Writers and producers on Fox’ breakout hit talk celebrity cameos and the show’s influence on diversity in TV.

(July 2, 2015)

Photo: Michael Jones
Empire panelists: Back Row (L-R) Eric Haywood, Attica Locke, Joshua Allen, Danny Strong; Front Row (L-R): Cheo Hodari Coker, Carlito Rodriguez.

Empire came out of the box and turned into Fox’ breakout hit this past season.

To honor the series, the WGAW’s Committee of Black Writers and the LGBT Writers Committee recently presented “An Evening With TV’s Empire,” a panel discussion covering, among other things, the show’s impact on diversity in television, the Empire writers room and the value of Twitter to the series. Moderated by Cheo Hodari Coker (Luke Cage, Southland), panelists included Danny Strong (Empire co-creator and executive producer) and writers Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, Attica Locke and Carlito Rodriguez.

As Coker pointed out, the influence of Empire is already being felt through what he called “the Empire Factor.” “Its success has allowed more people like me to write and produce shows. It has opened doors at the networks.”

What has turned into a cultural milestone of sorts started as the seed of an idea by Strong, who envisioned a series set in the world of hip hop. He saw it as having Shakespearean overtones or, as he explained, “King Lear and The Lion in Winter.” Within 90 seconds, he had the blueprint in his mind to make Empire the story of a family who reigned over hip hop. Co-creator and executive producer Lee Daniels embraced the idea.

Besides the obvious goal of onscreen diversity, Strong said he and Daniels, along with executive producer Ilene Chaiken, tried to also made it a point to hire diverse directors. “There was only one straight, white male to direct an episode last season … and it was me!”

And rather than relying on the Nielsen ratings as a gauge of success, Empire writers instead looked towards Twitter to interpret reaction to the show and, in part, help them shape storylines. “The voices coming back were overwhelming,” said Locke. Adds Haywood: “Seeing the broad spectrum of opinions I personally find kind of interesting, and I believe it keeps us on our toes.”

Panelists also joked about celebrity cameos, which contribute to the ethos of the hip hop world. At first, Strong explained, guest stars would agree to an appearance and often cancel at the last minute. But now that Empire is a bona fide hit, they are knocking on his door.

“A lot of people want to be on the show," he said. "But it’s a balance of making it feel real and not letting the stunt casting overwhelm it. At the same time the stunt casting is completely organic in the world of musical superstars.”

As Strong concedes, the success of Empire has changed the rules of network television, sending a powerful message that audiences will accept shows that feature almost exclusively diverse casts. Coker added that with the storyline of Lucious Lyon's gay son, Jamal, fighting for acceptance by his father, Empire has also opened doors in terms of LGBT characters on TV.

But in the end, it’s all about the storytelling. “When people ask me how we are going to make the show bigger and better for season two, I say that we’re not,” said Strong. “Our goal is just to continue the story.”

Read more about the WGAW’s Diversity Department