Lee Daniels on ‘Star’: ‘I Saw America Coming to a Civil War in Front of My Eyes’

Oriana Schwindt
Variety

Lee Daniels’ new Fox music drama “Star” will elicit its fair share of comparisons to “Empire.” The shows come from the same co-creator and they both concern the music business. But whereas “Empire” follows a family that has already made its bones, “Star” is about the bone-making process.

“I can’t tell what I don’t know,” Daniels told an audience at the Paley Center for Media in New York on Tuesday afternoon following a screening of the “Star” pilot.

“Star” is the story of Daniels before he hit it big, a prequel of sorts to his “Empire” days. “This is about those days I first landed in Hollywood and the struggle, living in the back of my car and the back of my church and not really having a mentor,” Daniels said.

Like in “Empire,” themes of social justice, faith, and family run through the storylines of “Star.”

“I did this before Trump was in, so we’ve had to shift course,” Lee said, wryly. But even before Donald Trump won the White House, Daniels was acutely feeling the racial, ethnic and class tensions that are roiling the country, and that unease is infused into “Star.”

“I saw America coming to a civil war, I thought, in front of my eyes,” he continued. “The conversations I’ve had to have with my son. For me there was [Martin Luther] King, Malcolm X, the [Black] Panthers, I remember them vividly. And there aren’t any now, so I’m going to invent one in [the character of] Derek and tell his story. I want people to walk away from this knowing we’re all one. It doesn’t matter that you’re black or white. What do you say when you have a sister that is black, and you’re white? What do you say? Family is wherever you find it.”

The character closest to a stand-in for Daniels is washed-up manager Jail (played by Benjamin Bratt, also present at the Paley panel). But the story itself is about the birth of a girl group, two sisters (Jude Demorest and Britany O’Grady) and a New York City heiress (Ryan Destiny).

“I missed girl groups,” Daniels told Variety before the panel. “And I love writing women. I love women. Maybe I was a woman in a past life, or I’m supposed to be one now.”

As is the key for creating a girl group, finding the actresses to play the trio was no less crucial, and finding its lead character, Star, was process that Daniels wasn’t looking forward to. “It took us forever to find Hakeem and Jamal for ‘Empire’ — months and months,” Daniels said. And so when Daniels saw Jude Demorest audition once, twice, three times, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “It’s so hard to find someone who can act sing and dance and is white at the same time,” he said. “I was obsessed with her.”

That’s not quite how Demorest experienced the wooing, Demorest, who also joined Daniels onstage for a Q&A at the Paley, told the crowd. “I had auditioned so many times, and the last time, it was just him and me in his office,” she said. “And he said, ‘I don’t like you.'” Daniels was attempting to play coy, but Demorest thought his dislike genuine, and burst into tears.

Star’s sister, Simone, had a black father, and is identified as black; but Star herself is white, though TV audiences haven’t likely seen this kind of white character in a mainstream primetime drama series. “I identify with Star, being from a generation where you look a certain way and the older generation expects you to act a certain way,” Demorest, who grew up in Detroit, said. “But they are who they are. They’re unapologetic.”

Though the girls are the heart of the show, the godmother Carlotta, played by Queen Latifah, and Benjamin Bratt’s manager Jahil are its DNA, the history behind it all. Daniels sees Jahil as an opportunity “to really tell my struggle, my bout with drugs, how ultimately I became the artist I am, because there wasn’t anyone there to teach me.”

Fox is giving “Star” a special premiere on Dec. 14, shifting the “Empire” midseason finale back to 8 p.m. and slotting the “Star” pilot in at 9 p.m.

(Pictured: Jude Demorest, Lee Daniels and Benjamin Bratt)

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