A lively audience filed into the Dolby Theatre Friday for PaleyFest’s opening-night Empire panel, with cast including Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett and Gabourey Sidibe and co-creator Lee Daniels spilling the secrets behind Fox’s soon-returning hit. Taraji P. Henson was the only no-show on the bill, held up by filming commitments in Atlanta. But the crowd was rewarded nevertheless with the premiere screening of the show’s March 30 episode, “Death Will Have His Day,” which picks up all the plot threads left dangling after last year’s hiatus break: the Empire board’s ouster of Lucious, Hakeem’s betrayal and Rhonda’s tumble.
Daniels kicked off the Q&A by responding to host Kevin Frazier’s assertion that the show had turned “a little left” early in Season 2, as its first half stumbled in the ratings. “It was growing pains,” Daniels insisted. “I think it would have happened to any show. Though we remain No. 1, we were learning. Sometimes you don’t feel like it’s enough, and so you bring in this person or that person to bring in some more eyes, but at the end of the day it’s a process, and it’s trial and error. We came back.”
‘You’ll always be an outsider because of the color
of your skin. This is the way of the world. So kick
the door open and don’t take no for an answer.’
— Lee Daniels
Daniels reflected instead on the broader success that brought Empire to the Dolby Theatre. He marveled, he said, at the way the young cast of the show took to the red carpet press line. “I’m like, ‘Y’all was nobodies last year. Now look at you.’ It’s an honor to see people of color that are not only in the homes of America, but into Brazil and Spain and Italy and London. They’re getting a sneak peek into what it’s like to be in our world. Not only is the show a part of the African-American experience, but I have as my partners white people that are able to tell the story in a universal way.”
Diversity on Empire – in front of and behind the camera – was a recurring theme for the panel, with an audience member asking Daniels to respond to the race controversy that surrounded the Oscars. “I’ve avoided this question for quite a while,” he said. “I don’t have time to deal with racism. Am I delusional to think there’s no racism in America? Look at f**king Donald Trump. But here’s the bottom line: The minute I embrace it, it becomes real to me. I don’t have time to blame Paramount or Sony or Fox. I get my own money, I get my own actors, I write my own script. I don’t want to hear, ‘Woe is me, they don’t treat me right.’ Get off your ass and do it. You’ll always be an outsider because of the color of your skin. This is the way of the world. So kick the door open and don’t take no for an answer.”
Cayman Islands native Grace Gealey spoke to how universal the show’s success has been, “It has transcended countries,” she said. “In the Cayman Islands, the whole country watches the show. It wasn’t just that I was on the show. People could say, ‘I can do that.’”
Daniels said he knew Empire was a hit when he read a Page Six item that suggested Trai Byers was leaving the show. “There’s not a stitch of truth to it,” said Byers, before excoriating the media for not allowing “truth [to] ring louder than lies.”
Given Empire’s impressive guest star roster, it was inevitable that the panel would be asked to chime in with some suggestions. Gabourey Sidibe kicked things off, whispering, “Beyonce, Beyonce, Beyonce…” into her microphone. Various names including Adele, Kendrick Lamar, Prince and Rhianna drew cheers from the crowd. Said Daniels: “We have a few more guest stars coming up, but what I’ve learned, because I’ve never done television before, is that we’re good enough.” Still … “I’m old school, you know. For me it’s about bringing the greats back and introducing you to people that were my inspirations, like Sidney Poitier. We should be so lucky.”
He insisted that was only a dream, but Terrence Howard brought the big scoop: “I found out today that O.J.’s gonna be at the premiere,” he joked. “Sorry. I’m just wrapped up in that O.J. show.”
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