In the words of “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels, said during a panel for the show at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, “I wanted to blow the lid off the door and on homophobia in my community.” And if you’ve seen the hotter-than-hot new Fox drama, you know that is exactly what “Empire” is doing.
In the series, Lucious Lyons (Terrence Howard) is blatant in his belief that his son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) has chosen the gay lifestyle and, in last week’s episode, told him if he publicly came out of the closet, he would cut him off financially. Jamal’s mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) may call him her favorite but she also uses words like ‘sissy’ and ‘faggot’ when talking about him. Harsh stuff but Daniels, who created the show with Danny Strong, will tell you that it is closer to truth than fiction.
Hard to believe this is going on in 2015? Not really. Sure, the LGBT community has more freedoms, is more visible than ever and has a slew of allies in the straight community but that doesn't mean everyone feels that way and sometimes those dissenting voices come from those near and dear to us.
Ilene Chaiken, known as the creator of “The L Word” and, most recently, exec producer of ABC’s series “Black Box,” is the showrunner of “Empire” and sat down with me shortly before that TCA panel to talk about the homophobia in the show, using words that may be politically incorrect but are very much a part of the fabric of the show and Jamal’s journey both within his family and in his relationship with Michael (Rafael de la Feunte).
How did you become attached to the project?
Ilene Chaiken: I became attached in the way one does. I sometimes work on projects that I don’t create myself and I got a phone call, my agent and manager both thought it was an interesting project. They were looking for a showrunner in anticipation for possible pick up. I said “I’m not sure I want to do anything, but let me read the script.” I read the script [and] I said, “I can’t not be interested.” I went and looked at the pilot and I called them both and said, “I have to do this. Tell me what I need to do.”
What appealed to you the most?
IC: You know, there are so many things that I could talk about specifically but it was truly a visceral reaction. I saw the pilot, I walked out of the room and I said, “This is everything that I love television to be”. It worked. It has that alchemy, that magic, it’s a game changer and I like doing game changing television. That’s why I wanted to do it.
Jamal is out so it’s not a coming out story but he is going to be coming out professionally and publicly.
IC: Absolutely. I feel like coming out is…first, most people have to come out, even people who aren’t gay have comings out, but for a person who is gay, coming out is something you have to do several times in your life. First, you have to come out to yourself, come to grips with the fact that you’re gay with the understanding that you’re gay, and then usually you come out to select people, the people you’re intimate with and your family, friends, and then there’s the coming out to the world which not everybody gets to. Jamal’s story is at that stage I think.
He's come out to himself. He's come out to his family and friends, but coming out in the world when you're an artist and when you are the son of somebody so hugely famous, and more particularly, the black community and the hip-hop community is a very, very big deal and it's a huge story to tell.
Does Jamal stay in charge of that coming out? Because Cookie also has an objective to him coming out so I'm curious if that gets in the way of their relationship.
IC: It’s certainly an issue in their relationship and you know it’s a very personal decision that a lot of people try to make for other people. Sometimes with good intentions, sometimes not, and that’s part of his story.
From the start Lucious thinks it's a choice that Jamal is gay. Do we find out why Lucious feels this way? Is it just generational? Is it cultural, or is there something behind that?
IC: The why of it isn’t something we’ve asked because I don’t think there is a why. I think that it’s just simply so prevalent. Yes, generational, yes cultural, also personal, beliefs are personal, but it’s not surprising that it would be his point of view. We don’t talk about there being a specific incident in his life that made him homophobic, I don’t think that there was.
That’s just who he is.
Talk to me about Jamal and Michael's relationship. What kind of complications we'll see in that relationship?
IC: The complications are universal. They’re the complications of relationships. We’re talking about what it is to be in a relationship with an artist and how difficult it is to be the partner to someone who has something so big to which he has to devote himself, maybe more than he’s devoted to you.
Do we learn more about Michael’s life because we haven’t seen a lot of where he comes from and who he is at this point?
