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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the second episode of Fox’s Empire.]
Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken previously told The Hollywood Reporter that the central premise of Fox’s Empire “does involve a competition for the throne among the three sons,” yet at the end of the second episode, the two youngest — Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) actually shared the stage — much to their parents’ surprise.
“That relationship just was — and is — powerful. I think most people who saw the pilot just loved seeing those two boys together, and they have such a deep connection that it’s instantly heartbreaking to think that they’re pitted against one another. It’s not going to happen instantly, but what we want to tell is the story of how it happens,” she said a week ago.
But of course, be it a large family ensemble drama, there is a lot more going on than just the battle for the throne. THR checked in with Chaiken after the second episode to discuss the show’s central conflicts, as well as where they cross over.
Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is one of the most-talked-about characters on Empire, so starting with her, just how big of a story will her deal with law enforcement be — both as an element that drives her arc emotionally this season but also in regards to the business?
They’re kind of inextricable from one another. It’s not a separate arc — it doesn’t entirely motivate her — but the fact that Cookie has a criminal past and the fact that it’s stalking her, it’s integral to the company. It has to do with how the company was created [and] that’s a big part of our story and a big part of each of these characters.
Should the audience worry that if she doesn’t cooperate with Agent Carter she can be thrown back in jail?
Absolutely! The audience should worry about that and about other repercussions of the fact that … she turned evidence against somebody who’s obviously very dangerous. Yes, she could end up back in jail, or she could end up in another situation because obviously she’s messing with some very dangerous people.
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Can she let someone in to help her in case she gets into some trouble?
Right now, she hasn’t told anybody except for one person, and you’ll find out in [episode three] who that one person is that she’s told. Ultimately, there might be some other people who find out for one reason or another, but right now she’s trying to keep it to herself because the more people who know, the more danger she’s in.
At the end of the pilot, Jamal was the one who said he was planning to come out, but in the second episode it was really Cookie leading the charge, and in fact he didn’t show up at the press conference. Will there be repercussions in his relationship with his new momager?
There are definitely repercussions from his inaction — from his backing down — and again, [episode three] deals explicitly with those repercussions. This is a big story and a very real story: he said he wants to come out and he means it, but coming out is hard, and it means a lot of different things. So yes, he wants to live an honest life, and he wants to come out eventually, but he says it a bit in the second episode, and he’ll says it again more explicitly: he doesn’t want to be defined by it. He wants to be defined as an artist, and he wants to be in control of it.
What were his motivations behind not holding the press conference after all?
[Was it because he didn’t have control or it wasn’t the right time] or was it because his father sat down and say, “If you come out, I’m going to take everything away from you?”
But if it is the latter, that would say a lot about who he is: valuing physical comfort (money) over emotional comfort.
That’s not who he is, but it would give anybody pause. It’s really, really hard to have lived the life he’s lived for the last 10 years and to contemplate being cut off from it completely. You just don’t go barreling into a decision like that. So I think that we want the audience to feel that although that might not be ultimately who he is, he needs a moment to think about it. And wouldn’t you?
If he’s prepping an album and writing songs, he has to make and stick to a decision soon. How much will Jamal use what he’s going through in deciding when to come out in his actual music?
That decision and how he walks that line is a very big part of Jamal’s story, and yes, it is explored in his music, too, in the way that music is a part of the story of this show. The choices you make, the way you speak as an artist says a lot about who you are. And ultimately, it might be your most powerful truth for living your truth.
While there is still homophobia in this community, do you feel reaction to a Lyon coming out would be different if it was Hakeem who was gay and not Jamal? They are really in two different genres; Hakeem is a harder rapper, while Jamal is more R&B.
We talked about it a bit. It’s a fine distinction, and I think that we take it on to some extent. But Jamal is in the world of this company, this show, this family, and coming out is still a very big deal for him. He’s looked at as an R&B/hip hop artist, and there’s a community that is uneasy with the idea of homosexuality in his community. And maybe it would be a little harder for a rapper like Hakeem, but it’s not easy for Jamal.
Lucious [Terrence Howard] doesn’t fully understand or accept Jamal because of his sexuality, but does he fully understand and accept Andre [Trai Byers] and his bipolar disorder?
He doesn’t. The answer to both is no: he doesn’t fully understand and accept it, and he willfully doesn’t know what’s going on. Like a lot of parents who don’t want to — especially when you have a brilliant child who is high functioning for the most part, and you’re a man like Lucious Lyon who wants everybody, especially your sons, to be how you want them and at the top of their game — he doesn’t want to know it and he minimizes it. He says, “You can fix that.” This is something we explore in depth over the course of the season. Right now I hope you come out of this episode and these early episodes with the sense that yeah, he knows that his son has a problem, but he doesn’t really want to know the details. it’s another instance of wanting to put him in the closet.
Does his own illness change any of that — give him more compassion or shared experience?
There’s some men who might react to an illness in that way. I don’t think Lucious Lyon is one of them. Lucious Lyon is a mega-star, an artist, a narcissist, who looks at the world largely through his point of view.
Well, he did have that moment where he said, “Maybe I need to listen to my kids,” and that felt like a genuine moment of evolution.
I believe too that that was a genuine moment — a very genuine moment — [but] he’s such a complex character; he’s so profoundly intelligent, and he has moments in which he can’t help but see things, and I think he willfully blocks them in order to pursue his goals.
