Empire’s Lee Daniels: ‘I always see myself as one step away from a flop’

He made his name with Monster’s Ball and Precious but, as Empire begins a new season, the writer-director-producer insists his work isn’t just for black audiences

Lee Daniels tells stories of divas who storm into meetings and demand their due; of washed-up addicts propelled onwards by unflagging ambition; and of scrappy orphans who couldn’t afford a bushel to hide their light under, even if they were so inclined. This autumn he’s all over UK television, with the fourth season of his hip-hop dynasty soap opera Empire and the first series of Star, a sort of R&B girl group Annie – so how much of it is autobiographical? “A lot. Most of it,” says Daniels, who recently announced another four upcoming TV projects and a film. “I don’t know how to tell stories unless I’ve lived them, unless I’ve eaten them, unless I’ve partied with them,” he says, building to a crescendo. “Who can make this shit up? You can’t make this shit up!”

Fortunately, the 57-year-old writer-producer-director-showrunner doesn’t have to. Even only in outline, the Lee Daniels life story is a Lee Daniels script waiting to be written. He was raised in a large Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, family and particularly influenced by a formidable grandmother, whom he has described as a number-running “crooked politician”, and a police officer father who disapproved of his gay son’s sexuality. One formative memory from Daniels’s childhood became the scene in Empire when Lucious (Terrence Howard) discovers his young son Jamal wearing his mother’s high heels and, enraged, throws him into the rubbish bin. “Y’know that was only the beginning,” says Daniels now of the bin incident. “So, for me, anything was something.”

Like his most beloved characters – Empire’s majestic matriarch Cookie Lyon or the ever-resilient Precious from his 2009 film – Daniels has a way of turning hardship into opportunity. After dropping out of college, he followed his showbiz sensibilities west and lived briefly on the streets of Los Angeles before finding shelter in the back room of a church. There, he began staging plays for the congregation and found paying work as a receptionist at a home nursing agency until, with characteristic pluck, he founded a rival agency, which he later sold for a small fortune.

There’s no business like showbusiness ... watch the trailer for Empire season four.

It wasn’t much of a leap to go from managing nurses’ careers to managing actors’ careers (former clients include Wes Bentley, Michael Shannon and Nastassja Kinski), and these industry contacts were soon parlayed into bigger, better deals. His movie producing debut was Monster’s Ball for which Halle Berry won her Academy Award and became the first, and still only, black woman to win in the best actress category. Speaking of the film now, he says: “I willed that into existence because I wanted to show a different side of the African Americans. I wanted to show an artistic side that had not been shown before.”

These days, when Daniels refers to himself as “homeless” he means it in the more boujee sense of living out of hotel rooms, while dividing his time between sets and production offices all over the US. Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey and Oprah Winfrey are among his close friends and frequent collaborators and he’s rumoured to be directing the latter on an upcoming reworking of 1980s weepie Terms of Endearment. Daniels won’t confirm either way, saying only that he’ll begin preproduction on a feature film in January: “It’s important that I get behind a camera again, as a film-maker.”

What is clear is that Star, the story of an orphan’s struggle to break into the music industry, cannot possibly bear any direct autobiographical relationship to the ritzy Lee Daniels we know now … or can it? “It’s the other half of what you didn’t see in Empire. It’s my cousin’s salon, Jahil is sort of me when I was managing actors [while I was] on drugs. Miss Bruce is literally named after the guy who grew up across the street from me. Cotton [a trans character played by trans actor Amiya Scott] represents a lot of people that are in my life. Yeah, it’s all very autobiographical … Again.” But how does an Oscar-nominated entertainment mogul stay connected to the hardscrabble lives of his characters? “Honestly, I don’t see myself that way at all, I always see myself as one step away from a flop … just someone trying to put their kids through school.”

Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O’Grady
Star turns ... (left to right) Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O’Grady. Photograph: Fox

That doesn’t ring entirely true. Not because Daniels isn’t every bit the devoted father to his 20-year-old twins, or even because his ever-expanding list of projects must make him a mogul by any definition, but because whoever is nominally cast in the lead role, a Lee Daniels Entertainment production is always, in some sense, about Lee Daniels. Did the impresario ever consider cutting out the middleman and turning himself into a superstar? The thought has occurred: “I stopped managing people because I got so tired of holding women’s purses on the red carpet. I wanted somebody to hold my purse on a red carpet!” he says with a peal of laughter, which turns into a sigh, and then an abrupt change of tone. “I’m just joking with you. The main reason why I stopped managing was so that I could create the roles for the many actors in America that I could not get jobs for. At that time [the available roles] were all, y’know, pimps, whores, drug dealers, murderers.”

Actually, the extent to which Daniels’s work is driven by a sincere desire to introduce more diversity into mainstream often goes unrecognised, but that activist streak is real. He gets particularly animated about any mischaracterisation of his work as exclusively for African American audiences. “I mean, how many people watch Empire? I think that the No 1 television show in America is far from just ‘black’. White people are watching it, everybody’s watching it!” he says. “It’s just about the truth and the truth is universal, and I think that people want to hear that now. People want to hear it, because of all of Trump’s fake news bullshit, y’know?”

The previous president’s respect for Daniels’s work was well documented. Barack Obama has said he “teared up” watching the 2013 historical drama The Butler, but Daniels says the new administration has given him a new agenda: “[Trump] has made me determined to be radical in an honest and dignified way.” He says he’s over-pandering to propriety, too. “I tried that with The Butler, y’know? I really tried to do something that those other people would like, PG13, but then I got in trouble for having a black man play a butler. I mean, you can’t win.”

Gabourey Sidibe overcomes the odds in Lee Daniel’s directorial debut, Precious
Girl power ... Gabourey Sidibe overcomes the odds in Lee Daniel’s directorial debut, Precious. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Controversially, Empire is yet to win an Emmy (Daniels’s response to the perceived nominations snub in 2015 was a terse “fuck these motherfuckers”), but there’s good reason to suppose that its blockbuster ratings opened doors. The women of Insecure would probably consider the Lyon clan “ratchet” but they owe them a debt, as do other recent award winners such as Atlanta and Master of None. “I love all of them,” says Daniels. “I think that anything that’s going to show diversity with new voices and new anything is a breath of fresh air.” This is also evidenced in his continued work making stars of newer talents such as Vali Chandrasekaran, whose as-yet-untitled culture-clash sitcom will be produced by Lee Daniels Entertainment. “I also know – and this is exciting – that the world doesn’t come from my prism,” he says. “There are other lenses that people view the world from, that have been shut down, that are versions of me … The deal I have [with Fox] helps me give them a platform.”

Daniels wants to make television by everyone for everyone. Or almost everyone: “If you want to get on my train and ride with me come on and ride, but I don’t really do anything for these other people.” Most recently, he took some flak for an interview with Ebony magazine in which he was quoted as saying he’d cast white actor Jude Demorest as Star’s title character in order to make white people “feel good about being white because right now, there’s a lot of hatred going on”. As several commentators pointed out, it’s not as if TV is particularly lacking in such positive representations, but Daniels says now he was misinterpreted: “I wanted this white character in this black environment, with a half-black and half-white sister and a transgender friend to make everybody feel good about themselves. They took it out of context and ran with it and then I’m like: ‘What the hell’? I can’t win!”

This “I can’t win” is a favourite refrain of Daniels’s. Strange, given that his back catalogue of hit TV shows, acclaim-garnering movies and fruitful creative collaborations makes it seem as if all he does is win, win, win. However, these words do speak to a central dilemma: as a conscientious artist he can’t help but care what the critics say; but as a hugely successful showman he knows he should shrug it all off, like Cookie shrugging off one of her enormous fur coats. And couldn’t we all stand to be a bit more Cookie about everything?

Season four of Empire begins later this month on 5STAR; Star continues 12 October, 10pm, 5STAR


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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