With its second season set to start on September 23, the blockbuster Fox series was one of the big draws at the TCA Summer Press Tour last week. And of course, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels did not disappoint with news of spinoffs and more guest stars such as Mariah Carey and Pitbull joining the show. Joining Daniels onstage at the Beverly Hilton, along with Emmy-nominated lead star Taraji P. Henson and EP Brian Grazer, was Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken.
Deep into production on the split up 18-episode second season, The L Word co-creator spoke offstage about whether Oprah Winfrey would be guesting on Empire after all and snubs for Best Drama by the Emmys and Daniels’ initial online reaction. She also talked about where the dynastic Lyon clan could go next and another season.
DEADLINE: With some many guest stars coming to Empire this season, including Chris Rock, Marisa Tomei and more, what’s the deal with Oprah? Lee has said repeatedly he’s trying to get her to be on the show.
ILENE CHAIKEN: I’d be thrilled if Oprah was on the show. But Oprah is a very busy lady, and I have no idea whether it will ever happen. I know she loves the show and loves Lee, and if anybody could ever make it happen it would be Lee.
DEADLINE: So, it’s not happening?
CHAIKEN: As of right this moment, I’m not aware of any episodes that Oprah’s going to be on in Season 2.
DEADLINE: What about Courtney Love? Will she be back in Season 2?
CHAIKEN: As of right now, no — but I hope she comes back at some point. We don’t have any plans for it right now, and it’s because we’re really focused on telling our stories not on our guest stars.
DEADLINE: With that in mind and the fact that Empire is now the biggest series on network TV, how is Season 2 different for you?
CHAIKEN: It doesn’t feel different. Personally, I was a little nervous about doing 18 episodes, but the way that Fox broke up the season is so smart. We’re airing 10 episodes and then there’s that hiatus, and then we’re airing eight more. So I’m able to think of the episodes in two parts and we’re able to break them in that way and it just feels very doable. We’re not burning out; we’re not stringing things out and running out of story. We’re telling two pods of great Empire stories. Of course they’re continuous, but we’re able to dedicate as much artistry and intellect and time and effort as we would if I were doing a 12-episode season.
DEADLINE: And how much is Lee and (co-creator) Danny Strong involved this year?
CHAIKEN: Danny and Lee are still very involved in the show, and I still value and cherish their wishes, their visions. Danny’s actually been in the writers room more this year than he was last year.
CHAIKEN: He just wanted to be, and he’s so gifted and I’m thrilled to have him. Also, Lee gets television better than he did last year, and he knows this phenomena that he’s created is really important. And he just continues to feed the writers and me his wishes, his sensibility, his lunacy — just everything that he brings to it.
DEADLINE: After the huge success of last year, are you worried about a sophomore curse?
CHAIKEN: I hope that the show does as well in Season 2 as it did in Season 1. I hope the audience still loves it, and we’re doing everything we can to keep it going like gangbusters being rigorous, tireless, and just digging really, really deep to tell great stories. The response is beyond my control, but I’m not stopping until I believe that we are every bit as delicious and good and irresistible as we were last year. I think we’re going to be better.
DEADLINE: Is part of that because of all the guest stars and additions to the show you have for Season 2?
CHAIKEN: We’re actually being really careful not to let it change the dynamic of the show — and frankly, not to have so many high-profile names that it feels like their show and not the Lyon show. Because the show is about the Lyon family. It’s about the characters that the audience loves. Although it’s really exciting to have some of these incredibly talented people be on the show, I believe that the audience is coming to see the characters in these stories. I think that the show will live or die based on those characters and those stories we’re telling them.
DEADLINE: But you have to admit, it really feels like Empire is loading up on stars with Mariah, Pitbull and others joining this season.
CHAIKEN: Of course, it is easier now to get people and there are people who want to be on the show and Lee knows everybody in the world. But the way that we’re approaching guest stars is we’re telling our stories. Fox has come to us and Lee has come to us in some cases and said so and so wants to be on the show. We hear those names and we keep them in the back of our minds. Then when a storyline comes up, we’ll say now, this would be a fabulous role to use that person, but we always let the story draw them in.
DEADLINE: Speaking of story, one of the big stories coming out of the Emmy nominations last month was how Empire got snubbed. While Taraji got an Outstanding Actress nom and the show received a costumes nom, there was no Best Drama, nothing for Terrence Howard, nothing for supporting actors. Did you find that shocking?
CHAIKEN: I never saw it that way. I mean, I would be thrilled just to get an Emmy nomination, and I’m thrilled that Taraji got one. That’s a very big deal unto itself. But if you look at the landscape of television, almost all the shows that are nominated are cable shows or streaming. Also, I know Better Call Saul did, but first-year shows don’t usually get that nomination.
DEADLINE: Lee Daniels seemed to think it was a big deal; he went online to rant about the snub…
CHAIKEN: He was just being Lee.
DEADLINE: He later walked it back with another post about loving the Emmys and that he was joking…
CHAIKEN: He posted it and, you know, you put something like that out to draw attention. Look, had we gotten a Best Drama Emmy nomination, I would be gleeful, but I don’t feel that we lost anything by not getting one. More important to me is the show is a huge success and that’s our real reward.
CHAIKEN: I can’t wait to do my own stuff and I will, but Empire is everything to me and important to Fox right now. That’s all I’m doing right now. Soon I’ll be able to talk about other things.
DEADLINE: When you thinking about developing your own shows, do you see a point where you’ll start seguing away from Empire and hand the showrunner reigns over to someone else?
CHAIKEN: Right now, I don’t see that point, but it will happen someday. I can’t see beyond tomorrow right now.
DEADLINE: Is there a vision of a Season 3 in that tomorrow for you?
CHAIKEN: I think we’ll see how Season 2 goes. (Laughs) Hopefully, it will go well and then maybe Fox will start talking about Season 3. Hopefully.