“Empire” returns at a new time on Wednesdays, on FOX in an epic episode where the worlds of “Empire” and “Star” collide.
On the Season Four premiere, Lucious makes his first public appearance after the explosion in Las Vegas, while all members of the Lyon family have their own interests in Lucious regaining his physical and mental faculties. Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actor, director and producer Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, Arrival, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) will guest-star in a multi-episode arc on Empire, beginning this fall on FOX. Whitaker will play “Uncle Eddie,” a charismatic music icon and bonafide hitmaker, who gave an unknown Lucious (Terrence Howard) his first radio airplay. Decades later, Eddie steps up for Lucious at a critical moment during his rehabilitation, and a grateful Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) invites him to produce a song in celebration of Empire Entertainment’s 20th anniversary.
We caught up with Empire & Star creator Lee Daniels along with Stars Taraji P. Henson & Terrence Howard to talk Empire’s new season.
The Knockturnal: How did both Empire & Star come about?
Lee Daniels: Well Empire, of course, was first. Empire birthed out of an idea that Danny Strong, my partner, pitched me. We both are admirers of King Lear, and we wanted to do it as a movie, and as we’d just finished The Butler, and so I said no, I wanted to do it as a TV show, because that’s where the money was. Whitney Cummings had come into my house and told me that I was poor, and that I could do exactly what I was doing and so I decided, I told him “No, let’s not do it as a film.”. Ironically we were just talking, I was just with Taraji and Terrance today, and we were talking about Empire as a film now possibly, you know, what that would be like. And so my mind is now whirling about that, and not that this, it’s far from official, but we started thinking … how would it be as a film, now that it is living as a breathing series, what would we separate it and found a story to tell. Wow. Not that it’s official, far from. But it started out as a film, I said no. I wanted it as a TV show, and then I didn’t really think that the show was going to get picked up, it did. I wasn’t prepared for that.
The Knockturnal: Why didn’t you think Empire it would get picked up?
Lee Daniels: No one was buying black television then. You know? It was like hitting the lotto. And so I really checked out and was ready to go on, Danny was ready to write another movie and I was going to direct Pryor, then it got picked up and what does that mean? Everything, cause they pay a lot of money for the pilot, and then the real money came. And then the work came too, because we then had to figure out how to turn the pilot into 13 episodes, which is like “Woah, we don’t… How does that work?” because I don’t, I’m a movie guy and I was only worried about, selfishly, just that one story of the pilot. We had to really then think okay how’s it work? What’s happening? And so it forced me into really becoming a better storyteller because I was able to expand it you know and it was really tiring. As a matter of fact we were just talking about keeping the story potent and honest, and about fans — not responding to just the celebrities of it all, but what we found out was that the data is the fans want to know about the family. And so the closer we come to the family, the stronger we are with story, and the more people care about the issues that are going on in America because their family is dealing with issues that are going on in America right now.
The Knockturnal: Do you guys feel pressure each season to top yourselves, after season, after season?
Taraji P. Henson: It’s impossible. I don’t want that kind of pressure on ourselves. I guess we’re still chasing that first high. That very first episode of the very first season. There was something magic that happened there and that’s what keeps us coming back every day to reengage with that little spark.
Terrence Howard: To see Cookie walk by and to feel her look through me and tear me apart, and still know that she still wants to put me back together at the end of it. I mean that’s what’s really been this show is that pull and tug between Cookie and Lucious and every thing else has come from that.
The Knockturnal: Now we see that the war is about to happen with the Lions and the DuBois and I know that you had to go head-to-head with Phylicia Rashad.
Taraji P. Henson: Stank ass Clair Huxtable.
Lee Daniels: Did you really say that?
Taraji P. Henson: I said it.
Terrence Howard: You missed that?
The Knockturnal: What is it like going head-to-head with someone that has been a legend for so long?
Taraji P. Henson: It’s exciting. And we both come from harrowing diversities so I feel safe with her. We’re from the same training, she was really the only one, to challenge Cookie. You know why? She didn’t try to match Cookie where Cookie is, where everybody thinks they gonna come in and out Cookie, it’s not happening. You can’t reinvent the wheel. What she did was she challenged her intellectually. No one has ever done that. And that’s where she wins, that’s where she gets to Cookie. You know what I’m saying? And so it’s beautiful for me, as an artist to be challenged in that way. I love it.
The Knockturnal: Can you talk a little bit about the texture, the tone of this new season?
Lee Daniels: Back to the first. Here’s the thing, the actors know. They know, they know, they know, they know. Sometimes as writers, we veer off to the left. The actors — they’re forced to bring it back to the ground. You know what I mean? The insanity to the ground and stuff, so again, fans have spoken they want to know about the family and so that’s what this season is really about, more about the family.