Lee Daniels on Star, Trump, and Why He’s Tired of Talking About Diversity

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Lee Daniels, 2014 Dubai International Film Festival, December 14, 2014
Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Portrait

Fox’s latest drama from Empire creator Lee Daniels, Star, centers on a young white woman who flees foster care, her biracial sister, and their rich black friend who move to Atlanta to try to make it big as a girl group. The series, which premieres December 14, has none of the sheen or flair that made Empire an instant juggernaut. In fact, it seems to revel in bringing to life a grittier, more depressing world — one in which a foster father repeatedly rapes his young charge — than we usually see on in prime time.

Star probably won’t be for everyone, and Daniels is fine with that. He’s made a career out of creating polarizing content, from producing Monster’s Ball to directing Precious and The Paperboy* (yes, the movie where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron). Vulture sat down with Daniels inside Star’s L.A. production offices — days after he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — to discuss what he’s learned about making television over the last two years, why he’s railed against the diversity debate in Hollywood, and his dream of someday doing a Disney movie.

How did it feel to get your star on the Walk of Fame?
Surreal. I’ve worked so hard all my life, but this is on another level. I have two shows now! I flew my entire family in and said, “I’m turning my phone off.”

How many people came into town?
Forty. [Laughs.] Seven of my aunts, all of my cousins. My brother is incarcerated so he couldn’t come. It was really about all them. I arranged for a TMZ bus to drive them around and had a friend arrange for a big SUV for the ceremony. Then the next night we went to Crustacean in Beverly Hills and ate crab and noodles. I broke my diet. [Laughs.] I really wanted to spend time with them. A lot of my aunts are around 90. I don’t know when I’m going to see them again. They are all the Cookies in my life, the inspirations for why I’m here. What this country is about. I am living proof that their legacy lives on. They are fabulous and were fabulous even in a time of great turmoil.

It’s been a few years since we spoke on the day that Empire was first picked up. You were worried at the time that your methods and style as a filmmaker wouldn’t easily translate to making TV. What have you learned since then?
I’ve learned how to adapt. I’ve learned that you can do what you think you can’t. I didn’t understand TV before. And I’ve learned that it’s all a collaborative effort. You must rely on your teammates.

Delegation is also a word that comes up often.
Delegation, delegation, delegation. But you have to trust who you’re delegating to. Trust is hard for me. I’ve also learned that each [writers] room isn’t the same. Star is not Empire. Totally different personalities. It’s a different organism because the people are different.

Star to me is a return to gritty, dirty Lee Daniels. It’s more Precious and Paperboy than The Butler or Empire. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
Oh, God. It’s inspired by the fact that I was going to do Valley of the Dolls for Fox, but then [NBC’s] The Playboy Club and [ABC’s] Pan-Am both flopped. They got nervous about doing [another retro series]. But I kept thinking of girl groups; there aren’t any anymore because they always implode. Really it all started with Dreamgirls. I remember taking my mother’s El Dorado, driving it from Philadelphia to New York City, and sneaking in the back of Dreamgirls’ original production. It gave me tingles. I’d never felt that way before about black people in entertainment. It was like, “Wow. The music! [Sings a lyric:] And I am telling you! That was the business I had to be in. Star is also a little Paris Is Burning, a little of John Waters’s Female Trouble. In the first 15 minutes, you have three girls who will rob, steal, and mutilate people; do whatever it takes to get to the top. This was all written pre our president-elect. I knew we were in trouble.

When did you know Trump had a chance of winning?
When black people were getting shot and killed last summer, and we were watching and scratching our heads. What is happening to our nation? This isn’t the ‘60s. This isn’t the ‘90s. And this shit is still going down? I felt that making the character of Star white could heal the nation. Show that this white girl had the balls to tell somebody who was black, “You’re a racist, bitch.” And in prime time! Also, I have so many friends who are biracial. How are they identified now? What is it like being black and having a white sister? What does it all mean when your best friend is black and richer than fuck and the three of you all are climbing up together? I remember a few years ago, my son asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me that people look at me differently?” He was 19 at the time. “Why didn’t you ever tell me the police look at me differently? What’s up with that?” I never looked at racism in that way. I don’t know whether it has to do with how I live in a state of denial half of the time. I believe racism is real and it should be acknowledged, but I think that if I fully acknowledged it, I would have been an angry black man with nothing. I got to get to where I gotta go.

