‘Empire’ Executive Producer Sanaa Hamri on Female Directors, Diversity & ‘Sensational’ Season 3

Sanaa Hamri Empire
erik umphery for Variety

Director Sanaa Hamri landed her first executive producer credit on “Empire” — the top drama on network television. An alum of “Shameless,” “Elementary” and “Nashville,” who also helmed the sequel to “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” Hamri says the ratings and accolades are just gravy. “Of course there’s a lot of pressure,” she says, “but the pressure and loyalty is to the show itself and making it the best that we can.”

Why has “Empire” clicked with audiences?

Music, to me, is an important element because music is really the rhythm of our lives. We can all love a song and it doesn’t matter what walk of life or socioeconomic background we’re from.

“Empire” is broadcast’s top show. Is there pressure to keep the viewers watching?

I’m not focused on that so much as really creating the best show and the best episode that we can. You’re just as good as what you just did. I’m an artist, I’m a filmmaker, but I love doing that work so that’s what I’m fixated on. The other stuff comes with it and I appreciate it, but it’s not an obsession for me.

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You’re directing the season three premiere and finale, plus more episodes, and you are an executive producer. How do you do it all?

Not to sound cliché, but women are the greatest multitaskers there are. I’ve always been by nature a multitasker. I love delegating. I’m also very organized. Listen, it’s a lot of hours. I feel like it’s a lot of hard work, but I love it.

 

Speaking of women, almost half of season three will be directed by female directors…

We believe in making sure that everyone is represented, whether it’s the writers room or directors. When you just go for the best people and when you’re not stuck in an old-school mindset, then you have diversity. You have a lot more women who are hired and who are working.

How closely do you work with directors when you’re not directing?

We take a lot of chances on directors who have not directed television before. I want every director on our show to succeed, whether they’re male, female, black, white or purple. I remember feeling like folks were trying to sabotage me and it always came from the wrong place. When we have different directors, I try to create a different environment for them where they feel embraced.

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What can you tease about Season 3?

Season 3 is obviously going to be about the family dynamic, where Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is going to head, and where the relationship with his mother is going to take him. We also have to deal with Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who is so devastated by Lucious’ decision. We’re going to follow her new path and see what happens between Lucious and Cookie because the great thing is, they’re co-CEOs of Empire. Let’s not forget, we have the half brother Tariq (Morocco Omari) that Lucious has to deal with and who’s in the FBI. You have Jamal (Jussie Smollett) who is literally broken by being shot and then, of course, we ended on Andre (Trai Byers) witnessing a death so that’s going to deeply affecting him. There’s so much and it’s going to be an exciting season.

Speaking of that cliffhanger, who died?

Anything is possible in the world of “Empire.” It’s going to quite sensational when we get back.

Right after the Season 2 finale, showrunner Ilene Chaiken said the entire cast did not know who died. Do they now?

We all know.

 

What are your personal goals on “Empire,” as the show heads into its third season?

I’m extremely passionate about diversity and women working in entertainment. I really do believe if you’re looking for the best people, no holds barred, you will create a diverse roster. Benefiting from different point of views only makes our world and entertainment richer and more nuanced. That’s really what I’m about.

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  1. Howard Welch says:

    I was just thinking of Empires next season and putting a new twist on the show. Like having a new cast member as Jamal’s real father. Looking at Jussie Smollett’s lookalike

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