Lee Daniels’ newest show, “Star,” is not for the faint of heart — but then again, neither is the pursuit of fame and fortune in the first place. The series follows three young singers who form a girl group and face more odds than most — from abusive foster care environments to struggles with addiction. Daniels chats with us about staying true to art and what keeps him from filming in his hometown of Philly.
What was the initial inspiration being “Star”?
Denzel Washington. I signed my deal at FOX and I asked him, “What do I do?” He said, “Well, what inspires you?” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “What inspired you? What is inspiring to you?” Then I started thinking. Then I realized it was “Dreamgirls” and “Valley of the Dolls.” You probably don’t know the film or the book [“Valley of the Dolls”], but it is something I grew up on about a girl that would do whatever it took to get to the top. And when she got to the top what was that like? She’d stab you, she‘d have sex with you, she’d rob you, anything. That quest for fame. What happens when you’re famous? Is it really worth it at the end of the day?
The average person doesn’t see the dark side of fame…
Also, telling secrets about myself — you know the Lyons family in “Empire” — it’s really about my family, but then pushing the boundaries further for me. So, I’m talking about me landing in Hollywood and the things I would do to get to where it was, and dealing with my own personal demons as I dealt with them.
A theme I noticed in the pilot was the pursuit of fame vs. the pursuit of craft. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, it’s real. It’s very real and it’s constantly a struggle. Doing television is something I had no intention on ever doing because I come from theatre. So, television was something that was like really beneath me, and then my kid’s college bill came. Like, sh—, let me jump on this bandwagon! [Laughs] I had no idea that “Empire” was going to be successful at all. I started thinking, ‘Do I want to do a movie for money?’ Because I have bills to pay. Or do I want to do it for the art? And, I am always drawn to the art, and that sucks. Otherwise, I’d be doing action movies and stuff and making [more money] but I try to bring as much art as I can to the work, as much integrity as I can to the work as much as Primetime will let me. That is what I find fascinating about “Star.” I feel like I’m watching a cable show. It’s very provocative for [FOX] to do this. Don’t you think?
Without a doubt. I screamed at the top of my lungs watching the screener last night. Scared my neighbors.
I still think they are going to call me and be like, ‘Excuse me, we just realized that this is not okay…’ [Laughs]
TV is more interesting than most film these days.
I don’t know if we’re going to have films anymore with the way that we watch them. It’s a new world.
So I read that you began your career with casting in Hollywood. Do you involve yourself heavily in the casting of your projects now?
Well, I sort of passed this bug onto my sister, so she really is the one. I brought her into my world so she really does help me enormously. I don’t really take the credit. I don’t like to take her shine away. Her name is Leah. My partner Fisher helps me with all the fashion in all of my stuff. I have a group of incredible people around me. I’m just the puppeteer.
Now I know you’re from Philly, and for a while the city had a lot of big film projects. Why are you filming your projects outside of Philly now?
Pennsylvania has to pull their tax incentive together. I’ve done two films there and that’s my home. Nothing makes me happier than being home, and I wanna be home. Sharon Pinkenson [of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office] is working so hard to make it happen and hopefully it’s happening soon.
People outside of the industry don’t understand how much it boosts the economy — jobs, tourism…
They don’t get it. It’s very disturbing and very sad and to be honest, it’s where I prefer to be. When we made “Empire,” I wrote it so it could be in Philadelphia. We spent weeks trying to work with the tax issue but we just couldn’t.
There will be a special premiere of “Star” on Dec. 14 at 9 p.m. following the fall finale of “Empire.”