Is it also because in Hollywood, a very white business, you couldn’t let yourself worry about how people felt about you every time you walked into a room?
Yes. I think people can smell that on you. But people label that as “crazy.” Like, “What’s wrong with him?” You get shit for it, and on both ends — from black and white people. My son has a black dad and a white dad, my [former] partner in New York. I thought I was giving him the life that I didn’t have. I thought I did the best parenting I could. But he said, “You pride yourself on honesty, and you weren’t honest with me.” But I am honest! Have you seen my interviews? [Laughs.] Look me up! And actually you, Stacey, started it last year with that interview [in which we had a heated discussion about race in TV writers rooms, and Daniels said, “I hate when white people write for black people.”] You goaded me. But I couldn’t hate you because it’s what I do to actors.

You’ve had your highs and lows in dealing with the media. In fact, Sean Penn won a $10 million defamation lawsuit against you in May for your implying in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he was a domestic abuser. Did that experience make you more likely to self-edit when talking the press?
[Pauses.] Yes.

And that has taken some practice I imagine.
Mmm-hmm. But I think [self-editing] in a way makes me dishonest, which is sad.

Looking at all of your work, from Precious to Star, female protagonists dominate your storytelling. Is it easier for you to write for women?
Yes. I was raised by a tribe of women. Fabulous, bold, audacious, loud. When you think of Cookie, it’s exaggerated humor, style, elegance, toughness, realness. A woman to me is far more complex and interesting to write for than a dude. From Monster’s Ball on, the projects I’ve had a hand in writing, they’re almost all women. That’s what kills me overall about this whole diversity thing in Hollywood. I’m flabbergasted by it.

You’re flabbergasted by the conversation centered on diversity in storytelling — or, as your friend Oprah Winfrey now calls it, “inclusive” storytelling?
[Pauses.] Look, I’ve never had to depend on anyone in my entire career. I don’t need a white man to tell me I’m good. I don’t need your money to make a movie, sweetie. I will go out and get my own money. I don’t need an award to justify my artistry because most [of what I make] isn’t award-worthy, apparently. [Laughs.] And I’m okay with that! So for somebody to sit there and talk about inclusion or diversity… get off your ass and do what I did: Raise your own money, write your own shit, do your own thing. Don’t ask for permission. And don’t sit there saying to Hollywood, “You owe me an Oscar, you owe me an Emmy, you owe me an opportunity.” Nobody owes you shit! Ain’t nobody gave me shit. I took mine, okay? I’m bored with the whole conversation. I know my shit is good. I really think that this sense of entitlement is what’s caused our country to be where it is right now — everybody thinking that somebody owes them some shit. I’ve made Champagne from lemonade. I’m a living example of the American dream. Period. And I’m okay with losing, too, because I know that with every fucking hilltop there’s gonna be a valley.

You’re almost 57. Do you think people who feel marginalized and frustrated by Hollywood maybe don’t want to hear the harsh truth that it can literally take 30 years to get to where you are now?
They don’t. My first film [Monster’s Ball] got a black girl the first lead actress Academy Award ever. That was the beginning of my journey as a filmmaker! I’m not bragging, I’m saying, how was I able to get my stuff green-lit? Everybody told me no for Monster’s Ball. A movie about a fat boy, a black mother, and a white man? But no is not acceptable for me. It’s like, “Okay, I’ll see you later … on the red carpet!” Do you think Trump played fair with the system? It’s America. Take what’s yours. I’m not afraid of anybody but God. And I pray that I do the right things in this life God has given me to one day meet him.

Do you care what critics think?
Of course. What do you think? [Laughs.] After Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman came out, I started to believe my own hype. Then Shadowboxer [starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr.] came out. I was coming back from the Toronto Film Festival and on the front of the New York Post it said: “The worst film of the year.” I was in the fetal position. What I don’t do now is Google myself. I also have a newfound respect for a creator when I’m watching a movie or show that I don’t like. I realize how hard it is to make anything. I’m at a point in my life where I’m okay if you don’t like my stuff. I’m not afraid. I can’t retire … Okay, actually, yeah I could retire [laughs]. I just mean I’m in a place where I’m doing stuff because I enjoy it. But sure, I get my feelings hurt. I spent 48 hours with my phone off when my family was here, just absorbing them. People think, “Oh, you’re Hollywood, fancy schmancy, look at his Rolex.” But then they realize, “No, he’s still that same negro.”

What are some misconceptions about you in the business?
That I’m difficult, I think. But what is difficult? Difficult is making sure that something is right. People think I’m a little off.

