‘Empire’ Cast & Fox Executives Preview Season 3: ‘It’s Every Man for Himself’

The party kicking off the third season of “Empire” was held on the rooftop deck of the Soho House Chicago on Tuesday, on one of the rare perfect nights in the Windy City. DJ Biz Markie spun the Jackson Five, the Bee Gees, Digital Underground and other pop and hip-hop hits, and even threw in Lionel Richie’s “Easy,” which fit the mood of the party, which was attended by the show’s cast and producers, as well as studio executives from Fox.

Those in attendance included cast members and guest stars Taraji P. Henson, Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, Ta’Ronda Jones, Xzibit, Vivica A. Fox, Morocco Omari, Bre-Z, Sierra MccLain and Taye Diggs, as well as executive producers Brian Grazer, Ilene Chaiken, Francie Calfo, Sanaa Hamri and Danny Strong.

Upcoming guest star Phylicia Rashad was also at the bash, despite having to be on set early Wednesday morning. She revealed that in the Fox soap’s third season, she plays a recurring role as a widowed wealthy socialite named Diana DuBois. Diana is the mother of Diggs’ character, who recurs in Season 3 as a potential love interest for Cookie Lyon (Henson).

Diana “knows a lot of people in great places, she’s conscious socially — she serves on boards and committees for museums and things like that,” Rashad said. Her on-screen son, she explained, has been primed for a political career, but along the way, he becomes friendly with Cookie.

Does Diana approve of what the friendship developing between the two? “We will find out!” said Rashad, who appears first in the seventh episode of the season. “I have yet to discover that myself.”

When Season 3 begins Wednesday, viewers won’t have to wait long to find out who went over the balcony in the Season 2 finale. But beyond that big reveal, the start of the third season depicts an array of deep problems within the Lyon family. Both Cookie and Hakeem are both heartbroken; the latter was left at the altar and the former has given up on the idea of getting back together with Lucious, given that he has married Anika once again.

“There’s so much turmoil, it’s going to take maybe years to get over this,” said Gray, who plays Hakeem. Anika (Grace Gealey), the former wife of Empire Records mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), and Hakeem had been an item in Season 2, and that relationship resulted in her pregnancy. But as Gray noted, the souring of that relationship has left Hakeem in a bad place.

“It’s every man for himself and that’s not safe,” Gray said. “The character is fed up with Empire [Records], he’s fed up with living in his father’s shadow and following his father’s rules. He is ready to live on his own and he wants to show people he has the talent regardless, and you can’t deny it.”

Despite all the internal strife, nothing unites a family like a threat from the outside — and there are quite a few this season (in addition to a slew of guest stars, including Mariah Carey). Gary Newman and Dana Walden, CEOs and chairmen of Fox Broadcasting, talked about how “Empire” has recalibrated itself a bit for its third season.

Before Season 3 began, “I really didn’t have a lot of conversations with” showrunner Ilene Chaiken, Walden said. “I really trusted Ilene and that room. We had a lot of conversations mid-season last year about where the show wants to live and where it’s most successful. A soap opera is really hard, because there’s no story engine that’s predictable. It’s not like doctors or lawyers or cops, where there’s a crime or a medical incident and then you’re off to the races. On a soap opera, you have to experiment with where  show wants to live. What we all talked about in the middle of the second season was that ‘Empire’ is at its best when this family is tight, and they’re fighting against external opposition.”

“That doesn’t mean there can’t be conflict inside the family, but you know, fundamentally, these people love each other, and they’re going to do whatever they have to do to protect each other,” Walden added. “I will say in Season 3, the writers are very disciplined about the continuity of storytelling, and it’s hard, because the show taps so much into the zeitgeist that it wants to burn through story [fast]. So the discipline of rewarding the loyal ‘Empire’ viewer and also keeping the drama so hot — it’s a really hard balance and they’re striking it.”

“You almost never hear us pulling back our writers, we want them to go for it,” said Newman.

“You watch that [‘Empire’] teaser and it’s so eventful and so kind of batshit crazy —those are just the sort of swings you have to take,” Newman said, noting that many of this year’s Emmy-winning shows had distinct and topical points of view.

“You have to go for it. You can be accused, as we were last year in the premiere, of jumping the shark with when [Cookie] was in the cage,” he added. “But you have to sort of go for it, and sometimes you’re going to step over the line, and you hope the audience forgives you. I thought they really kind of nailed it with” the “Empire” Season 3 premiere.

Check out Variety’s coverage of “Empire,” including an interview with Taraji P. Henson, who talks about Season 3e; look for a post-mortem with Chaiken after the third season premiere airs. 

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