Empire director doubles down on TV

Lee Daniels with Queen Latifah on the set of Star.
Lee Daniels with Queen Latifah on the set of Star.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Lee Daniels returns to his grimier palette for his new TV series, Star, about a girl group

DOUGLASVILLE (Georgia) • "Ca- lien te!" director Lee Daniels howled towards Naomi Campbell, across the waiting room of a decommissioned county jail. "Wonderful, Naomi, wonderful - I love it!"

After another take, he crooned, "Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil," gleefully comparing the supermodel- turned-actress' haughty, villainous performance to the infamous 101 Dalmatians character.

As both boss and head cheerleader, he was in his element. Daniels, though not officially directing that recent day, was overseeing the filming of his new Fox series, Star, about a girl group clawing its way through Atlanta's booming music universe.

Campbell's scene, a showdown between two disparate matriarchs over the fate of a young woman caught between worlds - after an episode of police brutality - had him charged up.

"It's all fabulous," Daniels, 57, said. "The physical altercation" - between Campbell's character and one played by Queen Latifah - "is even better than I thought it was going to be. You see two different classes of black women and yet the rich one pushes the poor one. So much privilege."

It is exactly that blend of finger- on-the-pulse social consciousness and histrionic soap opera that has driven Daniels' triumphs in film (2009's Precious, 2013's The Butler) and television, where he scored big for Fox with the Shakespearean hip-hop melodrama Empire, beginning in 2015.

But while Empire, now in its third season, relies on bombast and opulence, with a plot twist every few scenes - Dynasty and Dallas by way of peak Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records - Star finds its creator returning to his earlier, grimier palette, including foster homes and addiction, for a slightly more earthbound tale.

Still, the new show, part of Daniels' post-Empire production deal with Fox, will be expected to deliver in prime time the way its predecessor did. Its premiere last month, following the Empire mid- season finale, drew strong carry- over viewership - especially considering its leading trio of unknown actresses - but starting with its second episode, Star will be going it alone.

"I'm doomed," Daniels, said playfully during a recent interview at his Midtown Manhattan apartment. "Hollywood builds you up to take you down - I've learnt that from many friends."

Yet instead of returning victoriously to movies, particularly a long-gestating biopic of actor-comedian Richard Pryor , Daniels was persuaded to double down on another network show about the music business, despite the mixed results of recent programming - Vinyl, Atlanta, The Get Down - set in the record industry.

"My boyfriend said, 'On TV, more people will appreciate your work, even if it's not as potent, than on any film you ever do,'" he recalled.

Star, which addresses Black Lives Matter and transgender issues in the first episode, also comes at a loaded moment politically. Daniels assumed, as he was sketching the 13-episode first season, that Mrs Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. He imagined the show's diverse girl group - one poor and white, one rich and black, one of mixed race - as an imperfect yet inspiring portrait of racial unity and healing.

In casting Star, the title character, amid a period of racial tumult stemming from police shootings, he said, "I wanted to show a white girl that had some swag" as "part of the healing process".

He added: "I wanted white people to feel cool. I wanted them to not be made fun of. We are one."

He found his girl in Jude Demorest, a tough-talking, all-purpose performer from Detroit, with a pile of bleach-blonde ringlets and earrings the size of her face. The character, as written, "had all but her Social Security number", Daniels said.

On the other hand, Daniels said he created Derek, the show's young Black Lives Matter activist played by Quincy Brown, as a message to his son, who had recently left what Daniels called his Upper West Side "bubble" and began experiencing real-world racism.

Star, despite its modern pop-R&B milieu, with original songs that recall Rihanna and Fergie, is filled with other personal flourishes for Daniels, who said the show's essence was inspired by his time trying to break into Hollywood: "What happens when you're young and naive and you'll do anything to get to where you want to go?"

Queen Latifah, who plays Carlotta, a beautician and den mother to the singers, said: "So many parts of this take me back. I've come full circle after starting as a hungry wannabe-rapper wanting to get a deal and change the economic circumstances of my family."

She also recalled seeing striving's ugly side - "how hungry people can be, selling their soul to have that success".

The idea of using wily young women to tell a version of that story grew out of Daniels' childhood love of Dreamgirls, which he said taught him that "we're from the 'hood and we can still be fabulous".

Despite his hands-on approach at every opportunity - he will direct the Star season finale in addition to its first two episodes - learning to relinquish some authority has been a sometimes rocky process in his shift to TV.

"It's not like a movie where you can control it from A to Z," he said. "There's a director who has an interpretation of your interpretation and you haven't personally written all of the episodes."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline 'Empire director doubles down on TV'. Print Edition | Subscribe