Social issues meet entertainment head-on in the work of Danny Strong, the writer-producer-director behind Fox’s new Proven Innocent as well as five seasons of Empire.
Danny Strong is hungry.
He wants lunch — understandable, considering it’s after 4 p.m. — but a table read was scheduled for Proven Innocent, and as an executive producer, he needs to be there. Starring Kelsey Grammer, Rachelle Lefevre and Russell Hornsby, the Fox drama is a sobering look, Strong says, at “the injustices in the justice system.”
Soon the cast (save its biggest star, not on set that day) crowds into an airless room. Around a long conference table, the actors read through a script about a wrongly convicted man who’s languishing in prison. Perched on a folding chair, Strong listens intently.
Afterward, he makes his way to an improvised cafeteria in a deserted, cavernous area. Over chicken, half an ear of corn and a few sweet potato fries, he talks openly about his career, including the angst-inducing auditions and misery of constant waiting during his early days as an actor.
Strong shot to fame as Jonathan Levinson on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and went from that hit to another with Gilmore Girls, where he played Doyle McMaster for four years. Looking at his acting credits (he has notched 50 over 25 years), it seems as if Strong has always worked.
It never felt that way to him, however.
“I was always waiting for the agent to call me, first to say I got the audition,” he relates. “Then to say I got the callback. Then to say I got the part. It eats away at you. I was 22, 24. That [was my routine] until I was 32.”
Strong decided to be more proactive about his career and generate his own opportunities. He wrote a script with a starring role for himself, one that space-starved, cash-strapped New Yorkers with a homicidal bent could relate to: a man who kills for a rent-controlled apartment.
Studios liked the script but didn’t want him. Still, it pointed the actor toward another path. “I had such a great time writing it,” he says. “It got my mind off my auditions. I decided to pursue a writing career.” When people asked him about the switch, he joked, “Acting is my day job.”
Although Strong already had a solid reputation as a performer, he worked hard to establish himself as a writer, too. And it began to pay off.
The first script he sold was Recount, about the painfully contested 2000 presidential election that managed to make dangling chads riveting. The HBO film starred Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, Denis Leary and John Hurt, and garnered Strong a Writers Guild Award for his effort.
Game Change was next. This film, set during the 2004 election, depicted John McCain’s campaign cannibalizing itself; it included mind-boggling scenes of Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin learning grade-school geography.
Also an HBO production, it starred Moore, Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris. Strong took home two Emmys for this effort: Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special, and Outstanding Miniseries or Movie.
The political themes and sense of outrage running through both projects are no coincidence. “I am writing so much,” Strong says. “It needs to be interesting for me to live with it.” That need consistently draws him to timely, socially conscious subjects.
“Homophobia and racism enrage me,” he says. “Overt racism and misogyny make my blood boil. When our politicians run racist campaigns, it tells people: ‘It’s okay to be racist.’”
After two films about the road to the White House, Strong took on a story about someone who lived there through multiple administrations, working behind the scenes. That became Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The 2013 feature was directed and produced by Daniels, written by Strong and starred Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
“It was an extraordinary experience because [Danny] knew how to structure scripts brilliantly and I felt that we complemented each other,” Daniels says. “He was able to structure, and I was able to color — at least with the African-American experience. We were fluid, and it was an incredible experience as a director.”
Strong elicits similarly exuberant responses from actors. Hornsby, who plays an attorney championing the wrongly convicted on Proven Innocent, checked out Strong when the series was coming together. He heard only good reports, but what made Hornsby a fan was that he’d booked another project that would coincide with this Fox pilot.
“He made a call,” Hornsby says, and Strong arranged for him to do both jobs. “He said, ‘It’s important that actors work.’ And I was endeared to him from that moment on.”
Lefevre, who portrays a crusading attorney who’s done time for a murder she didn’t commit, was won over during her audition. “He leapt out of his seat and high-fived me,” she says, smiling at the memory.
“Danny is magical,” Lefevre adds. “There’s this thing any performer — or anyone with a job — does on the drive home. You either feel good about the job you did or beat yourself up. He’s an actor, so he directs like he’s protecting your drive home. He gives you notes that make you feel he’s already happy and that you can do it.”
Though writers, directors, and actors have been known to lug around massive egos, several colleagues affirm that Strong is devoid of airs. “I knew who he was,” Lefevre says. “And of course, he has Emmys. But he doesn’t take himself seriously.”
In fact, Strong has amassed a serious amount of hardware — not only Emmys and Writers Guild Awards, but also Golden Globes as well as honors from the NAACP, the Television Critics Association and the American Film Institute. And as much as he loves writing, Strong volunteers that he revises constantly and seeks feedback.
“I am very open to notes,” he says. “I really believe in the creative process, and my drafts get better and better with rewrites. Sometimes negative feedback is odd, and I can get really discouraged. But often the note will resonate with me.”
His work ethic is inspiring. Before he started writing for TV, Strong turned out the two-part finale to The Hunger Games. Once he turned to episodic work, Strong served as an executive producer on 73 episodes of Empire (which he cocreated with Daniels), writing seven.
He has a room of writers on Proven Innocent (the 13-episode first season will conclude May 10), but he still contributes to scripts.
Because he prefers public spaces with white noise, Strong’s writing routine often takes him to coffee shops, like the one where he wrote the 2017 J. D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye. And as he writes, he probes the souls of people very different from himself. A straight, white man, he writes passionately and convincingly about gay, black men.
