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By Suzanne

Interview with Ilene Chaiken of "Empire" on FOX 9/18/15

I thought my question was a good one, but she seemed to bristle at it, at least in her tone. Oh, well, that happens. It's a good show and I enjoyed the interview.

Final Transcript
FBC PUBLICITY: Empire Conference Call
September 18, 2015/10:30 a.m. PDT

Alex Gillespie
Ilene Chaiken


Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the Empire Conference Call. (Operator instructions.) This call is being recorded.

Iíd now like to turn the conference over to Alex Gillespie. Please go ahead.

Alex: Good morning, and welcome to the Empire Conference Call with executive producer and show runner, Ilene Chaiken. Just a reminder that Empire returns on Wednesday night at 9:00 p.m. on Fox. We do have photos and videos that can be found on our press website, called But in the interest of time, Iím going to turn it over to start the Q&A now. So, can we open up the line for questions for Ilene?

Moderator: Yes. Weíll start with Sarah Curtis with Please go ahead.

Sarah: Thank you so much. Hi, Ilene. Thanks for taking my call.

Ilene: Hi. How are you?

Sarah: Iím good. Okay. Iíve got a couple questions for you. So, one, I watched the first three episodes; they were wonderful. When everyone has, kind of, their own agenda, you know, such a clear agenda, is there any fear that the audience will lose some of the love they have for the characters? It used to be, kind of, youíre rooting for, maybe, good guys versus bad guys. Now, everyone, sort of, has their own agenda. Does that make sense, I guess?

Ilene: I know what youíre saying, but itís our point of view that there are still all the family dynamics, all of the love that was there between and among them in the first season. Theyíre people who love and hate one another all at once, and youíll see as many moments in which they have one anotherís backs, as youíll see moments in which theyíre stabbing one another in the back.

Moderator: And next, weíll go to Emily Yahr with the Washington Post. Please go ahead.

Emily: Hi. I had a question about the music. Obviously, the sound track did really, really well. And I was just wondering what the thinking is behind, sort of, maybe, marketing the single of these songs to radio or anything like that. Has there been any consideration to have the music individually? Kind of market it that way?

Ilene: You know, Iím the wrong person to ask that question of. I know that there has been a lot of thought and consideration and thereís an incredible music and marketing team behind the show, and itís not my purview, so I donít know the specifics of it.

Emily: Oh, okay. Can you talk a little bit about what you expect with the music this season at all?

Ilene: Yes. The music in Season 2 is going to be all that and more. We were really excited by the music that was created for the show in the first season. Timbaland is back, and his team, Jim Beanz, who works with him, theyíre creating a lot of songs for the show. What Iíve heard has been spectacular. If anything, weíve stepped up our game and we also have some additional songwriters and music producers working on the show, including Ne-Yo, including J.R. Rotem, including Swizz Beatz. Weíve got some incredible music in Season 2.

We also have a couple of new characters, who are musical characters in the show, who are performers and who are making music for the show. Tiana is back and then weíve introduced a couple of new Empire artists and youíll hear just more music and a somewhat broader array of musical styles within the genre of Empire.

Moderator: (Operator instructions.) And weíll go to Suzanne Lanoue of the TV MegaSite. Please, go ahead.

Suzanne: Hi, good morning.

Ilene: Hello.

Suzanne: A lot of reviewers talk about TV shows having a sophomore slump. Do you think this is really a thing? And if so, what have you all done in Season 2 of Empire to prevent it?

Ilene: I think it doesnít serve us to think about it. What weíve done is proceeded to do the very best we can to tell great stories. We love the show. We love the stories we told in Season 1. We certainly donít feel like weíre out of story. We love these characters and weíre going to go on doing what weíve been doing and continuing to tell the stories of their lives. We havenít changed the show. Itís the show that the audience loved in the first season, but itís more and, I hope, even better.

Moderator: And next, weíll go to Karen Moul of SciFi Vision. Please, go ahead.

Karen: Hi. Itís so great to talk to you today.

Ilene: Likewise.

Karen: I have seen the season premiere and that episode, it touches on some important issues about incarceration in this country and itís interesting, because itís, sort of, passingóCookieís really insincere about using that, and Lucious does probably deserve to be in jail. So, I was wondering if you could talk about, like, the way you approach social issues on the show, your responsibility to say something, but to make it real with the characters also?

