When last week’s Emmy nominations came out, one of the day’s big shocks was that “Empire” — Fox’s blockbuster ratings success and popular favorite — was largely left out of the race. But when Indiewire talked with Danny Strong, the show’s co-creator alongside Lee Daniels, his focus was much more on the musical soap opera/family drama’s second season, which has been expanded to 18 episodes (from 12 in Season 1).
Strong’s life has had its own surprising twists and turns: After beginning as an actor with prominent roles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls,” Strong’s writing career took off after HBO greenlit “Recount,” the 2008 film about the 2000 Gore/Bush election. Since then, he’s written “Game Change,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the final two installments of “The Hunger Games,” while also occasionally still digging into acting roles on shows like “Justified” and “Mad Men.” How did that happen? It all began in a coffee shop.
So, I debated whether or not to open with this, but I feel like I knew that you were working to become a writer a lot earlier than a lot of people maybe knew, because I recognized you at a coffee shop on Beverly ages ago, working on what was clearly a screenplay.
Yeah, at Insomnia. I wrote in Insomnia for five, six years before I ever sold anything. That was like my de facto office. I lived pretty close to there for 10 years.
Was there a starting point for you in terms of like, “Maybe I should go get a cup of coffee and see if the words come today?”
Well, you mean initially or just in general?
No, I decided to write a script because — there’s a few factors. I had a friend of mine who was a writer that I was always competing against as an actor, and we just became really good friends and the roles often came down to me and him because we were pretty similar types. And he sold a script for a quarter of a million dollars, and I was so burdened with jealousy that my competition now was meeting with studio heads and producers and executives.
Then, I was kind of spurned on to try and write a screenplay myself, and then there were a couple movies that came out — “Swingers” and “Election” — and both of those movies really sort of inspired me to just kind of take the leap forward and try to write a script myself. And I wrote a script for me to star in, like many an actor has been known to do, and after I did that I was just so encouraged by the response to it, and I enjoyed the process so much, that I decided to pursue a separate career as a writer. I wasn’t going to attach myself to the script anymore, as an actor.
Just because you enjoyed the writing process so much?
Yeah, well I just thought, “Wow, this is really cool.” It was really therapeutic because it got my mind off my auditions and the frustrations of an acting career. And so I just said, “Well, I want to see if I can become a writer as well,” so then let me not attach myself to scripts anymore. So that I’m not writing as a means to pursue acting. Just, as writing to literally do that as a career of its own.
So, that eventually led you to projects like “Recount.”
Yeah, five years later.
So, what went into that five years of work? How did you keep yourself going?
I wrote many scripts. I wrote script after script after script. I think I wrote a total of five scripts over five years and each script kind of moved the needle forward a little bit, but I was never able to get a sale. So, the next script got me a manager and then the next script blew up and got me a ton of meetings and got me an agent. But, it still didn’t sell. And then, the next script after that was a step backward, and it was a script nobody liked, and it made me really assess what I was doing. I just thought, “Wow,” because now it’s several years into the process and I was taking steps forward and now I had a step backward and it was like, well, what am I doing wrong? Because I’d been writing these really broad comedies. And that’s when I realized that I’m not writing movies I would actually go see. I’m writing movies that I think the marketplace wants.
So, I made this big decision, which was I’m not going to write another script until it’s actually a movie I would go see. And then, the next idea I came up with, which was several months after that, was the idea for “Recount.” And then, I sold that to HBO as a pitch, so what ended up being the first thing I sold was the story of the Florida recount.
I remember, at the time, that everyone was very impressed by that story.
Well, people didn’t know about the sale. It became a news story after I had written the script, and HBO was greenlighting the movie. So it was pretty cool [that] my first big announcement as a writer was that my movie is being made with Kevin Spacey and Jay Roach. Or no, no, no it was was actually when Sydney Pollack was still attached to direct. So, it was a pretty neat way to launch a writing career, that I had a greenlit movie with Sydney Pollack attached to direct it.
Once you got your footing as a writer in this business, is there a reason why you also kept up with your acting career, beyond just enjoying acting?
You mean, why I kept doing it?
Well, I quit for two years. For two years, I didn’t act at all, and they were literally the two happiest years of my life up to that point. I had moved to New York, and I was solely focused on writing. I wasn’t acting anymore, and like I said, I was really, really happy, and I didn’t know if I was going to ever act. I just didn’t know if I was going to pursue acting again.
And then, my manager — my acting manager, who stayed on me during those two years — he really wanted me to keep doing it in a pretty neat way. It’s not like I’m this super lucrative client for him. He just felt like I should continue acting, and he called me with an audition for my favorite show. He’d been calling me with auditions over those two years and I just wouldn’t do them, and then he called me and said, “You know I have an audition for you for this recurring role on ‘Mad Men.’ Would you at least go in on that?” And I said, “Yeah.” I said, “That’s my favorite show. I’ll go, I’ll do that audition.”
And then, I auditioned and I got the part. And I ended up doing four episodes of “Mad Men” and it sort of got me back going as an actor, although it’s still not something that I pursue on a day-to-day basis, it’s more of a “if stuff comes up.” If it’s interesting, then I’ll either do it or I’ll audition, but I’m just extremely selective now, as an actor. I’m so busy with the writing, it’s even hard to just find time. But I get phone calls from really cool people that do stuff, and if it’s cool then I’ll go do it.
It seems like a really interesting way to meet people. I remember seeing some story about how you and Jon Slattery became friends after “Mad Men.” Did you work together on another project afterwards?
