The Force Behind The Year’s Biggest Tv Phenomenon Talks To Gabourey Sidibe About Building An Empire, Tackling The Legend Of Richard Pryor, And Finding Humor In The Darkness
GABOUREY SIDIBE Hi, Lee Lee!
LEE DANIELS Hey mama, how are you?
GS We had a really good table read today.
LD I saw! That’s the first time you guys were Instagramming table reads. That was a first.
GS It was Taraji [P. Henson]’s idea. [laughs] Not that I’m snitching on her. She’s going to beat me up. It was just a lot of fun, it was lit. Thank you for choosing me to interview you by the way.
LD Oh my goodness, are you kidding me? Nothing makes me happier than my Precious.
GS I’m your favorite baby.
LD Yes, my first baby that I gave birth to. I still got the stretch marks to prove it, too.
GS I was a heavy load. [laughs] So, for how long have you been wanting to make a prime-time soap opera?
LD You know, when we did Precious we did the Oscar circuit so I had to become friends with all of the other directors: Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Jason Reitman. We all became friends because we were all on the road. It was a unique experience, and I wasn’t envious at all of any of their work because I knew how Precious made you feel. We laughed, gagged, cried, we were shocked, we were appalled, we were saddened. None of those films were able to make you go through the same wave of emotions as Precious. When I lost that night—which was fine because I didn’t mind losing—I came home to the Chateau Marmont and was picking Lucky Charms off the floor in my Tom Ford tuxedo. My kids were there and the place was a mess. Life sets in fast: the party is over. And I heard from the bedroom your friend singing on Glee.
GS Amber [Riley].
LD Amber was singing something on Glee. I walked up on this incredible voice and honestly, it was the first time I was envious of anything. I finally felt a sense of competitiveness. I felt like, Wow, this is a new frontier. I haven’t seen this yet. I didn’t know that I wanted to do TV, but a musical lived in me. And then I wrote something for Showtime, a musical version of Paris Is Burning.
GS Ooh, is this the drag queen one?
LD Yeah, I wrote it and we never…it never…it was too deep, honey. It was too much for the children, honey. It was too much! It was fabulous, Gabby. So that was my experience with TV. I thought, primetime is never going to fuck with me, so that was it. Then Danny Strong came to me with this idea. He wanted to do Empire as a movie. And I said, No. I want to make money and I want to do it on TV.
GS Do you feel as though your truth and your story were unrepresented on TV?
LD I don’t think we’d ever seen anything like what we were doing. It was almost like Precious. I remember when we finished Precious I thought, Oh my God, I don’t think people are ready to see this. It’s like a scab that’s opened. That’s how I thought about Empire. I was like, it’s too real.
GS Has the response to your truth and your realness changed your mind about what is too real to share?
LD Even at our recent [Season 2] premiere, I was nervous. We have Cookie, we have a gorilla in a cage. We have a gorilla, honey, in a cage, descending in Central Park. Okay? What do you do? You’ve lived this with me, Gabby. I get sick. I go, Why did I do this? What have I gone and done this time? Is my mother embarrassed? Am I embarrassing our people again? All you can do is tell the truth. I’m not afraid to tell it, but when it’s time to unveil it, I’m terrified.
GS Remember when we were in San Sebastián and we went to that premiere and you were very, very nervous? But once the film showed, we got a standing ovation, and then we left the theater and they saw us again and stood and clapped. Once your truth is out, you seem to triumph in it.
LD What happens is you’re thrown into a tsunami because you’re vomiting your spirit, you’re vomiting your experience, you’re vomiting your soul, and then you’re drowning in it as you’re watching it. You’re drowning in your vomit. I am reborn by it. It is the most therapeutic thing to see people crying and laughing and then standing. Nothing gives me greater pleasure. It’s a very S&M experience. It’s an S&M moment, honey.
GS Sexy! Now, Empire features characters from different walks of life with different experiences. It doesn’t just show one black experience. How do you pull off the depiction of this diversity of experience without seeming preachy?
LD We never are preachy, you know? Ultimately, it’s TV and preachiness comes. The hard part about television is that it’s never going to be just you. You try to find the best directors, showrunners, writing teams, and everything, but you’re not always going to be on the ground. It takes a really experienced guy to smell bullshit or come across as not preaching. We have a tendency to try to make Cookie like Mother Teresa, and it’s like, no: she’s a drug dealer, she’s a murderer, she’s a con artist, and yet she has a heart and soul. People forget that she was all of those things and think she’s just this great mother. No. She’s got a past. She’s human. What I try to do with Empire is to hit some real-life issues but without taking ourselves seriously. You know what they say, and it’s true. The slaves that survived the journey were the ones that found humor, the ones that laughed. And I know that because I’m [directing] a Richard Pryor movie [Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?] and they talk about it. The minute I take myself seriously, if I’m not laughing through this pain, then something is wrong because there is laughter in the darkness. You just have to find it.