Ilene: We talk about it a lot. The show is nuanced and the characters are complex and, sometimes, twisted. We think thatís pretty real, pretty true to life. The show is set in a world in which those issues are very present in the lives of these characters, and itís what we do, itís what Lee Daniels does, and what Danny Strong does in all of the work that they do.

So, the show is permeated with those kinds of themes. And I believe that, for example, Cookie, on the one hand, knows that itís a ruse, that thereís a certain lack of sincerity in the specific thing that sheís doing, and yet, I think she firmly believes everything she says and believes it passionately, and Cookie is a character whoís able to live with that contradiction.

Moderator: And next, weíll go to Jerry Nunn with Windy City Times. Please, go ahead.

Jerry: Hi, how are you? Iím calling from Chicago and the LGBT publication.

Ilene: Alright.

Jerry: Yes, here in Chicago. So, could you talk about how important it is to have, you know, worked with The L Word and now Empire. You know, having real people as the LGBT characters that youíve had and having them as real people on these shows, and how important it is and things like that.

Ilene: Do you mean how important it is to portray those characters versus having actors who are LGBT in real life? I just want to clarify the question.

Jerry: Sure. To portray those kinds of characters out in the world, I think.

Ilene: Oh, itís hugely important to us. I think that itís hugely important just period, on the face of it, to reflect the world, to have diversity, to tell these stories. They still are LGBT stories and stories of other groups of people who have been previously marginalized and not represented in the popular culture. Hugely important. Important to me, important to the medium, important in the world at large. Itís also, personally, very important to me, very important to Lee Daniels and to Danny Strong, and when they first talked to me about Empire, they told me that Jamalís story and this story about homophobia in the black community was one of the most compelling and important stories to them and itís, in a sense, what the show is about.

Moderator: Okay. And next weíll go to Simon Applebaum of Tomorrow Will Be Televised. Please, go ahead.

Simon: Thanks very much. Ilene, I want to check the studies a little bit, because thereís a lot of discussion in Hollywood this week about diversity on television, especially the role of women and women of color writing, directing, producing episodes. We have this incredible exposure with scripted TV, thanks to what Fox is doing, other networks, etc., and yet, we still have the studies that come out from the guild [ph] saying [indiscernible] of women of color direct episodes of [indiscernible] television, 11% to 13% of people of color direct episodes. What do you think needs to be done, especially in terms of the role of women of color? I know Debbie Allen, of course, directed one of your episodes in the first season. What do you think needs to be done to increase the opportunity?

Ilene: What needs to be done is exactly what weíre doing on Empire. We need to make certain that we have more women of color directing episodes of television, more diversity among the writers and directors of many television shows. Youíve identified a problem that is a problem; thereís no denying that itís a problem, and I think that everybody whoís in a position to make the change needs to take some responsibility. I know that we are on Empire and weíre doing it for all the right reasons. Most importantly because it makes our show better.

Moderator: Okay. Next weíll go to Joe Otterson with TheWrap. Please, go ahead.

Joe: Yes, hello Ms. Chaiken. One of the things I find most fascinating about the show is the incredibly, just rabid fan base thatís already developed after only one season. So, Iím just curious, in your experience, have you seenóor whatís, like, the craziest experience youíve had with the fans since the show premiered?

Ilene: I think my experience with the fans is most likely not as crazy as the experiences that the cast have with the fans, because theyíre beloved, and when they walk out in public, they feel the love in many ways. But my personal experience is simplyóthe experience that I would cite is screening the episodes in a large theater with a big audience, and thatís happened twice. It happened last year. We screened our two-part season finale at a theater downtown in Los Angeles, and the other day when we screened our premiere at Carnegie Hall. And the experience of standing in an audience and hearing people screaming and shouting and calling back to the characters onscreen is fabulous and crazy.

Moderator: And next, weíll go to Sarah Curtis with Please, go ahead.

