Lee Daniels on His Audacious Approach to Fox’s ‘Star’: ‘This Is Singularly My Vision’

Debra Birnbaum
Variety

Lee Daniels wants to launch another “Star” into TV’s stratosphere.

Having created the Fox juggernaut “Empire” (with Danny Strong), Daniels hopes lightning will strike again with “Star,” a 13-episode musical drama about a girl-group struggling to succeed. He has dubbed it the anti-“Empire”: “If ‘Dynasty’ was my go-to when Danny and I were making ‘Empire,’” he says, “‘Good Times,’ ‘Maude,’ and Archie Bunker were my go-to when I was making this.”

“Star” is gritty, not glitzy. In place of Taraji P. Henson’s bombastic Cookie, the new show finds Queen Latifah as Carlotta,  mother hen to three young singers dreaming of fame and fortune.

This time, Daniels is going solo. Unlike “Empire,” which was shepherded with Strong, Brian Grazer, and showrunner Ilene Chaiken, this project is his alone. “This is singularly my vision, so if it fails, I’m failing,” he says. “I’m rolling the dice like I have in my entire career, and sometimes you like them, and sometimes you don’t. If you don’t, guess what? Check, next, moving on. I’m on to something else.”

There has already been some behind-the-scenes drama: Original showrunner Charles Murray exited over “creative differences” with Daniels, and was replaced by Chuck Pratt (“Melrose Place”). But if “Star” works, it would be just the latest chapter in a Hollywood success story that even Daniels never imagined.

Annie Tritt for Variety

“I don’t see myself as successful,” he explains. “I always see myself as a struggling artist who’s trying to prove something.”

Daniels famously landed in L.A. as a receptionist at a nursing agency. After stints as a casting director and  talent manager, he secured fame as producer of 2001’s “Monster’s Ball.” The $2.5 million film went on to make more than $30 million domestically — and win Halle Berry an Oscar, the first ever for a black leading actress.

“‘Monster’s Ball’ really gave me the courage to see that dreams do come true and that I had the ability to put together a film, when I certainly didn’t think that I had,” he says. “Who would’ve thought I could really raise money for a movie? I just used the skills I’d seen my friends and my brother and my sisters and my cousins and my relatives use in the streets to use that same hustle for my art.”

Daniels also credits “Monster’s Ball” with giving him the creative freedom to choose projects that are meaningful to him — from “Precious” to “The Butler” to the multiple scripts that litter his desk at his office on Wilshire Boulevard. “I can make people think a different way about a different person or situation or attitude,” he says. “I can change perception.”

He has also built a reputation for being outspoken and having an outsized personality. In a 2015 interview, Daniels defended “Empire” star Terrence Howard against domestic abuse allegations by comparing him with Sean Penn. Penn filed a $10 million defamation suit, but the case was settled when Daniels wrote a public letter of apology and made a donation to Haiti relief.

He makes no apologies for being a rule-breaker. “I don’t think the Kennedys got into office by playing by the rules. And I don’t think Trump got into office by playing by the rules,” he says.

Interviewed a few days after the election, Daniels, who was an active supporter of Hillary Clinton, sees “Star” and its message of racial unity as an opportunity. “Our country is at civil war. We have to take a stand and not be afraid. I attack my politics the same way I attack my passion for film and TV — I take a stand. You may not like it, but you can kiss my black ass.”

The election has inspired him to think even more carefully about what kinds of projects he wants to tackle in the future. “I think I’ve got to be careful of my life, but I think I’m going to smartly be able to tell stories. It makes me be more cunning in telling my stories.”

He’s got more than a few lined up. Along with “Empire,” now in its third season, he’s set to direct the long-gestating Richard Pryor biopic “Is It Something I Said?” starring Mike Epps, Oprah Winfrey, and Kate Hudson.

“It’s coming along,” he says. “Ask Harvey Weinstein. That’s who you should ask. Don’t ask me.” (At one point, rumors circulated that Daniels had been sidelined from the project, but Jay Z, who will be producing it along with Weinstein, recently confirmed that Daniels was back on board.)

“There is no man on this Earth that can tell me no. I know that shows on the screen — my audacity.”
Lee Daniels

He’s planning a black version of “Roseanne,” starring comedian Ms. Pat. (“It’s going to change the meaning of half-hour television, if I may be so arrogant to say.”) There’s also a new version of “Terms of Endearment,” starring Winfrey and Kerry Washington in the roles played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Daniels is setting it in the ’90s — and Washington’s character will fall ill of AIDS, not cancer, thanks to her husband “being on the D.L.”

“I just miss film,” Daniels admits. “I think there’s a wonderful art to making television. [But] it’s been a long time since “The Butler,” you know? And I got some gray.”

While his films have won Oscars, it’s “Empire” that has made him a financial success — and a household name. Daniels will get a star on the Walk of Fame on Dec. 2.

“I guess America’s aware of me in a way that they hadn’t been before,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m recognized at the supermarket. I don’t know whether I like that so much. I see this guy looking at me, but he ain’t looking at me — he’s looking at Lee Daniels. I’m like, ‘Oh, bye, Felicia.’”

“Empire” also landed him a lucrative multiyear production deal with 20th Century Fox TV, signed in June 2015.

“Lee is a special creator,” says Dana Walden, co-chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group. “You always feel like he’s revealing something of himself in his work. He’s not afraid to make himself vulnerable and put some of the most challenging experiences of his own life into his work and into the journeys of the characters he creates.”

Daniels says his strength is in embracing risk. “I’ve looked death in the eyes many times, and I’m not afraid to die, because I believe in a higher power. And I think that there is no man on this Earth that can tell me no. I know that that shows onscreen — my audacity.”

But the flip side of that audacity is his thorny reputation, and he regrets that it filters down to his two children. “But I don’t know how to be anything but me.”

He says he has learned some measure of self-control — to apologize when he’s gone too far on set — and to be grateful to those who’ve supported him. “I’ve learned to walk in humility, because it was so important to me to get to where it was, that I understand now that it’s not me,” he says. “It takes a village.”

That, he adds, will be his legacy: “to remember that the gift you have doesn’t belong to you — it belongs to the universe. That this is not my gift. I have to pass it on. To keep it is selfish. You don’t own it — you’re a vessel.”

That’s why he’s devoting time to the Ghetto Film School, a nonprofit program with high-profile sponsors like Brett Ratner and David O. Russell. Daniels wants to be a role model to future generations of filmmakers.

“I get as much fulfillment from teaching as I do from directing and writing,” he says. “If there is a retirement plan ahead, it’s that I won’t be retiring, but I will be creating some sort of platform where I can educate kids.”

But that’s years away. For now, the 56-year-old is still focused on proving himself to the man who abused him throughout his childhood for being gay — then was killed in the line of duty as a policeman when Daniels was 15.

“When your father tells you that you’re not going to be anything, that’s hard to chip out of your head, no matter how hard you try,” he says. “So you don’t really believe that you’re worthy of anything, let alone a star on the Walk of Fame. I think my father, though he didn’t intentionally mean it, didn’t want me hurt as a gay man. It was bad enough being black. Regardless, it has had its effect.”

If he could talk to him now, he would tell his father that he has forgiven him, and that he wishes he could be with him to see him get that star. His message to his father would be: “I’m so honored that you instilled in me that I wasn’t good enough, so I could always strive for perfection.”

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