GS Speaking of Pryor, I know you’re working on that next, and I expect my call sheet at anytime!
LD [laughs] Yes, God, honey! You wanna play a hooker? We’ll call you “Carlotta.” How’s that? Ms. Carlotta, honey, in the whorehouse with Oprah.
GS [laughs] Yes, God! I know you have a lot of projects you want to be doing. How did you come to decide that Pryor is absolutely your next priority?
LD Because it lived in me. It’s been there forever. Richard Pryor’s wife, Jennifer, is wonderful. But I can’t keep yanking her around. If I don’t do it next, she’ll give it to somebody else and everybody and their mother will want to do it. I was supposed to do it after the pilot of Empire but I got caught up in the TV world. I didn’t know Empirewould be a hit!
LD I don’t take it for granted. I’m not waiting for the rug to be pulled from under us. It’s all “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to me. We’re blessed and lucky if we are a success in season 2. So I’ve moved on; I’ve had to move on. My first love is film and I really want to get back behind the camera and just go there. It’s slower. I’m able to get what I want. I’m not under the gun. I don’t profess to be Shonda Rhimes. I think she’s great at what she does, but I just sort of lucked into television.
GS I think it’s a little more than luck. I think you are a genius and I think that your truth holds more weight than you think it might. I think you were born to be successful. Do you see yourself in Richard Pryor?
LD Let me just tell you, it’s crazy. I can’t look at any of my work anymore. I haven’t. When I get out of the edit room, it’s a wrap. Everything down to the linoleum on the floor, the fabric on the wall…my life is on this. Everything is personal. The same thing with Empire. The whole thing with Jamal, Becky, and Cookie…all those people have been etched in my brain from years of some good times, some bad times, and some very deep times. With Pryor, I relate to him because of his honesty. He got in his own way because he was so honest. I don’t know how to edit myself. It drives my publicists fucking batshit. [laughs] Pryor was the same way. He had no problem talking about his bisexuality.
GS Wait, I had no idea. Really?
LD He was basically straight but he had no problem talking about the fact that he slept with men. And he was coveted for it. People like the truth. Ultimately, they’re attracted to it. What I love about him, and what I understand most about him, is his feeling of unworthiness, because he grew up in the same environment that I did, except I didn’t grow up in a whorehouse. He grew up in a place where his father said he wasn’t shit and was never going to be shit, so in his head he always felt like that. He, like I, went to drugs and went dark into drugs. When Halle Berry won her Oscar and made history and she thanked me, I went home and the party was on. I went back to the Chateau and I didn’t feel that I was deserving. She called me up and I was getting high. She said, “Are you coming to the Vanity Fair party, daddy?” And I said, “I’ll be there.” Child, I had two hookers with me. I had the crystal meth pipe in hand, and I was like, I don’t deserve to be anywhere. I didn’t believe I was worthy enough to be at the Vanity Fair party. I thought I was a fraud. That’s what parents can do to you. So I connect to Richard on that primal level; it’s never good enough, ever. I’m hard on actors and I’m hard on my crew because I’m hardest on myself. Somewhere, deep down, I do know my shit is good. You know? I have to praise Pryor because if it wasn’t for him, for me really studying him, I would probably still be on drugs. I think if I were to do them again I would be dead. There’s no coming back. I know it through Whitney Houston, who was my friend. I know it. I relate to Richard Pryor on a primal level because he found humor in the darkness, which is exactly what I do. He had his TV show, he drove people crazy, and it’s just life repeating itself with Empire.
GS Being on the receiving end of your direction, I have to say, we all really, really want to give you what you want. None of us want to half-step it either. I always feel like I would not be the actress that I am, and I wouldn’t be the person that I am offscreen, if I didn’t have you as my first director. I think through trying to give you the best of myself, you’ve made me a better, stronger person. I think you do that to all of us.
LD Thank you, Gabby. You’re making me emotional.
GS Don’t get emotional. [laughs]
LD Bitch, you gonna make me cry. I’m gonna punch you in the stomach when I see you. We in the middle of an interview! That was so sweet. Thank you, Gabs.
GS I mean it. Even though you’re not always around on Empire, we always do remember your words and we remember what you want and your intentions—not just in the back of our heads, but in the front of our heads. We try to act accordingly, even in your absence.
LD Man, I got emotional there for a second. Thank you, Gabby, I’m speechless.