Sarah: Thank you. So, back to the episodes a little bit. Part of the success of Season 1 was the chemistry between the brothers, and in the first three episodes, there are a lot of great scenes between the three of them. But I noticed, sort of, I guess, let me ask. How is splitting them up with their motives affecting things from a writing perspective? You can't go to, like, a go-to Jamal/Hakeem musical collaboration, which I thinkó

Ilene: But we do. And itís also story for us. In order to create a good season of television, people need to change. And we look at an arc of the season and thereís a period of time in this season when various characters are estranged from other characters and the story of how they overcome their estrangements or how they battle through the estrangement is part of the joy of the show. But when we conceived this season and made the choice to create those dynamics, we said to ourselves, ďBut, we have to make sure that there are multiple scenarios in which we get to put them together in the ways we love them together.Ē

Jamal and Hakeem do perform together. They do in the first episode and they will again and repeatedly throughout the show. You said you saw 1, 2, and 3. In Episode 4, thereís a very big set piece, in which Jamal and Hakeem work together. I won't spoil it for you and tell you what it is, but it happens repeatedly, and also, when push comes to shove, these boys have one anotherís backs. The brothers come through for one another in big and very heart-warming ways in key moments in the season.

Moderator: Next, we will go to Emily Yahr with the Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

Emily: Okay. So, obviously, Taraji P. Hensonís up for an Emmy on Sunday. Iím just wondering if you think that there is a certain scene that she had in the first season that you would use to show voters, like, this is why she deserves to win that?

Ilene: Oh, my goodness. There are so many scenes that I couldnít identify just one and I think that itís the range of her work that really goes to what makes her so deserving. That she can, in a matter of moments, go from the most raucous and flamboyant performance to the most heart-warming and touching is what makes her such an extraordinary actress.

Emily: And can I ask, too, I mean, her character has become, sort of, this larger than life symbol of the show, almost. Is that why you think the character connects so much to people, because she has this whole range of emotions?

Ilene: I think that itís that, in part, that she has this incredible range of emotions that are accessible, that really hooks people in and makes us feel. I also think that itís because this character hasnít been on television before, and the audiences are just loving seeing a character that they havenít seen before whoís so empowered, whoís so outspoken, whoís so unbridled and uncensored. I know, as a woman, that Iíve looked for that character and longed for that character, but I get that men are loving her as much as women are.

Moderator: Next, weíll go to Karen Moul of SciFi Vision. Please, go ahead.

Karen: Hi again. I want to talk a little bit about Lucious and how in the premier, I think Jamal weíre seeing, Jamalís learning that running Empire is not, maybe, all itís cracked up to be or all he thought it is. And it made me think about Lucious. How much do you think Lucious became who he is as a product of the streets or a product of the corporation?

Ilene: I think that Lucious is a product of the streets and brought it to the corporation, and his drive and ambition are the things that made him a man who could create this empire and run it. I think his hunger for it is something that Jamal, mostly likely, doesnít have in the way his father did. Jamal has a lot of the skills and qualities that his father has, but heís never been as hungry as his father was.

Karen: Just a real quick follow-up. In the premiere, he looks a little bit like he could be in danger of becoming his father almost. Is that a theme?

Ilene: It is. Itís a theme. His father threw down last season to say, you know, I need to see that you have this in you, and essentially, he was saying, I need to see me in you if youíre going to inherit my throne. And Jamal is torn. Heís torn between the dark and the light, if you will.

Moderator: Okay, and weíll take one more question. That will be from Christina Smith with Please, go ahead.

Christina: Thanks so much for taking the time, Ilene. I know weíre all really excited for Season 2. Can you, sort of, set the stage for us and where we pick up after the season finale?

Ilene: Sure. We pick up roughly three months, a little more than three months after the finale of Season 1. Lucious is still in prison. The family has dealt with some of what happened and they know things now that they didnít know three months ago. For example, coming into this first episode, I donít think that anybody any longer thinks that Lucious betrayed Cookie, at least not in that way. So, those are some things that weíre coming out on the other side of. In terms of framing the season, if Season 1 was built on the premise of who will inherit the throne, Season 2 is warring kingdoms. And thatís about as Shakespearian as Iím going to get today.

Moderator: And Iíll turn it back to Ms. Gillespie. Please, go ahead.

Alex: Great. Thank you so much, Ilene, for the time. We really appreciate you taking the time, and thank you for everybody on this call who joined us today. We really appreciate it. Just a reminder that Empire is going to return on Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. on Fox and we have our photos and videos that can be found on our Foxflash website. Thank you, again, for joining us.

Ilene: Thank you.

Moderator: And that does conclude our conference for today. Thank you for your participation and for using AT&T Executive TeleConference service. You may now disconnect.

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