(PCM) We were absolutely thrilled to catch up with “Empire” show runner Illene Chaiken to chat about the upcoming season of the FOX hit drama and perhaps get a few answers to some of the burning questions that were left at the end of last season. “Empire” will premiere on Wednesday, March 30 at 9:00 pm!
On the Jamal/Skye hook-up and why we did not actually see the hook-up take place on camera
ILENE CHAIKEN: We didn’t think it was necessary to see it happen. It was the last moment of the episode, and it’s the way that we often do our last moments—kind of a big, gasp-worthy moment in which a lot of things are implicit. Sometimes we do sex implicitly.
On the show’s sexual fluidity and how it could apply to other characters on the series other than just Jamal
IC: I think that you never know where people are going to go in terms of their sexuality until they go there, and people often don’t know themselves. So absolutely we could explore sexuality with other characters, not just with Jamal, and I’m sure we will.
On Andre’s character and the casting of Trai Byers
IC: It was the writers who chose to tell the story of Andre dealing with issues of faith, but Trai is a man of faith, and it’s very important to him that that story is told in an honest and insightful way. So we discuss it with him and do our best to make sure that he or any actor who feels strongly about a subject we’re tackling is comfortable with the story we’re telling and believes in it. It doesn’t mean that he determines the story, it doesn’t mean that we’re telling the story of Trai Byers, but he certainly has input in how we tell that story.
On where we can expect to see Andre’s character headed after the tragic events in the mid-season finale
IC: Well, as you know, as everybody knows, in our mid-season finale something tragic happens to Andre’s wife. I won’t talk about the outcome, but I certainly will say that it causes him or necessitates his grappling with issues of faith. Why would such a thing happen to me? What does it mean to my faith? Will I be able to continue down that path in light of what’s happened?
On the possibility of a dramatic cliffhanger at the end of this season, as well as details about the story arc surrounding who pushed Rhonda, why and when we will find out
IC: I’m not going to tell you when we’ll find out. I will say that the story arc plays a large role at times, and it ebbs and flows in terms of how prominent it is in the relationships among the characters, but ultimately, in the end, it plays a large, significant, and I would hope very surprising role.
On whether or not there is an urgency to kill off character or have some sort of explosive cliffhanger in the season finale
IC: There’s certainly not an urge or an urgency, rather, as you put it, to kill someone off. We never said, “Oh, we have to kill somebody.” Should that happen, it will happen organically. I’m not saying that it does happen, but we didn’t set out to do it.
In terms of the need to top ourselves, I think we’ve—it’s not how we’re approaching it. We’ve gone big, we sometimes try to just follow the stories and let the stories lead, and I think we’re trying to mix it up so that we don’t constantly have to top ourselves and become more and more outlandish. Rather, we’d like to be true to story, true to character.
On guest stars appearing on the series
IC: Far fewer guest stars in the back half of the season than there were in the beginning of the season. The eight episodes that begin on March 30th are much more about the family, and the guest stars that are in those episodes are there to serve as the stories and are driven by the stories. There’s not an instance in which we said, oh, so-and-so wants to be on the show. We have to write something for her. Every single person that appears on the show is on the show because we’re telling a story.
On the criticism about the pacing of the first half of the season and any changes for the back half
IC: Well, we haven’t intentionally changed the pacing, but I think that maybe the pacing changed by dint of the stories. We really are very focused on the family, on telling the family stories and telling them thoroughly and on following through on every thread that we’ve set up.
On “Empire” tackling the Black Lives Matter Movement and whether or not they will delve into politics with this being an election year
IC: Well, we haven’t begun breaking season three yet. I would say that it’s safe to anticipate that you’ll always hear political discussions on Empire because it’s in the fabric of this world and in the lives and minds of the characters we’re talking about. I don’t know that we’re telling a story explicitly that’s about a political subject, but I think the show by definition lives in that world of culture and politics.
On Lucious’s tolerance for Jamal’s gay lifestyle and wanting him to change
IC: Given where Lucious began in the pilot, the depth of his homophobia, Lucious has evolved. He’s become more open. I hate the word “tolerant,” but in Lucious’ case it might be an apt word. He’s tolerant, but he certainly hasn’t vanquished homophobia in his own world view. It will come out in different ways. He’ll take steps forward and he’ll backslide from time to time because that’s who he is and that’s how life goes.
