Lee Daniels on the Power of 'Star'

Lee Daniels on the Power of 'Star'

The boundary-pushing director talks casting, real-life inspiration, and gag-worthy moments on Fox's upcoming series.

The boundary-pushing director talks casting, real-life inspiration, and gag-worthy moments on Fox's upcoming series.

Text: William Defebaugh

So how did the idea for Star come about?

What motivated me to do the show was my three favorite films. When I was 17, I stole my mother's El Dorado and I drove up to see Dreamgirls on Broadway and it changed my life. I don't think since Hamilton there has been an impact like that! I told Denzel Washington when I got my deal with Fox after Empire, he said, "How do you change it up again? What inspires you?" I said "I don't know what to do, Denzel." He said "Do what inspired me. Do what inspired you." Dreamgirls lived in us. As African Americans, it changed the zeitgeist of what we thought, it was telling the story of Diana Ross, and the struggle of African Americans and the struggle of women striving to get to the top. So it's a little bit of that and a little bit of Valley of the Dolls. I was going to do that script as a series, but it never went. It's also a little bit of Female Trouble. These girls are divine. They'll rob you; they'll fucking stab you in the back; they'll do whatever it takes to get to the top. It was sort of my formative years of when I first landed in Hollywood and what I would do to get where I was. These girls make Madonna look like Cinderella. They're vile! [Laughs] And through that we find out about race relations, gender relations... We take Jamal's situation in the trash can and blow the hood off of it. I think Empire paved a way for this world.

Speaking of Empire, how is Star different?

It's the anti-Empire. Queen Latifah plays a woman, if there's anything over 10 dollars that she's wearing and it's not making her itch, then it's wrong for the show. Her wigs are under 15 dollars and they're all outrageous. She's got camel toes and she's showing body and midriff and flesh in a very chic way. She's representing today's black woman. Today's black lower income woman, which is the majority of America.

And how did you find Jude [Demorest], Ryan [Destiny] and Brittany [O'Grady]?

My sister Leah who's a great casting director. It's really hard to find people who can act, sing, and dance. You don't know who to go for. Do you go for the actor? The singer? The dancer? Who are you going for? And they're specific. One girl is black and very wealthy, who was written about my relationship with Lenny Kravitz. Sort of his Zoë, very wealthy who’s thrown into this white trash world. She's beautiful. Naomi Campbell plays her mother, Lenny Kravitz plays her father. Jude is this chick that came in and didn't give a fuck. She's fantastic.

And why is there no lead? During the shoot you were very firm on why there's three. Why is that?

When I first wrote it, I wrote it for Star [Jude Demorest] to be the lead. But then, there are no girl groups. There's one and then we make fun of them. But the reason there's no girl groups is because they implode. Ultimately after two or three years, they hate each other. So the goal in real life and in real talk is making sure these girls really don't, because next year they don't even know what they're going to go through and I hope that we don't implode. That's the true test. I'm telling the story of a girl group, the formation of a girl group. So as opposed to making it just [Star's] story I was determined because I was so afraid that this show was going to implode, so I made it this girl group story. It was the journey of all three girls. She has a sister who's half black and then her best friend is black. And I didn't want people to come up to me and say oh you have a white girl who's the star of your show. So I made it, Star, it's family. It's a family show. I wanted to make white kids feel cool about being white again through Star. We talk about race and reverse racism in a very interesting way. Star, she's thrown into this black world and she calls somebody a racist, who's black in this black salon. It all takes place in this salon. It's all very Paris is Burning. Episode two, it's a musical, and it's very precious. It's nothing like Empire at all. It's anti-Empire. It's gritty. Hopefully it'll last on the air.

Knowing Jude, Ryan, and Brittany personally and knowing that they all have careers as actresses and singers, do you feel that there are parallels between the stories they play and themselves in real life?

Yes. Each of the girls who are. They are who they are. I cast them perfectly... Each has very distinct voices and experiences. It's like Charlie's Angels all over again except with music. You know what I mean? It's a little bit Sex and the City, Charlie's Angels, Paris is Burning, and Valley of the Dolls with music. Great, thought-provoking music.

What can we expect from Queen Latifah in the show?

Queen Latifah is in a way you've never seen her before. Very real, very subtle. Singing gospel, R&B you haven't heard her sing that in a while. Old school, she'll rap again too. Her old rap—we're trying to bring that back again. Trying to make that current. To me what was missing from Empire even. I tried to go there, but there are partners. I like flaws; for me, the imperfection is the perfection. So I like to see sweaty chicks on stage with cigarette-stained teeth, sweating and singing and with voices that aren't hitting the notes on purpose, but you know in your gut they're telling the truth because it comes from a place of truth. I think it's missing in music today. There's nobody doing it. Amy Winehouse did it. I don't think there are many artists doing it now. At least not the way that I want it done. They're overproduced, they're worried about being pretty. You know, we celebrate big women; most of our women in these big dance numbers, they're thick, black women that are doing strip numbers. That's the musical. Most of the musical are fantastical, they're fantasy. So it's completely different world. These girls have been so damaged by their parents that they go into a fantasy world. You have never seen anything like it on television.

And as you said, Empire has changed the conversation in television and pop culture. In what ways do you hope Star will do the same? 

I think that it's for a very sophisticated audience. I think that you have that Empire audience because it is me, so it's good, but at the same time it has sparkle and there's a little fairy dust on it where you get another side of me that you don't really see. And it's a nod in a very big way to the gay culture without saying "I am a gay show." We equal it out with Tyrese [Gibson] who has never done television before. You know, The Fast and the Furious and so on who is playing a pastor, Queen Latifah's love interest. He's never done television before. So he's coming to grace us. I'm really excited about that. And then you have Naomi Campbell who is as brilliant, I daresay, as Taraji P. Henson. She is acting her ass off in a way that you have never seen before. You see mascara dripping down into her martini, gagging. Yes, it's that kind of acting. It's beyond. She's an alcoholic that's losing her daughter and she wants her back. Her daughter has run away from the money to live with these poor white girls. She wants her daughter back. She needs her daughter. And she's wrapped in a fur with her little puppy, a mink collar around the puppy with tails, and she's singing a song and Lenny tells her, "Those Saint Laurent's don't work well with that Smirnoff sweetie." Yes, that's a line from that show.

The first episode of Star will air as a special preview on December 14 after the mid-season finale of Empire

Credits: Hero image photographed by Hedi Slimane.

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