Lee Daniels will not disclose any details about Mariah Carey’s role or character on the second season of Fox’s “Empire” — “I’m already in trouble with my publicist” is his quick excuse — but he believes she has definitely earned her place on the hip-hop insider drama as an actress. This is not a case of stunt casting.
“She has certainly proven herself, good lord. Repeatedly,” says Daniels, the co-creator, executive producer and writer of Fox’s biggest scripted hit of the 2014-15 season. “I’m very excited to see where she goes on ‘Empire.’”
It’s not a stretch to say Carey owes her current standing as an actress to Daniels, who ignored the crush of negativity that engulfed her 2001 film debut in “Glitter” and guided her to a starring role in a feature (“Tennessee”) followed by two well-received supporting roles (“Precious,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”).
She’ll return to topline status, and seize the director’s reins for the first time, on a holiday film tentatively titled “Mariah Carey’s Christmas Project” for the Hallmark Channel.
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Daniels was introduced to Carey via a mutual friend on the set of “Shadowboxer,” his first film as a director. “I can’t explain it,” he says, noting he found her “regal” and “very, very warm” at their first meeting. “It was almost like we fell in love with each other. I promised her that the next film I did, I’d put here in it.” That film was “Tennessee,” which Daniels produced.
Between “Glitter” and “Tennessee,” though, Carey received her first positive notices as an actress in 2002’s “WiseGirls,” in which she co-starred alongside Mira Sorvino and Melora Walters. The Variety review said, “The real surprise, and by far the most engaging performance, is Carey, giving trash-talking, husky-voiced Raychel plenty of heart as well as chutzpah and sexy attitude.”
The reviews for “Tennessee,” in which she portrays an aspiring singer much like her role in “Glitter,” were not as kind. Daniels felt Carey would connect with the role of a social worker in his next film, “Precious.”
“She understood this woman and I knew that without the makeup she’d work,” Daniels says. “And as a performer, she trusted me. You’ve got to trust people, but a lot of people won’t have your back.”
Carey says via email that “Precious” was exactly what she had sought as an actress. “My goal was always to take on roles that were very far from my ‘image’ and just enjoy slipping into the process of acting. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that and look forward to doing more of it.”
From the movie’s premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival up through the Oscar campaign season, Carey’s performance was hailed as a breakthrough. The Palm Springs Film Festival and Capri Hollywood Awards honored her; the ensemble received nominations from SAG and the NAACP. Variety’s review hailed Carey’s “pitch-perfect (performance) as a welfare counselor (that) serves as this demi-tragedy’s Greek chorus. … The performance is disarming.”
Carey started to get a handle on what it takes to succeed in film.
“I didn’t realize you really have to be selective with the people that you work with and you have to have that support system and you have to work with people that you feel are geniuses,” Carey said on the red carpet for a screening of “Precious” in 2009. “I’m definitely inspired to work out of my comfort zone after this.”
And again, Daniels supplied the role: a sharecropper’s wife on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s. “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’” would be the biggest hit at the box office for Carey and Daniels, taking in $116.6 million.
“She’s very underestimated as an actor,” Daniels says. “Directed properly, she’s a tour de force. A lot of the time, she can be intimidating because she’s a strong-willed woman. She needs a strong director who grasps her and they can lean on each other. I think that directors that are brave will see that.”