Does that come back to that whole honesty thing?
Yeah. I think that people get afraid because they don’t know what’s coming out of my mouth next, and they’ve got good reason because I don’t know either! [Laughs.] But what I do know is that that I can look myself in the mirror and say that I’m the best man that I can be, and that I love myself and my kids love me, and that my family loves me.

Has it taken a long time to feel that way?
A long time. Loving yourself is really hard to do. It’s so hard because it’s egotistical loving yourself, isn’t darling? I think people don’t understand that. Also, I want [Hollywood to know that] I want to do a Disney movie. You know what I mean? I want to play ball in that playground. And I want to do a big old action movie.

You don’t want to be pigeonholed.
Of course not. Everything leads to the next. Who would have thought I would ever do a television show?

I’d like to see Lee Daniels’s Cinderella with Gabby Sidibe as the lead.
[Laughs.] Wouldn’t that be fun? Don’t get me started. I also think people think I’m a little flashy, but I said from the very beginning of my career that I spent a lot of time in Europe, I’ve spent a lot of time in the ghetto. I’m a little Euro. I’m a little ghetto. I’m a little homo. You can’t really peg me. But my kids, oh boy. They can fucking tear me down in a fucking heartbeat. When did these roles change? All my kids have to do is give me a look and it’s like I’m the kid. They are me on steroids. But they can cut me. I’ll go, “Look what I’m putting up on Instagram!” They say, “Don’t do it.”

How do you relax when you’re not working?
Before the election I was obsessed with CNN. I would come home, watch CNN, and sleep. Now I come home and watch I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched. I haven’t seen the news since the day of the election. Mostly I just want to see my kids. My daughter’s in school in France, a film school that I don’t know how to pronounce. [Laughs.] She’s doing her thing. And my son is enjoying his life. He’s modeling. I can’t believe he’s modeling. He didn’t like my allowance — a paltry $200 a week and paid rent – and was like, “I need some money.” So I was like, “You better get a job.” Then I’m watching Kanye’s fashion show with my boyfriend, and there my son is, modeling! I called Kanye and he didn’t know about it because my son didn’t use my name. But he actually doesn’t like modeling. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s a cameraman. He’s very visual.

Your kids love movies?
Tres. Very. Very. They grew up on sets.

They must have been so young when you were making Monster’s Ball.
They were in it! I kept them with me all the time. My daughter told me, “I want to be able to hire you. I think I’m going to be a female version of Harvey Weinstein.” So I sent her over to Harvey and she worked for him. I said, “Don’t go back to school.” She’s like, “What do you mean. I’m going to school, Dad. I’m going to college!” I said, “Help me run my company. Can you go work on Empire please?” She goes, “No, I’m going to school, I’m not playing!” So she’s over there in Paris spending my money. But she’s having the best time. She’s had her first love and she came in for my star ceremony. I’m so proud of her.

I imagine, especially to a young woman, you’re a pretty fun dad.
Oh, yeah. Let’s go to Barney’s, let’s go shopping!

Have you have seen Moonlight?
I have started it.

It feels like a story you may have wanted to tell.
That makes me feel good. I have been so busy, I’m dying to finish it. It’s so brilliant that it needs my undivided attention. I can’t be writing or doing anything else. I’m dying to meet the filmmaker [Barry Jenkins]. Also, the writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, was doing the Sammy Davis Jr. biopic for me over at HBO. Very, very, very, very smart.

Speaking of, what is the latest on your Richard Pryor biopic? Spike Lee was attached to direct, then it was announced in October that you were attached to write and direct. I interviewed Eddie Murphy recently and he said he was onboard to play Pryor’s father, but he didn’t know the timeline.
I don’t know.

What’s the delay?
It’s called Harvey Weinstein. [Laughs.] I don’t understand people in Hollywood. Every film I’ve ever done has been produced and financed by me. The minute I start relying on people, this shit happens. I’m like, Are you fucking joking? You’re messing with my life! I’ve gone off and done two television shows. It’s been five years!

Pryor’s family is onboard and supportive of the film?
The kids don’t own the rights; his wife Jennifer is supportive, yeah. I can tell you this much: They better get it together because big daddy’s ready to do a movie. Okay?

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

*A previous version of this interview incorrectly stated Lee Daniels wrote Monster’s Ball, Precious, and The Paperboy. He produced Monster’s Ball, directed Precious, and co-wrote and directed The Paperboy.

Lee Daniels Is Tired of Talking About Diversity