Becky [Gabourey Sidibe] and Lucious have a different relationship than one might expect from such a mogul and his assistant. How is it altered by the fact that she knows he has ALS and has promised to keep his secret?
It makes them closer. This isn’t a big story, but it’s a character beat. It’s something that separates her from Jamal. She can’t tell him and she won’t; she’s truly loyal to Lucious. He gave her a chance, and her feeling is not a lot of people would have. He sees her and he sees her real quality and talent and intelligence, and he really is grooming her. And she is deeply connected to him and grateful to him for seeing her in the way that he does.
Your last television project, The Black Box on ABC, focused very heavily on bipolar disorder. Why did you want to take the subject on again here, and how is Andre’s struggle with it different?
It wasn’t my decision because the character existed; Lee Daniels and Danny Strong created that character, and when I went to work with them, we did talk about it, and I did push them to define it a little bit more. And we concurred that he was bipolar, rather than just depressive. It’s a really interesting disorder, quite frankly, and we wanted to explore it in the context, again, of it being thematic, it being dramatic, dealing with secrets, with closets, with the things parents don’t want to face about their children. And we also wanted to give Andre his own internal struggle, and that was the struggle that he presents with.
Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) is pulling a lot of the strings both when it comes to the business of Empire Entertainment and with her husband, Andre. How are you striking the balance of showing that they do love each other, so she doesn’t come off as just taking advantage of the situation?
As we talk about this couple and this relationship, they might appear villainous at times, but we think that they have a truly loving relationship and in fact the best and most functional relationship in the show. They’re two people who may be at odds with other members of their family, but they really have one another’s backs. They see the world in the same way, and their love is real and pretty unshakeable. If it gets shaken, it’s going to be a very, very deep shake up because they really are very deeply bonded. We’re excited by the idea that the best relationship — the most loving relationship — is between two people who are pretty dark and twisted.
Authenticity is so important in the world of hip-hop, and Jamal seems to have a leg up on Hakeem at this point in time in that regard — with knowing who he is and what he wants to say musically. How will Hakeem be stepping up his own game, so to speak?
I would say that he has the least control over what he says or what he creates and the effect that he has … He’s not at this point in his life a guy who has thought deeply about who he is or what he’s saying. He’s the most entitled because he’s the youngest son, the one who never ever lived in the world of hardship. Everything was handed to him, so he creates these moments [and] I don’t think they’re manipulative; I think they’re hapless even though he’s got grit underneath him. He really is an artist, he just doesn’t have control yet of his instrument.
How hard is it to give him something to say when he hasn’t lived a life to which many can relate?
It’s a really interesting conflict and a central conflict [to the show]. Rapping is all about the street. He’s envious of the scarcity that his father experienced. He recognizes in some way that he might not articulate all that well, but he clearly recognizes that because he didn’t have that experience he’s missing something. And he desperately wants to appear from the streets. It hurts his authenticity; it will be pointed out to him; he will grapple with it; and he will have to find something else to rage about. And he will find he has plenty to rage about.
Hakeem is also very easily distracted and obviously outspoken, but you’re not taking him down a rabbit hole of negative sides of fame or anything, right?
He can get out of control, and he’s certainly in danger in that way, but this isn’t a story about getting addicted to drugs or getting hopeless or destroyed.
When the two brothers do get put in more direct competition with each other, just how serious do things get? If you had to compare it to an infamous hip hop feud, does it align closer to Biggie/Tupac, Eminem/Ja Rule, or even Iggy Azalea/Azealia Banks?
Those feuds that you’re talking about are very much in the show, in the stories of the show, in the world of the show [but] we don’t play the relationship between Jamal and Hakeem as a hip-hop feud. It’s a rivalry, ultimately, and it’s painful because the love between them is so deep that when they do eventually end up in an adversarial relationship, it tears at both of them. But we’re not playing that as, “We’re going to rap about it.” And hip-hop feuds are so much a part of this world that we are definitely playing with that. You can’t tell these stories without going to that time and again. There are so many different ways; there are so many different variations; it’s dramatic and powerful. That’s the world we live in, and that’s really the world of this show. Things that go viral, things that people say about one another, beefs that they have, things that play out in the media and get used to do incredible damage — and then the retribution that gets taken, that is definitely the terrain that we’re in.
Porsha [Ta’ Rhonda Jones] was a delight. What was the inspiration behind that character, and where did Cookie even find her?
We just simply said, “Here’s Cookie. She’s back; she has a little purchase in this company; what’s she going to have?” Well, she’d have an assistant [and] that’d be such fun. We agreed that Cookie would have a pretty, young assistant. In our minds, Porsha is the niece of somebody Cookie met in prison — that’s how we thought about her. When we went to Lee Daniels with this character, he got so excited because this is his thing; he loves to find these little moments of character. He started, before we even started casting, just talking about who she was, describing her, and we saw a lot of different women for the role. But we found this woman, she was brought in by our Chicago casting director, and he said instantly, “We found Porsha.” She is not someone you see on television, and Lee is so excited about that. He knew it; he got it immediately. And then the minute we saw what she could do and what he was doing with her, we all got thrilled by it.
Empire airs on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. What did you think of the second episode? Sound off in the comments below.
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