*It is to no surprise that Lee Daniels has another soon-to-be hit on his hands, however this time around it’s in the television world for the all new Fox drama, “Empire,” debuting tomorrow, Wednesday, January 7 at 9/8c!
If you haven’t seen at least a billboard (which are everywhere!) then you must be living under a rock. This highly touted drama series created by Lee Daniels and Brian Grazer stars Academy Award nominees Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard.
Additionally, there is a plethora of guest stars to hit the small screen as well including but not limited to Gladys Knight, Naomi Campbell, Mary J. Blige and Cuba Gooding Jr.
One of Daniels’ most intrinsic strengths that provides fuel for his work is the development of these characters, presenting many layers to them and allowing for the audiences to see and feel the rawness and truth behind each character.
When asked about the creation and evolution of the characters in his projects, Daniels mentioned, “I have to know the people. I can’t write anything that I don’t know or haven’t experienced. So everything that I’ve written I know these people intimately or are a part of me, or someone that is very close to me has experienced.” Without knowing the characters in such a visceral arena, he feels it becomes fake and one cannot direct it. Daniels stated, “I have to know the smells, I have to know the colors, the fabric, the type of floor, the way the hair grease smells…” He has to know it so that he can paint it.
Naturally, Daniels’ character development process flows directly into the casting for his projects. When looking for his actors, Daniels searches for truth. Truth, is a fundamental element we all search for he expressed. He believes that everyone wants the truth despite it sometimes being disturbing.
The quintessential truth he brings forth through the casting and through the development of his characters causes his stories to be so powerful. He stated, “When the truth pierces your heart, it’s a beautiful thing.”
The irony of the final casting for the Lyons family in the series is that Daniels ended up getting what he initially said he didn’t want: “…what I got accidentally, (laughs) a light skinned cast.” As people of color, Daniels understands that we come in all different shades including his own family and siblings. They were in discussions with another actor to play Lucious Lyons and Daniels for sure wanted Taraji as Cookie. Taraji suggested he look at Terrence Howard, whom he was already looking to find a role for him in another project having worked together on The Butler. From there, one actor led to the next to make the family oriented character driven cast of Empire.
From that point, they [Howard and Henson] tested together and had “incredible chemistry together of course.” Daniels described there was difficulty in the casting process for Empire because not only did he have to find actors, but singers as well. Thus, the question that he expressed came to him was, “Do I find singers that can act? Or Actors that can sing?” He decided to go for the singers that could act due to presuming it would be harder to teach someone to sing than act.
Daniels shared the first thought that came to his mind when asked about the following leading characters in Empire:
Andre—“A Part of Me”
An extended member of the “Lyons Den” is the fresh face Grace Gealey, who in her breakout role on Empire plays the head of A&R and Lucious’ new lover. Gealey grew up in the Cayman Islands as a C.O.D.A (Child of Deaf Adults) as both of her parents are deaf. As a true artist, Gealey studied her craft receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of South Florida and a master’s degree from the University of California, Irvine.
Gealey’s first acting experience was through live performance in the theater world. She discussed the differences and challenges she encountered between theater and television stating, “In television, not being able to work in succession is a challenge, whereas in theater the journey starts out somewhere and ends somewhere. And in film there’s a beginning and an ending, even if it’s shot out of sequence you can still see that trajectory. With TV, you’re not always privy to exactly where your character’s going, all you have is what’s already been written and the research you’ve done.” She described it as an entirely new discovery process and she enjoys bringing truth to her character through that new realm.
She loved the ways in which her character, Anika was painted on the external level, mentioning, “ [Anika being] regal and elegant and defined because everyone wants to play a woman in power who controls a room when she walks in.” Due to that external painting, she discovered that she wasn’t just the “yes girl” and has her own mind and perspective never being afraid to speak her mind to Lucious. Although they are lovers, Gealey mentioned “she’s still a woman who’s got her own and always will regardless of her relationship with Lucious.”
“Empire” is a series you do not want to miss! Make sure to tune in tomorrow at 9/8c on Fox!
View the “Empire” trailer below: