With its flashy mix of music and melodrama, Fox's Empire ruled the ratings this spring — and topped itself, week after week. Now, as they prime for an even more divine second season, the producers and stars consider the moves that made their series a pop-culture sensation.
Taraji P. Henson knew everybody would be buzzing about her someday. Her father had a premonition.
It was 2006, and Boris Henson was nearing the end of an ill-fated battle with cancer. Soon his actress-daughter would not only be attending the Academy Awards but performing that year's Best Original Song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from her film Hustle & Flow, which costarred Terrence Howard.
As she sat at her father's hospital bedside, filling him in on the major career milestone she was about to reach — one he wouldn't live to see — "He was like, 'Baby, that ain't nothin'. You are going to be a sensation,'" the Empire star recounts now. "He was looking off into the distance, and I think he saw what was coming.
"At the time, I was like, 'What you see? Shoot, I want to see it!'" continues Henson, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance in 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Emmy-nommed for the 2011 Lifetime film Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story. "Time went on, and I'm getting older. I ain't no spring chicken. I'm thinking, 'Maybe the Oscar [nod] was it.' Then [Empire] comes along, and it blows up, and it's like, 'Okay, Daddy, this is what you were talking about.' He saw this moment right here."
And what a moment it is. Fueled by explosive performances from a reunited Henson and Howard, Empire has become TV's hottest hit.
Co-created by Danny Strong and Lee Daniels, Fox's hip-hop family drama revolves around drug dealer-turned-music mogul Lucious Lyon (Howard), who, after being diagnosed with ALS, decides he must choose a successor from among his three sons: Andre (Trai Byers), the company's ambitious, Ivy League-educated COO who struggles with bipolar disorder; Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a sensitive singer-songwriter who comes out publicly as gay, much to his father's horror; and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), a cocky, budding rap star with mommy-abandonment issues,
When the family matriarch — Lucious's ex-wife Cookie (Henson) — wraps up a 17-year prison stint for the drug-running that helped fund her ex's company, she sets out to reconnect with her children and stake her claim to half of Empire Entertainment.
A flashy mix of melodrama, Timbaland-produced music, high-wattage guest stars (hello, Jennifer Hudson and Courtney Love!) and provocative twists — from sexy hookups to go-for-broke catfights to more than one murder — Empire is an exhilarating ride.
But it's not all soapy fun and games, Boo Boo Kitties. The dysfunctional family relationships — particularly the combustible chemistry between Lucious and Cookie, as well as the painful disconnect between Jamal and his homophobic father — have an emotional heft that helps to ground the series' more over-the-top moments.
It's that unique combination that has made the show a pop-culture phenomenon, says executive producer and showrunner llene Chaiken (her fellow exec producers are Strong and Daniels, plus Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo, chairman and president, respectively, of Imagine Entertainment; Timbaland is a music executive producer).
"We make big moves that make you gasp, but there are also really deep and profound human moments," Chaiken observes. "And I don't think those things are necessarily distinct from each other. You can scream at your television and still feel great humanity for the characters at the same time."
Call it an Empire state of mind. A midseason hit right out of the gate, the series defied conventional broadcast wisdom and posted audience gains with each passing week, culminating with nearly 17 million viewers for its March season finale. (It was the most-watched new series season-ender since Grey's Anatomy a decade ago.)
Its record-breaking run "exceeded any possible expectation we had for the show," admits Dana Walden, who last summer began overseeing the network with her Fox Television Group cochair Gary Newman.
"It feels bold. It feels original. It has an extraordinary cast. You can't take your eyes away from the screen because you're waiting for that next OMG moment."
Maybe no one is more surprised by Empire's success than the man who reigns over it all.
"I didn't know that the American public was really ready to tackle some of these issues that we're tackling, especially the African-American population," Howard says. "With the homophobia that runs through there, I didn't think a lot of the scenes that we've had would be welcome. I thought 20 minutes in[to the first episode], by the time they had the first [same-sex] kiss, it would be a wrap. Everybody would change the channel."
Together with other hits this past season — like ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and American Crime — Empire has helped prove that viewers are eager to watch shows with casts as diverse as the world we live in.
"Ultimately, I think we might be part of doing something that's good for television," Grazer says, "and good for an audience that has traditionally been ignored."
Adds Walden: "For a long time, people have asked, 'What's it going to take for shows to really reflect our audience?' And you know what it takes? Big fat hits."
Empire's leading lady is proud to be a part of this project at this particular time in TV history. "I haven't seen anybody like Cookie on prime-time television before," says Henson, who's aware she's found the role of a lifetime in the straight-shooting, designer label-loving, ferociously loyal mama Lyon.
Still, after nearly 20 years in the business, becoming the Hollywood sensation her father predicted is taking some getting used to. "People are coming out of the woodwork, people I hadn't heard from in years," she reports. "It's like, 'Wait a minute. Where you been? What made you want to call me now?' And I can't go anywhere [without being recognized]. People are calling me Cookie. Cookie's on a hiatus right now. And Cookie is not Taraji. But I get it. It's fan love."
Empire almost wasn't the TV smash of the year. In fact, it wasn't even originally envisioned as a series.
"I thought about it as a movie," says Strong, a double Emmy winner (for writing and producing HBO's Game Change) and a previous collaborator with Daniels, on the 2012 film Lee Daniels' The Butler.
"I was listening to this news [report] about Puffy [hip-hop mogul Sean Combs] on the radio and instantly thought, 'I should do something with hip-hop. What if it's like King Lear or The Lion in Winter?' Basically, the whole concept flooded into my brain in, like, 50 seconds."
But when Strong pitched the idea to Daniels, an Oscar-nominated writer and director, the latter suggested developing it as a TV show instead.
In the process, Empire became intensely personal. Significant story points were drawn from Daniels's own life as an openly gay man, most notably Jamal's strained relationship with his dad. The pilot's most devastating moment — a younger Lucious stuffing his five-year-old son, who's come downstairs wearing Cookie's high heels, in a trash can — was inspired by a similar incident between a young Daniels and his late father, a police officer.
Naturally, Daniels was hesitant about sharing such a painful memory and asked Strong more than once to remove the scene from the script. But the writer-producer realized how powerful the moment could be and eventually got Daniels's consent to leave it in. "He's like a pimp," Daniels says of Strong, with a laugh. "He's very persuasive.
"And at the end of the day, I love Danny for it, because he forced me to face my demon," Daniels continues. "It helped me get over a moment that I had nightmares about forever. It was beyond therapeutic."
The co-creators rightly realized that casting would be key to the show's success. Daniels had previously met Henson, when he was directing his 2009 film Precious, which starred Empire recurring player Gabourey Sidibe as the obese, illiterate teen.
"Taraji wanted to play Precious!" Daniels exclaims. "She wanted to wear a fat suit and everything! It was like, are you kidding me? I really thought something was wrong with the girl."
Says Henson now: "Thank God, Lee didn't listen to me."
And thank the TV gods he was more receptive when the two met again on Empire. "She didn't even have the job yet when she demanded Terrence [play Lucious]," remembers Daniels, who'd originally pursued Wesley Snipes for the role. "I mean, the balls on this chick! The gonads, man, it's crazy. But [in this case] that's what got her the job. It was a very Cookie Lyon move."
For Henson, reuniting with Howard made perfect sense. "I could just hear Terrence's voice as Lucious," she says. "The chemistry and the history of that tight relationship that Lucious and Cookie share — that's something you can see without them opening their mouths. And Terrence and I have that. That's my boy, you know? Terrence is not very open to a lot of people, but we have such a bond and we roll like that. I knew our relationship in real life would transfer over into these characters."
Like Lucious and Cookie, the longtime friends can't resist pushing each other's buttons. After Henson notes she still hasn't received a thank-you gift for helping Howard land his part ("I should be getting 5 percent of his check!"), he cracks, "The thank-you gift I got her was, she now has the number-one show. I brought her to the world. You're welcome, Taraji."
According to Howard, the pair has a unique way of bringing out the best in each other on the Chicago set. "I love Taraji, but she's a 10-foot-tall man inside," Howard says. "She needs [to have] the last word, the last look, and I don't know how to give up any ground. So we've been battling since Hustle & Flow. I told her, 'You will never steal a frame from me. And don't you let me take a frame from you.' That's our thing with each other. It's [like] the Thrilla in Manila. We'll keep battling until somebody dies."
When he signed on, Howard says he had no idea that Lucious's fatal ALS diagnosis would be revealed in the season finale as a medical mistake.
"I found out when I was at the [last] table read, and it shocked the hell out of me," says the actor, who was Oscar-nominated for Hustle & Flow and was also cast in Lee Daniels' The Butler.
"I was attracted to the idea that this man was going to be humbled by the disease, the debilitation of it and the loss of dignity. I thought we'd humanize him in that process, and then in three years', five years' TV time, he would end up dying and probably find some redemption. That's what I was looking forward to."
Not that Howard was thrown off his game for long. When it comes to his mercurial character, he prefers to live in the moment. "I don't take any unnecessary work home with me," he reports. "I leave the lines when I get in the car to go to [set]. If I can't memorize them right there, then they're not written properly. Because when it's written properly, it flows and follows an emotional path. You don't have to do any thinking on it.
"It keeps it organic for me," he adds. Still, he admits his process can "sometimes be frustrating for the other actors. The first couple of takes, it's sort of rough. But most of the time, they find it refreshing because it keeps it real and relatable."
Says Smollett, who's grown close to Howard "I imagine that working with Terrence is very much like working with Marlon Brando — you know, someone that owns their own planet." Smollett laughs. "But there's no place that you are luckier to be than on Planet Terrence. He's so genuine and just stupid-talented."
The latter might also be said of Smollett, who's earning critical raves for his nuanced portrayal of Jamal. The openly gay actor and musician has been in the business since he was a child — with his five siblings, including Jurnee Smollett (Friday Night Lights), he starred in a short-lived ABC sitcom, On Our Own, in 1994 — but he's found the response to Jamal particularly moving.
"There's been a lot of love," says Smollett, who signed a solo record deal with Columbia shortly after the show's premiere and is featured heavily on Empire's first soundtrack, which hit number one on the Billboard albums chart upon its March release.
"I've heard from so many kids saying they were inspired to come out because of Jamal. And even heterosexual kids are writing me, saying they feel connected to him because they feel like underdogs, too. Feeling judged and misunderstood is a universal journey."
Now the Empire cast and crew are looking forward to another journey: an 18-episode season two. There are burning questions to be answered.
(For one, how will Lucious, who ultimately chooses Jamal as his successor in the finale — and gets arrested for murder — get out of prison?) There are even more high-profile guest stars to book. (Chris Rock, Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz have been announced, and Daniels says he's had conversations with A-list pals Oprah Winfrey and Mariah Carey.) And, yes, there's more than a little pressure to live up to their record-breaking season one.
"I feel the pressure every day," Chaiken admits. "I've heard it said that second seasons are easier, but I have no doubt that ours is going to be every bit as hard. The only way it wouldn't be is if we were to get lazy and coast, which we won't. We care too much. So we'll just keep pushing ourselves until we get where we know we need to go."
Straight back to the top.