because of that. It’s funny, the book Dopesick was a best-seller, and I thought, “OK, I’m basically doing Recount or Game Change again and my last thing was Empire, we’re going to have a lot of interest.” Hollywood is very humbling like that. You go out and everyone passes on you.
You initially sold it to FX, correct?
Yes. It was a sucker punch when [they passed] because the development process had gone like gangbusters.
Landing Michael Keaton must have put considerable wind in your sails. Did you know he had a personal connection to the story, or did you just get lucky there?
You know, they send you lists of people [to consider]. I saw Michael Keaton’s name and he’s a childhood hero of mine. It was a pie-in-the-sky thing, especially because it’s an ensemble. It just didn’t seem realistic, but it was our first offer, so why not try? I didn’t know anything about his nephew who passed away from an overdose. Then I get the call, “He wants to meet with me.” We had this great call, and then he wanted to see what the arc was for the season because he hadn’t done TV. So, I wrote out this document for him that outlined what happens the entire season. Then I got another call saying he wants to do it. From that moment on, it felt like we were the cool kids. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of the project.
If I’m not mistaken, Dopesick is your first solo TV effort. How did it feel?
I’m not going to lie to you, I fucking loved it.
You co-created Empire, but I think it’s fair to say you weren’t the face of it. Now, you’re a white man and it was a big Black story, so naturally your co-creator, Lee Daniels, became a bigger press story …
That’s accurate. I was there, I saw all that happen. (Laughs.)
It also happened to coincide with a larger conversation about who can tell what story, which Lee was outspoken about on a THR roundtable. What was happening inside?
Ilene Chaiken and the staff were incredible. I made a very, very significant contribution, as did Lee. So it was frustrating on a number of fronts that it was being touted as an auteur piece. At first, I didn’t understand it because I was the co-creator, and I didn’t even mind. But it was 100 percent the media. What was happening inside was completely different. And for the most part, I was being pretty classy and understanding, and then there were these moments where I’m like, “This is not cool.” I left after season two. I went from being very hands-on to being hands-off because of everything we’re talking about.
Is the spinoff completely dead?
I don’t know. Taraji [P. Henson] asked me to write it for her. I said I really think we need to have a Black female co-writer/showrunner. So, we hired two, and we wrote this script together. To be honest, I was a bit sucker-punched when it didn’t go because I was getting calls trying to hammer me on the budget. And all you do is lie, “The budget will be what you need it to be.” Tell them what they want to hear. Then I got the call, “Actually, we’re not going to make it.” It was very different from what I’d been hearing, but I think that’s a theme here.
You’ve heard a lot of “no” in your career, as an actor and a writer. What’s the key to moving past it?
I was Gary Ross’ assistant when I was 22, and he had this script called Dog Years that was incredible. One of the best I’ve ever read. It was about to go into production, and the studio pulled the plug the night before. I asked Robin Bissell, his producing partner, “What did Gary do?” He said, “He came in the next morning and said, ‘OK, we’re doing Seabiscuit instead,’ and started writing Seabiscuit.” That’s what you have to do: Take the hit and move on.
With all that’s happened in the political realm in the years since you made Game Change and Recount, have you had any pull to revisit the political drama genre?
Maybe. (Laughs.) Jay Roach [who directed both films] and I are constantly trying to [work] something out. The thing that’s held me back is that there are plenty of great stories, but I don’t see the movie. It’s like, “Oh, that’s a documentary.” Or, “Oh, that’s an article.” It’s not a movie. But Jay and I are constantly plotting and scheming. We’d like to figure something out.
For a while, he was set to adapt Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury…
Yes, and I didn’t want to. Fire and Fury was a delicious read, but were we going to really care about year one of the Trump presidency in two or three years when this movie comes out?
You got your start as an actor on shows like Buffy and Gilmore Girls. What did you learn about how to run a show from those producers?
I got very little from being on that side of the camera observing the process because it’s just not what you’re doing when you’re there. Post me doing Buffy and Gilmore Girls, Joss Whedon, I’ve had almost no contact with, and Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino are like my adopted aunt and uncle. I love them. What I learned from all of them was less about how to run a show than it was about writing. They’re incredible writers, and working on material like that sets a bar, subconsciously, for scripts. Watching Ilene on Empire, that was my lesson on showrunning.
At this stage, are you still out auditioning for acting roles?
With Billions, they said, “Do you want to do a couple scenes with Damian Lewis? It might be two episodes, maybe three.” And then they kept bringing me back. It’s so much fun and not very time-consuming for me. But it’s funny, I’ve been doing Billions for five years, and people love the show and they seem fond of my character and, yet, as I was telling someone the other day, it’s the exact same as it was for me in my 20s. Nothing leads to anything else. That’s why I started writing.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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