Lee Daniels showed the pilot of his new Fox drama Star to an audience in Hollywood one week after the presidential election. During his introduction, he told the crowd that the aftermath of the election inspired him to tweak the direction of the series, which tells the story of a trio of singers who form a girl group in Atlanta.
“All of a sudden one thing can happen that can shift the tone of where a show is going,” Daniels said. “Right now we need to heal. I think that right now we need to escape. We need to escape from the pain that we are all in. You see a shift as you see the series progress into a place of, not denial, but hope.”
Jude Demorest plays Star, a girl who rescues her sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) from an abusive foster home. They travel to Atlanta to find Star’s Instagram friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), the daughter of a producer (Lenny Kravitz) who wants to pave her own way. Queen Latifah and Benjamin Bratt also star.
Daniels spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about the unlikely inspiration for Star and when viewers might notice that shift he described.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Did Empire have to come first for you to be able to do Star?
Lee Daniels: Yes, I guess so. I wouldn’t have known how to do a television show, I don’t think.
RT: Had you been thinking about Star before Empire?
Daniels: Yes, I thought of Valley of the Dolls, which was what I was supposed to do before Empire. I was going to do it for Fox, and they decided not to do it because of the lack of success of Pan Am and The Playboy Club.
RT: How did Valley of the Dolls become Star?
Daniels: Because it lived in me a little bit about women and their struggles for fame in Hollywood. For me, it was about women and fame and people taking advantage of them, and also what these three girls would do to get to the top.
RT: How many women auditioned for the role of Star?
Daniels: Not many. What’s great about it is I have a great team around me. As a filmmaker, I’ve gotten into a process where as I’m writing, I’ve learned now as I’m creating characters to pass them on to my sister who casts my work in L.A. and my ex-partner who casts it in New York. Between the two of them, they’re really helping me as I’m writing. So when I walked into the Star casting office, they were in sync. It took forever for me to find Hakeem and Jamal [on Empire]. It didn’t take me as long for me to find these three girls.
RT: In addition to chemistry testing the three girls, did you have to test them for musical harmony too?
Daniels: Yeah, it’s fun. I can only imagine how Berry Gordy created The Supremes or how Labelle was formed or how TLC was formed. I wish I could have recorded the behind-the-scenes process.
RT: Was it part of the deal to get Queen Latifah to sing? Will we hear more music from her?
Daniels: She’ll pull a tune out every now and then from under her hat.
RT: Did you also want a chance to explore the foster system again, and further, after your film Precious?
Daniels: Yeah, that was part of it. It’s interesting, cinema only reaches a finite amount of people. Yes, it ultimately ends up on TV but it doesn’t have the immediate thing that TV has. A lot of people didn’t see Precious, so a lot of people will be able to understand where I’m going with the atrocities that are happening right now in the foster care system, so that is exciting.
RT: There’s a great effect in the pilot where the close-up of her face peels away to unveil a fantasy dance number. Is the idea that in the real world, the girls are just starting out and their choreography is basic, but in the fantasies we can see what they can really do?
Daniels: Well, the girls can dance regardless, and I think that they will evolve into perfect dancers. The idea is that they are able to really live their dreams in the fantasy. So they dance just as well out of fantasy, except they’re just not fabulous yet.
RT: Will we see at least one fabulous fantasy every week?
Daniels: No, I think there is one episode where we don’t see a fantasy. A couple of episodes we don’t see a fantasy. It’s so funny that you should mention that because it’s a symbol and a tentpole for the show. I tried to do one without a fantasy, and I was like, Uh oh, I need a fantasy. So I had withdrawal from the episode or two that we didn’t have one. I kicked myself, but it’s experimentation. You’re really trying to find the heart of the show as you’re creating the first 12 episodes.
RT: In what episode will we start to notice the shift you were talking about after the Trump election?
Daniels: That was episode four-ish.
RT: So relatively early in the series, and is it a drastic shift?
Daniels: Not drastic, no. You’ll get a taste of another tone.
RT: Will it always be somewhat serious with serious issues you’re dealing with?
Daniels: You can still have fun with it. Look, Sharon Tate committed suicide in Valley of the Dolls, and it was still a party.
RT: Do Empire and the Lyons exist in the world of Star even if they’re in Chicago?
Daniels: Now, you know I can’t go around telling that kind of information. That’s classified. I want my job, OK.
RT: Is the music of Star more pop than hip-hop?
Daniels: I think it’ll be a little bit of everything. Definitely more pop. Hip-hop is Lucious Lyons’ world. I didn’t want to touch Empire at all. I wanted to leave [Star] in its own world.
Star premieres Wednesday, December 14 at 9 p.m. on Fox