EXCLUSIVE: 'Empire' Boss Danny Strong Reveals How Jamal's Coming Out Scene Was Almost Completely Ruined!
By Leanne Aguilera
Empire skyrocketed to the top of the ratings this winter with enough surprise twists and turns per episode to give viewers small screen whiplash. (In the best way of course!)
So when the biggest, most emotional scene of the series' debut season was almost completely ruined, Empire's co-creator and executive producer Danny Strong was understandably upset.
"The one thing I hate -- and I hate this -- is at the end of every episode, the 'Next week on Empire…' [promo] gives so much of our plot away," the award-winning actor, writer and director confessed to ETonline at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas.
"I wrote and directed the coming out/White Party episode ['The Lyon's Roar'], and I insisted that [the video promotion team] not give away that Jamal was coming out in the episode," Strong recalled.
"I'm spoiler-free when it comes to Empire."
At first glance, Strong doesn't have physically intimidating presence -- his IMDB page says he's officially 5"2' -- but he's parlayed runs on ‘90s teen shows such as Saved by the Bell: The New Class and Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a career as one of Hollywood's most sought-after screen writers by being intensely persuasive.
But Strong’s physical demeanor abruptly changed when the subject of “spoilers” was broached. He leaned across the restaurant table, never lost eye contact and spoke in a passionate, yet precise cadence. He suddenly towered over the conversation.
The scene Strong was ready to go to the mat for was the emotional climax of Jussie Smollett's powerful storyline as Lucious Lyon's closeted gay son. In the scene, Jamal defies his homophobic father with a dramatic coming out – involving a revealing performance of a song with undeniably same-sex pronouns in front of hundreds of people. This was the major moment for Empire.
"It was a surprise," Strong stressed. "If you knew he was coming out, it would’ve been such a drag. It was something they really wanted to release and I was like, 'No. The whole build to our season has been to that moment.' I literally sent multiple emails that were basically saying, 'If you release this, I'm going to be really, really disappointed.'"
Strong won. The key scene remained successfully unspoiled, and subsequently caused millions of viewers' jaws to collectively drop when Jamal transformed the lyrics to his father's hit song, "You're So Beautiful," into a powerful personal truth. It was yet another watercooler moment that fueled Empire’s astounding audience gains making it broadcast TV's No. 1 show and the first show to build on its same-day viewership every week in 23 years.
The showrunner's disdain for revealing episode plot points can be traced all the way back to 1997 when at age 23 he first appeared on Joss Whedon's cult classic series.
"When I was on Buffy there was so many spoilers and I hated it," Strong explained. "A lot of people have spent a lot of time constructing this, and spent a lot of money, and you're just going to ruin it knowing what happens next."
Now 41, Strong's resume includes recurring roles on series such as Mad Men, Justified and Gilmore Girls, and an Emmy for writing the HBO miniseries about Sarah Palin, 2012’s Game Change. He’s also had success on the big screen, including scripting Lee Daniels’ The Butler and as a co-writer of the Mockingjay films, the two-part finale of The Hunger Games series.
In three weeks, Strong and Empire executive producer Ilene Chaiken will begin to plot out the arc for the show’s second season, which will expand from 12 to 18 episodes and will be split into two parts.
With each episode, Empire has perfected the art of dangling quick but key flashbacks to keep viewers hooked and craving more answers. Strong confirmed that this is a tactic that the writers will continue to use in season two as we dive deeper into the Lyon family's past.
"There will definitely be flashbacks -- but I'm not going to confirm nor deny what they're going to be about," Strong said.
In addition to the fast-paced plot and deliciously self-aware soap opera roots, Empire fans went wild over the A-list guest stars, which included Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love and Naomi Campbell, just to name a few.
Chris Rock, Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitzhave been tapped to join Empire in season two, but Strong was tight-lipped when pressed for details about their respective roles.
He did reveal that of the aforementioned stars, some will be playing themselves in the star-studded world of Empire Records, while others will be added to the roster of the series' delightfully unique characters -- and “some will and some won’t” stick around for more than one episode.
Due to the juggernaut success of the first season, it seems like nearly every celebrity is begging to be a part of the drama in some way shape or form.
Jane Fonda threw her hat into the Empire guest-star ring, teling ET's Cameron Mathison recently that she has "already called" up the executive producers for a chance to get in on the action.
So should we expect to see the 77-year-old actress strutting down the halls of Empire Records in season two? "We love Jane Fonda," Strong gushed. "I mean Lee and I worked with Jane on The Butler -- she was our Nancy Reagan. We love Jane -- so wouldn’t that be amazing to figure Jane Fonda out on Empire?"
The bigger question is whether Fonda's character would be a friend or foe of Empire's beloved matriarch Cookie Lyon. "Probably a foe,” Strong said with a laugh.“Everyone should be a foe of Cookie.”
"You'd be surprised though," he continued. "Even when it's written that someone else has the last line, she'll improvise the last word. Cookie always gets the last word."
Another star that has broken through on Empire is the wildly catchy original music, which has been seamlessly incorporated into the series -- as well as our personal playlists.
"It's the best," said Strong, a theater and Broadway nut, said of Empire's music-driven plot. "It's one of the things I love about it is it's basically a musical. I love the songs too -- I listen to them all the time. I think our soundtrack is awesome."
Because all of Empire’s songs are original -- unlike Glee or Smash, which combined covers with custom-crafted tunes -- there’s a unique challenge to timing the creative work. "We write the story and we say where the musical numbers are going to go," Strong said. "Then we tell the songwriters, 'We need a song that's about this, that's like this,' and that's how we construct the show."
Strong promised that the core themes that made fans fall head over heels for the Lyon family in season one will remain heavily embedded in the plot.
"The theme of season one was the strength of family and I think it's kind of the theme of the show," he said. "Season one was who will inherit the throne and season two is roaring kingdoms."
But as they approach the sophomore run -- and a schedule crowded with new competition -- Strong said that he is still cautious about finding the right balance between teasing and spoiling storylines.
"You can't argue with the growth and the success of the show and I think that those ‘Next week on Empire’ teasers really help," he said. "They get people really excited to see the next week. They know what they're doing -- but sometimes it goes too far for my taste."