Howard then clarified that it was actually his former Hustle & Flow co-star Taraji P. Henson — who played his onscreen love interest in the 2005 film and his estranged wife in Empire — that was responsible for getting him aboard the Lee Daniels-Danny Strong executive produced TV series. “Lee was auditioning Taraji and she said, ‘If you’re not using Terrence Howard then I’m not doing it. How’s that one?’ (and she hung up the phone). Remember, Taraji is the same person who tried to audition for Precious — I’m not lying! She’s a cornucopia of crazy and that’s really the reason why I am here,” Howard told Deadline’s Dominic Patten.
Premiering tomorrow night January 7 at 9pm on Fox, Empire follows the story of Lucious Lyon, a former drug dealer-turned successful R&B artist-turned recording industry mogul. With hints to King Lear, Lucious, who is facing a long-term illness, is looking to leave his empire to one of his sons; but in his eyes, they all have flaws. There’s Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who has the promise of becoming a breakout smooth R&B singer, but is hiding his homosexuality to appease his father’s pride. There’s the responsible, diligent Andre (Trai Byers), but he’s too straight-laced, and he’s not “the star” Lucious wants as the face of the record label. And then there’s Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), an aspiring hip-hop performer who is arrogant beyond his years. Enter Cookie Lyon (Henson), Lucious’ ex-wife who is released from jail and aiming to reclaim her stake in the company she bankrolled with drug money.
In flashbacks we see Lucious and Cookie making their way between the drug world and the music sphere; moments which bring to mind Howard and Henson’s aspiring urban recording artists in Hustle & Flow, Djay and Shug. Commenting on the connection, Howard said, “Djay loved Shug to such a degree. I’m sure Lucious loves Cookie in the same way, but there’s a monster inside all of them that I didn’t see in Shug, didn’t see in Djay.” Then drawing connections to the duplicitous family members in Empire, Howard said, “There’s even a monster in Trai Byers’ character. There’s a moment where he hugs his mom (Cookie) and he broke the fourth wall, glaring over at me as if to say ‘You’re going down old man!’ After watching him work (as an actor), I will gladly hand him the crown (to the empire).”
Before it was even reviewed, the media couched Empire as the next Dynasty, however, the night time soap is so much more than shallow glitz and glamour, covering a melange of social issues that are impacting African Americans. “It has grit, insight, character, sociology and meaning in a way that no other night time soaps displayed,” EP Ilene Chaiken told Patten, “We’re talking about life.”
In the pilot episode, Lucious, in a politically incorrect way, speaks out against Jamal’s homosexuality. In a heart-wrenching flashback, we see Lucious throwing a six-year old Jamal, dressed in drag, in a garbage pail. The inspiration for the scene, wasn’t melodrama for melodrama’s sake, rather it was an actual episode straight out of Daniels’ life.
“Lee Daniels was that little boy and his father put him in the trash can,” recalled Howard.
“Watching Lee while we were shooting this — at one point, he had to look away because he was in tears, because he was facing it. His mother was also there on the set. It was cathartic for Lee. Lee would not allow me to show any compassion in the scene. He reminded me how much Lucious loved little Jamal, but my need for the boy to be a strong man was greater than my need to show my love to him. That was a difficult scene.”
Added Howard, “I got to tell the story that a lot of men throughout the world are afraid to tell because sometimes we are too P.C.”
Also in attendance at Monday’s Awardsline screening with Howard were Byers, Smollett, Gray and Empire EP and Imagine TV president Francie Calfo.