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‘Empire’ Producers on ‘Frustrating’ Stunt Casting, Channeling ‘Game of Thrones’

Empire” co-creator Danny Strong (who developed the show along with Lee Daniels) and executive producer Wendy Calhoun were on hand at the ATX Television Festival in Austin to preview the second season of Fox’s breakout hit, discussing everything from the proliferation of guest star cameos to the show’s “Game of Thrones”-inspired tone in season two.

“Eighteen more episodes, it’s a lot,” Strong quipped of the series’ expanded order in season two. “It’s not a cookie-cutter type show; it’s not the crime of the week; it’s not the medical disease of the week … I’m very attached to the mythology of the Lyon family, so there’s gonna be a storyline in season two that’s a flashback story that I’m very excited about, an origin story for one of the characters.”

Although season one ended with Jamal (Jussie Smollett) being named as successor to his father Lucious (Terrence Howard) as owner of Empire, Strong cautioned, “Just because you get the empire doesn’t mean you get to keep the empire.” According to Strong, season two’s theme is “warring kingdoms — so we’ll see the kingdoms go to war over the throne,” he teased. “A thing we talk about in the writers’ room all the time is ‘Game of Thrones,’ so telling this modern day hip-hop soap opera but trying to frame it in an epic, mythological kingdom framework is the most exciting part of the show… The continuation of those battles is what I personally dig the most.”

Calhoun said she’s excited to explore “new relationship dynamics, relationships we weren’t able to dive into in the first 12 that now we can get to… I wanna see more Cookie and Andre.” Strong teased that episode 204 would be an enlightening installment for fans curious about that mother-son dynamic.

Strong conceded that while there’s pressure to maintain the show’s success, they don’t intend to reinvent the wheel when their first season template worked so well. “We’re just going to continue the story, because if we tried to make it bigger and better, we’d make it worse and lamer… We’re cognizant of things fans responded to, but this isn’t ‘choose your own adventure,'” he noted. “It’s not like we ignore the response to the show, but we don’t use that to guide us.”

Calhoun admitted she felt a responsibility to make the show the best it could be, given the lack of diverse leads on broadcast television. The producer recalled being on set with star Terrence Howard before the show premiered. Howard pointed out, “If this show fails, they’re not going to let another all-black drama on television for another 20 years.” This resonated with Calhoun. “The fear of failure was so great, because we felt the show was so much bigger than us,” she said.

She added, “I certainly felt like there was a very large audience out there that was completely underserved. I thought if we really tried to bring some characters out there that just aren’t seen… somebody would show up.”

Strong said that push for diversity extended behind the camera, and that he specifically told showrunner Ilene Chaiken, “We need to hire women directors.” He added, “Our writing staff is incredibly diverse: white writers, Hispanic writers, African-American writers,” which Calhoun called “mindblowing. I was usually the only black writer in the room for the most part, so to start on a show like ‘Empire,’ where there were so many black writers in the room… we were able to get the nuance of our culture.”

Success always comes with strings attached, however, and Strong admitted that the network’s desire for big-name guest stars is “personally frustrating — I don’t think we need to stunt cast so much, and there’s pressure to. As an actor myself, I want to hire people that are talented, that were like me, that needed the job, as opposed to someone so famous this is some thing they’re gonna do for pocket change. I’m a vocal proponent of not doing all the stunt casting… It’s not a source of tension, but it’s a source of disagreement.” But when a guest star feels like an organic addition to the show, as with Courtney Love’s arc, Strong conceded that “it completely works for our storytelling.”

The co-creator also revealed that the show’s breakout success hasn’t insulated them against getting network notes. Despite the great audience reception, the first season finale got off to a rocky start, according to Strong: “We had written and shot 10 episodes before we started airing. We just had the two-part finale left, and on the final hour, the network hated the script. We did this massive rewrite in two days. It was pretty crazy because people had loved the show at that point. I wanted to stick the landing, and when the network had so many problems with it… we rewrote it in two days.”

Strong was asked to address Howard’s recent comments about wanting to use the N-word in the series, something that the producer is set against. “No, I disagree with Terrence — I don’t think we need to use that word on the show. If we were on cable, yes, but we’re not on cable. We’re a network show,” he pointed out. “We’re not a documentary on hip-hop… It’s a heightened world, that’s why we’re able to have this world with no profanity.” He noted that it’s surreal to hear these comments through the prism of the 24-hour news cycle, pointing out, “Terrence says something like that, Taraji responds, I respond, Lee responds, and guess how many discussions we have about it personally? Zero.”

The show’s use of a certain homophobic slur, however, got Strong’s seal of approval, despite network pushback. “That was really important to Lee … I felt like that was a great moment. [Cookie] throwing [Lucious’] homophobia back in his face, to use one of the most offensive homophobic slurs … The network said, ‘We can’t use that word, it’s very, very rare,’ and we said, ‘You use it on “Glee”!'”

Strong — who has a background in acting and has enjoyed memorable roles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Justified” in addition to winning two Emmys for his writing on “Game Change” — admits that while people have an odd tendency to underestimate his writing because of his work in front of the camera, “My biggest weapon as a writer is my acting background. When I’m writing the scenes, I’m playing them out in my head as an actor. That’s how I write the different voices and characters: I just write them out as if I’m performing them.”

The producers also praised Taraji P. Henson’s scene-stealing turn as Cookie Lyon, for which she recently won a Critics’ Choice Award. “Taraji, she was just at the top of the list — there were no other actors that were ever brought in except Terrence and Taraji,” Strong said, recalling that she had barely started her audition before Daniels was turning to him to confirm that she was the right actor for the role. “He said, ‘Alright, b-tch, you got the part.’ Literally 45 seconds into her read, it was that obvious.”

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