Daniels uses his Philadelphia roots for successful 'Empire' TV drama

Lee Daniels called upon his Philadelphia background to inform his TV hit "Empire."
Lee Daniels called upon his Philadelphia background to inform his TV hit "Empire." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2015

Lee Daniels is ticking off some of the guest stars who will appear this season in his hit Fox series Empire, a dazzling look inside the music industry: Cuba Gooding Jr., Mary J. Blige, Naomi Campbell, Mariah Carey, Courtney Love, Lenny Kravitz, Foxy Brown, Snoop Dogg, and in the 12th and final episode, Daniels' fellow Philadelphian, Patti LaBelle.

Oh, and Denzel Washington. "Denzel hasn't done television in 30 years," the dapper director says. "But he saw the pilot and said, 'I've got to be a part of this.' "

Such a stellar roster seems almost like overkill when you've already got two Academy Award nominees - Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson - as Lucious and Cookie Lyon, the leads in your hip-hop soap opera. Turns out they were something of a package deal.

Daniels, 55, had initially envisioned Wesley Snipes as Empire's rap patriarch, Lucious. "Taraji said she wouldn't do the show unless Terrence was doing the show," Daniels says. "I said, ' You don't even have the part yet, Taraji!' "

If the guest stars come from all different points on the celebrity compass, the characters - and a good number of their names - come from Daniels' Philadelphia boyhood.

"Bunkie, who dies in the pilot, was my best friend growing up," he says. "My cousin Cookie lives in West Philadelphia."

When Daniels was creating Empire with collaborator Danny Strong - the series was renewed for a second season after averaging 11.7 million viewers in its first two episodes - he based the Lyons family on familiar role models.

"Lucious is a lot of my dad," he says, "and a lot of the men I've respected over the years, from Berry Gordy to Gamble and Huff to Jay Z to Puffy to Quincy Jones."

"Cookie is based on my sister a little," he continues, "on my cousin a little, on a close friend, and on a lot of the African American women I knew growing up in the streets in Philadelphia."

The character closest to Daniels' heart is the middle son, Jamal (played by Jussie Smollett), whose homosexuality makes for a turbulent relationship with his father. There's a powerful flashback in the pilot in which a young Jamal comes happily clomping downstairs in high heels and a wrap appropriated from Cookie's closet. The sight and its implications enrage Lucious, who grabs up the boy, carries him outside, and stuffs him in a garbage bin.

"That scene actually happened in my life," says Daniels. "The kid in the high heels is me."

Because he considered it such an intensely personal moment, the filmmaker has been surprised at how widely the dynamic resonated with viewers.

"Jussie lost his father a couple of days ago," he says. "He and his father had a similar relationship. Jussie showed the pilot to his father before he died and his father said, 'I'm so sorry. I understand and I love you.' And then he died not long after.

"I wish my father was alive today to see the show," says Daniels, his voice catching. "I know that would be me and my dad."

Daniels was 15 when his father, a Philadelphia policeman, was killed in the line of fire. Curiously enough, the making of Empire has moved the son toward understanding and forgiveness.

"I've said some things about him in the past that make him sound like a bad guy," says Daniels with evident emotion. "He was not a bad man. He was beaten by his father. And his father's father was tied to a tree and beaten. He didn't know any other way to discipline. It was passed down.

"I just think he was afraid for me," Daniels continues. "He said, 'Your life is impossible enough as an African American man. You don't have to be gay, too. That's something you can choose.' He did it to protect me."

After taking a moment to collect himself ("God, I'm getting all emotional," he says, fanning his face), Daniels starts talking about Bryshere Y. Gray, 21, whom he considers Empire's great discovery.

The neophyte actor, known locally by his rap name, Yazz the Greatest, was chosen to play the Lyons' fiery youngest son, Hakeem, only after an exhaustive casting search.

"We saw thousands of guys for that role," says Daniels. "It's a testament to the way the universe works that we were able to find someone from Philadelphia who grew up in the same neighborhood I grew up in and who is a genius at what he did.

"It's a Cinderella story," he continues. "When he flew out to test for the role, that was the first time he had ever been on a plane. It's very exciting, working with a first-time actor that is so open and appreciative. It's like working with Gabourey Sidibe when I did Precious."

Making a show that leans so heavily on cutting-edge music was something of a stretch for Daniels, whose own tastes run to Donna Summer. It occasioned a good deal of mockery from the filmmaker's college-age twins, Liam and Clara.

"My kids were, like, 'You can't do this! You're going to make a fool of yourself,' says Daniels. "I said, 'Well, who do I go to?' They said, 'Timbaland.' " Which is how the legendary producer came to take over Empire's weekly soundtrack.

After directing the first two episodes, Daniels significantly scaled back his participation in the series.

"I had a commitment to do the Richard Pryor film," he says of his current project, a biopic about the brilliant comedian, who died in 2005. "I had a legal obligation to pull back. It's a little scary because you have to trust others to carry on the vision. I've already looked at other episodes, and the tone isn't necessarily what I would do, but I was forewarned about this. That's the sacrifice."

Daniels has come back to his hometown on this frigid January afternoon for an appointment with his longtime dentist on Walnut Street. But like many busy creative types, he's using the trip to kill a whole flock of birds: a little press for Empire, visits to his mother and his cousin Cookie, and dinner Chez LaBelle.

Because the singer was a close friend of Pryor's, she has become an important source of details about his life. But first, Daniels needs to check the menu.

"Hi, LaLa," he says into his cell, before embarking on a thorough discussion of the ingredients she will be using in the meal she's cooking for him.

Why so fastidious?

"I'm vegan . . . ish," he says, crediting the dietary regimen with helping him lose 45 pounds. "But I cheat. For instance, when my mom came up for Thanksgiving and cooked in New York City, I acted like I wouldn't touch the traditional fixings.

"Then, in the middle of the night, I carved a ham sandwich with mayonnaise and the Stroehmann's bread she brought up," he continues, laughing vigorously. "When I woke up, I was sweating like I was having a heart attack. My equilibrium was off, and I thought I was going to die."

Better hope Patti knows CPR.



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