One of Empire’s most harrowing early scenes — when Lucious (Terrence Howard) put a young Jamal (Genis Wooten) in a garbage can because the boy pranced around in his mom’s heels — continues to horrify years later. That moment came directly from Daniels’s own life. He was four and had shared this scarring event with Strong, though he did not want it used in their show.
“In each iteration, I kept saying, ‘Take it out. It is too personal,’” Daniels recalls. “And it was remaining in each pass. I kept saying, ‘Take this shit out! I am not directing it.’ And finally, he said, ‘Lee, this is great cinema.’ And I said, ‘We are not doing cinema. This is television.’“
Eventually, Daniels gave in.
“He has a charm about him,” Daniels says. “It is hard to say no to him, and so I left it in the script, and I really hated him. When it came time to direct it, I could not. My sister [Leah Daniels] was an extra in the scene, and when [Genis] walked down the stairs in front of Terrence Howard, and I broke down in tears, my sister directed the scene because I could not. When I watched, it was so powerful.”
“Empire’s moral quest was to expose social injustice and social issues in a provocative, mainstream entertainment,” Strong says. “I hadn’t thought about hip-hop before. I heard a news story about Sean Combs — some massive deal he closed, and they paid him over $100 million.
"This world is so rich, and I tap into it. I heard that and thought of The Lion in Winter and King Lear. I often go to Shakespeare or mythological archetypes. They are epic stories.”
The show, now nearing the end of season five, was rocked offscreen by the legal drama surrounding star Jussie Smollett, indicted in March with 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly lying to police about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack; the charges were dropped two weeks later.
Onscreen, the series has had a tendency to lurch from one epic moment to the next. Even Strong admits, “Empire was operatic from the get-go, walking a tightrope, and could easily go too far. We’d fall off and get back on. There was stuff in season one that was not good.”
That might be, but fans could not get enough. As the second season was dawning in fall 2015, a sold-out screening was held at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and a usually blasé city lost its collective mind. Police held back screaming crowds. After the premiere, the cast basked in the applause as fans filling five tiers of the legendary theater rose for a sustained ovation.
Empire had crossed over from hit to phenomenon.
Looking back, Michael Thorn, entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting Company, was already a fan of Strong’s when they met, at the first pitch for Empire. “Every project of his is wildly different, and he is incredibly versatile and commercial,” Thorn says. “That’s one of his special skill sets.
"He can take whatever subject matter he is interested in and make it entertaining and emotional and authentic to whatever characters he is writing about, and whatever setting they exist in. Very few people have that range and ability to be really smart and relevant and then fun. That is a very challenging balance.”
Strong doesn’t get to finish his lukewarm meal before he is called back to the set.
Proven Innocent and Empire shoot at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, and as Strong walks between buildings on this blustery day, everyone wants to chat with him, and he knows everyone’s name.
In Proven Innocent’s courtroom, a scene is reshot a few times. Strong, sitting in the jury box, watches more intensely than anyone. It’s a focus he applies whether acting, directing, writing or producing. He recently wrote a new book to the musical Chess, which he aims to take to Broadway. Someday, Strong would love to act on Broadway.
“I can’t see taking off six months to do it,” he says. “When I’m in my 60s, I can see myself doing plays as a character actor.”
That’s still a couple of decades away. It was a couple of decades ago that Strong — who grew up in Manhattan Beach, California — was majoring in theater at USC. He’s been acting steadily since he was 20, and ever self-aware, he knows how he was cast. “I was always the nerd,” he says. “I have grown into a different character type in my 40s.”
Strong continues to act; he appears on Showtime’s Billions, where his character, Todd Krakow, has gone from slimy hedge fund manager to treasury secretary.
Even while juggling writing, directing and producing, Strong is on the lookout for his next projects. People comment on his intellectual curiosity. “He has a voracious appetite for pop culture,” says Jonnie Davis, president of creative affairs for 20th Century Fox TV. “He reads everything. Any conversation you want to hold with Danny, he can hold court. He deep-dives into these worlds.”
“He is dynamic,” Davis adds. “He is tenacious. He won’t give up. If he has an idea in his head, he knows what he wants, and it is intoxicating for us. The best thing with Danny is, he walks in the door, and you don’t know what he’ll have. It could be Empire. It could be a comedy. You don’t know. He has such a bandwidth.”
Strong is considering what’s next — in addition to marrying his fiancée, actress Caitlin Mehner. There are plays to write, movies to consider, shows to create.
At press time, he had three drama pilots in development at Fox: Midnight Lawyer, about a New York attorney and his night-owl clients; Operation Nexus, about the NYPD’s counter-terrorist unit; and Strange Conditions, an exploration of medical ethics.
“I like it all,” Strong says. “I plan on writing and directing another feature in the next three years. Making features is traumatizing. I get why people take four or five years [to make one]. I have a company, DS Productions — very creative,” he notes with more than a hint of self-deprecation. I went to the desert and meditated on the name. I spent a month in Joshua Tree.”
He’s whispering as a sound check goes on, which only makes the buzz in the hallway more audible. Cast and crew are excited about individual pizzas being delivered. Strong has hired a pizza truck, a thank-you for everyone’s hard work.
He moves through the set quickly, a little disheveled in a worn black T- shirt, gray hoodie and jeans, asking if people have eaten. Finally, he grabs a slice for himself, trying to catch a bite before heading back to work.
Viewers can catch up on Proven Innocent and Empire on Fox Now and Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2019