IC: We, the writers, know much more about Michael’s life because we wrote those stories. They didn’t ultimately make it into our show because as always happens in an ensemble show, there’s so much story to tell, and so many characters whom we’re deeply invested in. So, unfortunately, we didn’t get to tell those stories about Michael that we wanted to tell.
Talk to me about some of the language in the show because, you know, I found it so interesting, and not offensive, but Cookie calls Jamal "sissy" behind his back. She's used the word 'faggot.' Can you talk about the decision to have those in the show?
IC: Yeah. I think it’s important to be able to use words that aren’t good words to express the truth of a person’s experience, and in some cases, to be able to do the good that we hope we’re doing by telling this story. You know, we’ve fought sometimes to be able to say things more frankly. Mostly, we’ve gotten a lot of support for it, and we do our very best to respect the rules of broadcast television, and to make the powerful points that we’re trying to make without having to break those rules, and sometimes we’re allowed to and that’s a gift.
What does it say about Cookie, since she's the one saying some of these words? Is there still some homophobia in her or are they just words for her?
IC: They’re words for her. I don’t think Cookie is homophobic. I think Lee Daniels is such a great person to talk to about Cookie. He talks about her a little bit as Archie Bunker, except that Archie Bunker was, I think, a mean spirited person and Cookie is not a mean spirited person. She’s just simply someone who has no filters, always says what’s on her mind, who can say things that most people would find offensive and say them with love, and I think there’s something to be learned from that.
I do love the Hakeem/Jamal relationship because I have a brother and we're like that. We may not agree with everything, but like you're there for each other. Safe to assume the conflicts with them will be about the business and the competition?
IC: That is safe to assume. Hakeem grew up with his big brother probably knowing he was gay from the time he was little and it was never an issue for him and I think that he would never stoop to that. The idea that there would be a rift between these two men is heartbreaking, to both of them. Hopefully heartbreaking to the audience, and it looks like it’s inevitable given the situation they’re in.
How is it working in the writer's room when there is music involved? From what I've seen the music and the story come together seamlessly?
IC: Thank you. And the music is always driven by the story, which means it begins in the writer’s room. We tell our stories, and we look at music as story, and in the lives of these characters, it is story. We know that music in the show has a lot of different contexts, sometimes it’s performance, sometimes it’s recording, sometimes it’s creation, and we identify those moments in story. And as soon as we know that they’re coming, and that’s pretty early in our story breaking process, we start to communicate with the great group of people who are responsible for actually creating the music.
We send them information, like daily, there's going to be a song here, Jamal is writing a song in this scene, he tinkers at the piano or something like that. We take feedback from them. We tell them to an extent what the songs need to be about, or what they need to feel like especially if, you know, it's story, well, this song is really controversial, so and so gets upset about something, so you know, we are somewhat specific, but it's not a musical, and we want the music to be the music that these characters would be making.
Talk to me about just Jussie’s performance because I’m so impressed with him.
IC: He’s a powerhouse. He’s a remarkable performer, actor, musician. I don’t know how it happened that we got for the show such a gifted actor who’s so perfect for this role, and who also is as good a musician as his character’s purported to be.
How has your writing changed from the early part of the season to the end because you also get to know the actors a lot well and you get to see what they're capable of. Did it change over that amount of time?
IC: It changes intuitively. There’s never been a moment where we said, ‘we need to write more like this now. We need to write stuff like this for this character,’ but I think that we all know these voices well and just intuitively, we write to character and the actors are so collaborative with us, very much our partners, and they bring a lot to the stories and the characters they portray.
You’ve done this for awhile now, did you have a different feeling in your gut about “Empire” as compared to “Black Box” or even “The L Word?” In some ways, you never know, right?
IC: I think that the truest thing you said is you never know. You know, in our business we hype ourselves up, so we always go into a project believing, or at least making ourselves believe. “The L Word” was mine and very personal to me and also my first television show. So I had no idea except that I knew I believed in it, and “Empire,” I didn’t know, I wouldn’t predict and I would never have predicted this level of success, and yet, I did know from the moment I saw it and everyday throughout the process that we were doing something, and it was working and that it could just catch on fire. I knew that.
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Fox.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.