From artist Jamal Lyon being beaten as a child by his homophobic father Lucious to Cookie and Lucious being a reflection of him and certain members of his family to Cookie’s son Hakeem being beat with a broom by his mom or misbehaving , “Empire goes deeper than just an ordinary project for Daniels, who serves as the show’s co-creator, executive producer, writer and sometimes director. It’s truly personal.
In an interview with Adweek, Daniels reflects on the “trauma” in creating “Empire” as well as the inspiration behind Lucious and the original Cookie. Highlights from the interview are below:
Adweek: How hard was it to sell Empire? Did it take a while for you and Danny Strong to feel the Fox love?
Lee Daniels: No. There was a bidding war. Isn’t that crazy? We were red hot, Danny and I, coming off The Butler. We love working together. He wanted to do it as a film and I wanted to make money, so I saw it as a TV show. After The Butler, I was blown away by the amount of people who saw the story. It touched so many people’s lives. So I thought, wow, what would happen if we told the story in people’s homes?
Did you feel right from the start that it was going to be such a hit?
No. I don’t pay much attention to numbers. I’m so busy working that I don’t come out of my bubble to know the insanity and the “Cookie-mania.” I’m nervous about what my next episode is going to be, or what my next season is going to be like. I don’t read reviews unless my publicist tells me, “You really should take a look at this.” I don’t want it to affect the work.
But when I finally did come up for air, I turned to my mother and said, “Mom, what do you make of this?” And she said, “Well, you know, when you did your first movie [Monster’s Ball], you got that girl [Halle Berry] an Academy Award. And that made history. So where else are you going to go from there?”
Speaking of actors, Terrence Howard is riveting as Lucious Lyon. Who is his character based on?
Many shades of me. I can’t create anything that I haven’t lived. He’s a lot a bit of my dad, and the entrepreneurs that I’ve grown to know. He’s a lot a bit of Berry Gordy, a lot a bit of Joe Kennedy. When you think of the Kennedys, they are the American dream. Joe was bootlegging and doing all sorts of shady shit, and he produced the president of the United States.
What about Cookie? You’re a part of her, obviously, but what about your mom?
No. Although I do call her the original Cookie. Hmmm. It’s so hard to explain. The broom beating happened. That was my mother.
What did you do to deserve that?
I used to roller skate, and I would climb onto this tree and go out on this branch and go flying out into the middle of the street. And my mother said, “You’re going to break your arm.” I kept doing it, and I broke my arm. I thought the world stopped. I had a cast and I felt so special.
When you have a lot of siblings, you always do something to feel special. I was beating my sisters up—I was a total jerk. I would always hold my cast up in front of me when my mother would go to slap me. And one day I held my cast up and she had a broom and she went for me [laughs]. I called the police, and the police came. Back in those days, it wasn’t the same. My mother told the police, “I suggest that you take him now, because [if you don’t] when you come back—and you will come back—he’s going to be in a body bag.”
So yes, my mother’s a little bit of Cookie, but really my grandmother is Cookie, [as is] my sister. My grandmother was a corrupt politician in the ’60s. She had many of the judges in her pocket in Philadelphia—and she carried a gun. She would get blacks to come out and vote. And my sister was a drug dealer, as many of my friends were. It was the only way we knew how to make a living—that or robbing the system that we lived in. That’s the world we lived in.
People deny what’s going on in Baltimore. I’m so blessed living the life I live, you know? My work reminds me—it makes me never forget. And I mustn’t forget. The minute that success gets to me, then I’m lost. I’ve done everything I can to make sure my kids don’t have to worry or be hungry or be in the same place that I was. And I regret that now because I don’t think my son realizes that he’s black. He’s 19, and he doesn’t realize that he’s a black man in America.
For more of Daniels interview with Adweek, click here.