I love to work with Slattery. I am such a huge fan of his. Ultimately, why I like to keep acting from time to time is it’s just a creative endeavor that I enjoy doing. So, if the material is good and I’m able to make it work timing-wise, it’s just another thing to do artistically. I just like to work on all sorts of different things. I’ve got projects as a producer, and there’s projects I’m attached to as a director, and some as a writer, and then sometimes I’ll act. So, it’s just a matter of doing different things that are fun and engaging and challenging and that I enjoy.
It’s not really strategic, or it’s not like I’m trying to map something out when it comes to the acting. It’s really just a matter of “Wow, that looks like something I want to do, it would be fun and a project I’d like to be a part of,” and then I just go do it. I did a couple roles for Judd Apatow on his Netflix series and on a movie of his that he’s producing and it’s just, they seem like fun projects.
That’s great. And speaking of fun projects, congratulations on the success of “Empire.” At what point in the process did you have the sense that you were on the verge of something that would really catch hold with people?
I didn’t know. It’s hard to answer that question because you never know, right? I mean, when we premiered, and we premiered with these great numbers, it was really exciting. And then, the following week, we had no idea. “How far are we going to drop?” was sort of the big question. The big question of every TV show is how much of the audience are you going to hold? And, when we went up after week two, that’s when I thought, “Okay, I think we’re onto something here.” And then, I don’t know if you remember, but the bib in that episode, Rhonda’s bib?
The number of articles that were written about Rhonda’s bib made me realize that we had penetrated something on a very cool pop culture level. And, I think it was that moment when I literally read three of four different articles on Rhonda’s bib that I thought, “Oh, wow. This is, this show is creating a pop culture moment.” And then it just continued to grow from there. It just didn’t stop growing.
That’s such an interesting point, I feel like, because when covering TV, there are shows that we’ll write one review for and then, we’d feel like we’d gotten a good sense of it. But, when you have the opportunity to have almost a microcosm look at one specific aspect of your show on a regular basis, that is really interesting.
Yeah, I mean, it hasn’t stopped, even now. The number of articles written on “Empire,” it’s just over and over and over again, and clearly there’s just something, it’s just created this pop culture moment that people became really excited about and interested in, which is really exciting.
So Fox gave “Empire” this incredible digital launch, and made sure that you can still, today, watch the entire first season on Hulu. That’s, of course, a huge part of the narrative. But, with “Empire” building every week, do you feel like it was the press coverage or the streaming availability that had a bigger impact?
I actually think it was word-of-mouth, is what led it to build each week. I think it’s just the old-fashioned word of mouth, I think people really liked the show and told other people and they liked the show, combined with the way it would be written about nonstop, which I think made people want to read about it. And then you have this unbelievable ad campaign by Fox, one of the best I’ve ever been involved with. And you’ve got this full, hundred percent, thousand percent support of the studio and the network behind you, and it’s all this big storm for us, which has been thrilling.
Anecdotally, did you run across anything that really caught you off guard, in terms of just how word of mouth was spreading?
No, I mean people just kept telling me how everywhere they’re going, they’re hearing conversations about it. Friends of mine, “Oh, these two women were talking about the show,” or “Oh, blah, blah, blah, I heard people at the grocery show talking about the show.” And one of the things that was so neat about it, was that it was all races and age groups. We weren’t being boxed into one specific category, it seems that the show was appealing to a wide swatch of people.
Yeah, when I first sat down with it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And then, as soon as I made the “Dynasty” connection, I was like, “Okay, no wonder this is playing across all the bases,” because everyone loves a primetime soap.
Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right. I wouldn’t say everyone. There’s some people that don’t, but it certainly is a very popular genre, and it seems to be taking fire with us, and combined with— we’ve got these two other elements to it, which are that we ground our soap opera with a gritty family drama that tackles social issues. And then, on top of that, it’s a musical. It’s a hip-hop musical. We’ve got four musical numbers every episode. And I think when you’re combining the soap terms with the grounded human social drama, combined with musical numbers, I think that’s ultimately the sort of equation that is what makes “Empire” what it is.
Nice. So, looking forward to Season 2, do you know at this point how much time you’re going to be able to commit to working on the show?
You mean me, personally? Every day.
Yeah, I’m on it full time, a thousand percent. It’s a lot of work.
I heard an interview with you on KCRW, where you were talking about the show back in March, and you weren’t sure yet how many episodes you were going to get for Season 2. When you got the 18 episodes, what was your reaction?
I was worried that it was too many, that it was going to be really hard to sustain our story, with the quality that we did with Season 1, with that many episodes. I was hoping for a 15 episode order, and the network wanted 22, and the compromise was 18, which was a fair compromise in the world of negotiation. But, that was my initial thought, was I just don’t want the show to suffer for it.
15 is an interesting number, how did you kind of come to that?
Well, because we did 12, and 12 was so doable, and I knew the network and the studio wanted more. So, there was no way that we weren’t going to be able to give them more. And they deserved more, because of everything they put behind the show. And so for me, 15 [laughs] I think in my head was a way of saying, “Okay, here’s more.”
But it’s not so much more, that I was going to feel overwhelmed by putting it all together.
So, is there specific stuff that you feel like you have the opportunity to do now in Season 2 because of the extra time?
I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms.
Or maybe extra time isn’t an opportunity, it’s more like “Okay.” It’s more like a sense of, “I’m stressed.” But that’s how I work, so I’d feel that way on 15, or even 12 episodes.
When you’re in it, you’re just worried about making sure it works.
Yeah, yeah. I just want it to be great. Everyone says, “Do you feel pressure to make the show pop?” Because of what happened last season. But no one puts more pressure on excellence than me on myself. So, it’s just the same pressure I feel on everything I do. I just want it all to be as good as it can be.