On Anika’s storyline and it’s upcoming direction
IC: Well, the decision, it was a story that we all believed in. We were talking about how Anika would continue to stay in this story and our fundamental belief about Anika is that the thing that she wants most of all is to be a Lyon. That’s been the thing that she’s wanted from the moment we met her. When she lost Lucious she clung to that hope and pursued it in other ways, in ways that ultimately were not healthy for her. She may have become slightly unhinged for a little while, but we see her as a grounded character who struggles to regain her footing in this crazy and abusive family, sometimes abusive family that she so much wants to be a part of.
On the pacing of the first two episodes of the upcoming season and conclusions that were reached
IC: We like to think that each episode is self-contained in a way, some of them more so than others, but we always are telling stories in an ongoing way, and most stories in life don’t conclude. So while there are conclusions and finite moments, everything—life goes on in our stories, and things that were begun as far back as the pilot will come home to roost in episode 21, for example.
On which character’s arc she is excited to explore in the upcoming season
IC: I could never say that I have a favorite character because it changes from episode to episode or from storyline to storyline. The story that I’m most excited about in the latter half of this season or the character whom I’ve most enjoyed is Lucious. He goes through such extraordinary things in such a deep and intense way, and Terrance Howard’s performance in those episodes is just remarkable. I’m really, really excited for people to watch and see where we go with this character and where Terrance takes him.
On racial inclusion being a hot topic in the entertainment industry and “Empires” importance to the issue
IC: The show is a TV show. It’s entertainment, but we are commenting on what’s happening in the world, and I feel like we’re a part of the conversation. I think that it’s important in that millions of people watch the show, feel represented, feel that perhaps their voices that aren’t heard elsewhere are being represented on this show, and that’s exciting for us and I suppose in some way important.
On the show’s popularity and multi-cultural cast generating an audience
IC: I believe that the multi-racial cast is a part of why there’s such a large audience. I think that it’s because the show is telling stories that haven’t been told before, and audiences, diverse audiences, come because it’s something fresh and new, because we’re really talking about something that’s meaningful and shining a light on lives and experiences that haven’t been represented in this genre on television before.
On finding the line between the fun soap opera aspects of the series to the more dramatic and serious character aspects and it’s challenge
IC: It’s the greatest challenge of the show and ultimately, I think, I hope the thing that makes it work, that we can take these big swings and at the same time tell stories and portray characters with nuance and insight. We do work really hard to find a way to make both of those things live within the same world of the show and feel like they’re a part of the same world.
One of the greatest opportunities in doing this show is portraying those character nuances, those complexities of character, not simply telling the story of a gay character and saying that’s all there is to him—he’s the gay character—but talking about sexuality as a complex thing that’s unique to every individual.
On learning more about Lucious’s back story and early life
IC: Lucious’ back story, Lucious’ life story is a very big part of the second half of season two. A lot will be revealed. It will have repercussions and huge consequences for everyone in the family. Lucious is the start of Empire—his story, where he comes from, and why he is who he is, is what the show is all about in so many ways just in the way that children are in part a result of their parents’ experiences.
On the challenge of keeping up with the show’s amazing ratings numbers
IC: We really can’t think about those numbers when work. We try to focus exclusively on the stories we’re telling and the episodes that we’re shooting, and we try to do them as well as we possibly can. We certainly don’t make decisions based on the ratings. We look at the work we’ve done. If we think that we’ve gone off course, we course correct, and we’ve done that once or twice this season, but the ratings are a thing that belong to someone else. Other people worry about those. I worry about telling these stories.
On exploring side characters such as Porsha, Becky and Cookie’s sisters
IC: All of those characters you just mentioned are in the latter half of the season. They’re part of our world. They’re the characters of Empire, so yes, you will be seeing them. We also are running the Porsha/Becky B sides promos because in the amount of time that we have to tell these stories we wish we could tell more Porsha/Becky stories, and it was a great, fun thing to be able to spend a little bit of time just with those two girls, seeing how they are separated apart from the stories that occupy most of our television.
On what is going to happen to Lyon Dynasty with Hakeem taking over Empire
IC: Well, I don’t want to give too much away before the two episodes have aired, but you’ve seen the episodes in which Cookie sells Lyon Dynasty back to empire and folds it in. Lyon Dynasty will continue to exist as a sub-label under Empire. I think Andre gives the business rationale for that which is modeled after a number of things that have happened in the real world of the music business.