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'Precious,' 'Butler' Director Lee Daniels Is Building an 'Empire'

Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels is the entertainment impresario behind some of the most provocative movies in recent years. He produced the steamy Halle Berry drama "Monster's Ball" and directed the gut-wrenching character study "Precious," which garnered six Academy Award nominations — including Best Director.

Daniels — whose last film was the box-office hit "The Butler" — is a very busy man these days. He has a hit on the small screen with "Empire," a riveting Fox drama about a hip-hop music mogul and his family. It stars Academy Award nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.

Daniels recently took a few minutes to talk to NBCBLK contributor Patrick L. Riley about his dive into "Empire" and diversity on TV. "Empire," riding on social media fervor and Emmy buzz, has already been renewed for a second season — just three weeks after its record-breaking premiere.

Patrick: Congratulations on putting America back in front of a TV set. We're talking over ten million people. Such impressive ratings. How do you feel about all the success in a new medium?

Lee Daniels: I'm humbled by it first. I had to hold my breath. America is fickle. You never know what they’re going to go for. I'm happy to say in response I'm humbled that the numbers really great. I'm just sorry that we’re up against “black-ish” (the ABC comedy that airs in the same time slot as "Empire") because that’s one of my favorite shows.

Patrick: I did want to ask you about Shonda Rhimes', whose latest show “How to Get Away With Murder?” starring Viola Davis did a neck-and-neck premiere number at the top of the new season. Did Shonda (creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”) offer any inspiration to you?

Lee Daniels: This is the great time for African-American television. We are everywhere right now and I think that it's about time. I’ve met Shonda Rhimes a few times and certainly she's an inspiration for me in television. I’m not from this world. What she's done and she's brought to television has been nothing but inspiring to me. I didn't really want to do TV. I’m still not that TV guy.

Patrick: How do you balance the two platforms?

Lee Daniels: I don’t know what makes me happier — that I'm able to tell my story or that I'm able to have African-Americans writing for me. And I am able to employ African-American directors directly: Debbie Allen, Mario Van Peebles, and John Singleton. These cats are telling my story. I'm really full right now. I'm in a great place because I trust people behind the camera as I go off and I still go back to my day job and do film.

Patrick: “Glee” — as a return to music and drama in primetime — was huge but its on its way out. “Smash” flopped for NBC. “Nashville” is critically-acclaimed but coasting on ABC. What do you have up your sleeve — perhaps it's your executive producer of music, Timbaland? — to ensure folks are going to keep tuning into that musical piece?

Lee Daniels: It's the scary part about television. I feel strongly that if Fox sees its numbers drop in any way, they will come back to me to see what we do and I'll just drop what I'm doing and focus on making sure they move back on track. Each episode takes on its own life. Each director is with his or her own audience, so it’ll be different for sure. I think that the writers are good, but I also think that the actors know their characters and are trained so well with their characters. It's like hitting the lotto. Do you know what I mean?

Patrick: I do. Let's talk about your choice to take on homophobia in the African-American community. Bravo. Why was that so important to you? I know Shonda has been unapologetic about that.

Lee Daniels: I was just saying to someone that when I did "Precious" ... I had to go to the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City here to do research on it. I expected to see gay men there and that's just not the case. It was nothing but a room filled with African-American women with kids and babies. Men are on the "down low" because the African-American community has frowned so hard on it and the pastor says, the teacher says, the boss says, your neighbor says, your homeboy says, your parents say that it's not good. It's hard enough being African-American. Why be black on top of it? Why be African-American? Why be gay on top of it? That's a lot of crap. That is killing our women. It is killing our kids. I got a lot of haters, lot of haters that really have publicly come out and envied me from the beginning. But I live in my truth and I will die in my truth.

Patrick: That's brilliant. I'm going to turn the page here. You're known for really bringing great friends from Mariah Carey to Naomi Campbell, to the forefront and transforming them from part-time actors to credible performers in film and TV.

Lee Daniels: Yes! [Exclaims with laughter.] They have to be my friends first. What happens is that there is a connection and I got to love them. Do you know what I mean? And not just with the African-American actors, but Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zach Efron, John Cusack.

Patrick: We see your starts having fun in what seems some benign feuding in social media. Do you find that social media is a key player with what Empire is becoming?

Lee Daniels: I have a new appreciation and understanding because I’m old school. Some of my friends don’t have a cell phone. Patti LaBelle doesn’t have a cell phone. Let me just share with you that I just started working on Twitter because the studio said you have to tweet. What I found is that “Empire” was trending number-one in the world at one point.

When I realized how important it was, I said, "Holy cow! Let me take this more seriously." It's a fascinating new world. It's powerful.

[This interview has been edited and condensed]