Danny Strong, the co-creator of Empire, was last June at the Monte-Carlo TV Festival.
ILTVSW was lucky enough to seat with him and talk about soap & politics.
ILTVSW. I think of Empire as the first political soap ever, am I totally wrong or did you actually want to talk about modern America in the show from the very beginning of the project ?
Danny Strong. That was always inherent in Lee Daniels and I doing the show together. And I think the combination of doing a soap that is grounded in a drama that tackles social issues seems to work really well. They balance each other out very nicely.
ILTVSW. Does that approach of dealing with important issues through a joyful show is more efficient in terms of its impact ?
Danny Strong. … And the issues make the soap elements more dramatic. They balance each other out. One feeds the other. I find that comedy is so helpful in drama because it makes the drama more dramatic and it also makes it easier to get a laugh. Because you don’t have to be so funny for something to be really funny when it is in a drama. And I think having issues about social justice in a show that has a sparkle to it makes the social justice issues feel more resonant and powerful and makes the sparkle of the show sparkle even more because it is contradicting the other part of the show.
The nature of how we watch stories now is very different than when The Wire was airing
ILTVSW. Despite these serious elements Empire is a huge success. The Wire, which was deeply addressing social justice, racism, drug dealing became cult but never was able to score big ratings. How do you explain Empire is saying so many things about the American society and still manage to be a hit show ?
Danny Strong. Well, The Wire is one of the most genius show of the last twenty years. I think it would be so much more successful today than when it started airing. Because of streaming and because you can just go and watch all the shows at once after they have aired. The word of mouth on The Wire which really seems to happen around season 3 would have happened much faster and I bet you by season 3 The Wire, if it had aired now, would have done what say Mad Men or Breaking Bad did in their season 3 when they really blew up. The nature of how we watch stories now is very different than when The Wire was airing. It was also hard to just jump into in the middle of the season, you really had to start from the beginning because of the way the writers told the story. But if you did it was so rewarding.
ILTVSW. The audience seems not to care about the fact that Empire is an almost totally black cast show and still there was an article on Deadline Hollywood about how difficult it was now for white actors to find jobs on TV. How do you explain that reaction ?
Danny Strong. I don’t think that that article was representative of the industry at all. I think people that make content are just trying to chase success. They just want products to be successful. With the success of Scandal and How to get away with murder and Empire, it has made crystal clear to everyone that there is a huge black audience that is under-represented in television that wants to watch shows with black leads. And simultaneously you can get a white audience too. You can get any audience. It is beyond race. My gut is you will be seing more of it because the industry is just trying to succeed. When they started casting, they were looking for more black actors on TV shows it was merely a by-product of that. That article saying it was getting tougher out there for white actors was ridiculous because there is still an endless number of white roles. That’s all.
ILTVSW. What are the social issues you want to deal with in season 2 ?
Danny Strong. Definitely issues of homophobia and sexuality. We will be dealing with incarceration. We will also be exploring police harassment of people of color in America.
My philosophy is just tell the truth
ILTVSW. When you do that kind of writing do think in terms of your responsibility as a writer ?
Danny Strong. I have a philosophy which is : just tell the truth. As long as I tell the truth any blow back I get, I don’t care. As far as the responsibility goes when you are tackling social issues, yeah you want to do it in a way that is responsible and truthful but also doesn’t feel preachy or spoon fed but like a genuine exploration of these issues. But I am not uncomfortable about anything. I’d talk about anything.
ILTVSW. Does the success of Empire teach us anything about the existence or the non existence of a post racial America ?
Danny Strong. There is no post racial America. These riots and everything we are having show that there is still a tremendous amount of racism in America. But was is positive is that it is moving forward, it is still progressing in such a positive way and the election of Barack Obama was such a reflexion of how far America has come.
ILTVSW. And entertainment has the power to help things get better ?
Danny Strong. I think it absolutely can make things better and can push the culture forward. Why I write is to push the culture forward in a way that I think is positive. There are people out there that would think that what I write about is horrible for the country. You know, acceptance of homosexuality, talking about race issues in a positive way as far as making people more accepting… I view those people as sort of enemies of what I believe to be good and true. And I will keep pushing what I believe to be positive, hopeful, more of an utopian type theory of acceptance, love, people coming together. What Martin Luther King called the beloved community.
ILTVSW. Still some people will not acknowledge the strength of this soap opera form of writing…
Danny Strong. I am not worried about it at all. I just put it out there and hopefully people dig it. It seems to me that an overwhelming number of people seems to really love the show because the show has been embraced in a very massive way. Some people are going to misinterpret it and sometimes people are just contrarian to things that are successful and have to dislike it. I can’t worry about the audience and individuals. Because everyone has a different opinion at the end of the day. I just write what I want to say, what I like, what I think is good story and put it out there. For me the rewarding quality why I do what I do is because I enjoy actually doing it. So once something feels good, like I got into a place where it is just the best I can do to be honest with you then the response is the response.
ILTVSW. What do you think of people who say that comedy isn’t the right form to deal with fundamental subjects ?
Danny Strong. Anyone who thinks it is a sin for comedy to address fundamental issues doesn’t really know what they are talking about. That’s it. There are so many comedies out there that are some of the most insightful satirical important issues addressing politics, love, race… everything. And comedy is actually the best way because you do it in a way where you get people laughing. So the themes and the ideas behind it are more easily digested for them.
Title : Empire (2015 – )
Creators : Lee Daniels, Danny Strong
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard
Networks : Fox, W9 (France)
© 2015 ILTVSW – not to be reproduced without a prior authorization from ILTVSW
Next week in ILTVSW, the French version.