In Lee Daniels' newest TV musical drama, "Star," Queen Latifah plays Carlotta, a beauty salon owner in Atlanta who is a fairy music godmother of sorts to an up-and-coming all-girl trio.
"I'm telling you now, there's going to be GIFs of Carlotta making the rounds once the show airs," says Queen Latifah, seated next to Daniels, on a rooftop deck in Los Angeles. "They better be good."
The 13-episode drama, which has a special premiere Wednesday on Fox, centers on a young, aspiring singer named Star (played by newcomer Jude Demorest), who forms a girl group with her sister, Simone (Brittany O'Grady), and their friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny). The cast also includes Benjamin Bratt and Lenny Kravitz. (The show settles into its regular time slot Jan 4.)
It's the second music industry-related series for Fox from Daniels following "Empire," which he co-created with Danny Strong.
In a late-November interview, it was clear that Daniels and Queen Latifah have the kind of established rapport that includes finishing each other's sentences and regularly breaking out into laughter. They discussed the mentors that have guided their own careers, taking the anti-"Cookie" route, and "Star'"s place in today's political climate.
What was the inspiration for this series?
Daniels: I remember, at 16, stealing my mother's El Dorado in Philadelphia and driving to New York City and seeing "Dreamgirls." This is my "Dreamgirls." It's a little bit of "Valley of the Dolls," a little bit of "Paris Is Burning." And also, I really wanted to bring people back into the church in an honest and cool way.
The series explores the grit and determination required in pursuing stardom. Could you identify with that process?
Queen Latifah: It's interesting to go from being a girl like Star or Alexandra or Simone to then [play] a kind of manager or producer — someone who really helps to bring those dreams to fruition. It's like having that full-circle experience to really see how hungry, how dangerous, how exciting, how fun, how talented these girls are. And how they really do need somebody to watch their back.
There's a lot of older lions out there and that's part of the business. But when it pays off, there's nothing like that magic. You forget about how rough yesterday was when today comes off. I know people who will sell their kid to have that dream to be a star, and then some people just want to make music.
What do you remember about trying to make it big and the obstacles you faced?
Daniels: I just remember not thinking that there were any obstacles. I just thought that the world was my oyster, and I never thought there was going to be a no. Or, actually, I never took no. I remember we were trying to get money for "Monster's Ball." In one incarnation, it was going to star Robert De Niro and Sean Penn was going to direct. In some kind of way, it got into my hands. And I remember them telling me I couldn't make this movie. And I went out and raised the money. It was my first film.
Did you always have Queen Latifah in mind for "Star"?
Daniels: I wrote it for her. First off, it's hard for me to imagine her looking like this right now. Because I love her looking like my cousin. In the show, she looks like these ordinary women that I grew up loving and cherishing.
Queen Latifah: I love it too. Cookie [Lyon from "Empire"] is an upgrade. Cookie's got a little more paper. She goes bigger. I don't want to come in like Cookie. There's still all these other woman who need their shine too. So that's where we kind of met. When he told me, "I want to tell these women's stories, I want to make these women ..."
Daniels: "… look good." I told her I wanted her to play a woman that is a relative. Just that 9-to-5 working woman that occasionally has problems paying her bills. That has probably had a kid that's been in jail. That may have a husband that left her, but is a devout Christian. That's what keeps her alive. That's what makes her real. And I told her we were going to have fun with it. That she was going to be rockin' some magical wigs.
Queen Latifah: Let me tell you something. Real talk. I've been living out my fantasies with these wigs because you know you get this polished, pulled [back] hair, Queen Latifah all the time, or you go straight-up ponytail. I can't cut my hair. When the hell will it grow back? But with these wigs I'm living my dream in a way, because every time a new hairstyle comes out, my sister would dye her hair. Every time I see her, I don't know what she's going to look like. Is the hair going to be pink; is it black; is it blond; does it have streaks; is it up, down? And this is like me getting to live vicariously in that way. Cookie wishes she had these wigs.
Daniels: I'm happy that she's singing again.
Was that attractive to you?
Queen Latifah: Definitely. It was scary in a way. The type of songs that I'm singing in this, you don't typically hear me sing — the gospel stuff. I sing them at home, maybe. But not like, for real, in front of people.
Did you guys have your own Carlottas as mentors going into the business?
Queen Latifah: The person who signed me to my first label, Monica Lynch; she was someone who really has grown with me throughout my career. When I decided that I didn't want to make hip-hop, but I wanted to make a jazz record, she knew it. She became my A&R basically and found me all these songs and producers. She was one of those people who got it and kind of stuck with me along the way. Even people like Patti LaBelle. She was right there. Heavy D, Buggin' Out Productions, KRS-One and his wife, Chuck D, Public Enemy. They were like, "Look, this is how you do this."
Daniels: I had Patti [LaBelle] and Susan Taylor from Essence magazine. They'd always be like "You know you can do this," when I didn't think that I could.
You've often said "Empire" is like your version of "Dynasty." What would you say "Star" is?
Daniels: "Good Times." Because if the girls ever get famous, what's going to happen? That's a constant struggle or battle — in the right way.
Lee, at a screening in Los Angeles, you talked about why we need this show right now, considering the political climate. Can you elaborate on that?
Daniels: I felt that we were at civil war when I wrote this show. I thought that the country was at a divide. Black kids were being shot. We didn't understand it. Everybody was confused, so, you know in my day, there was Martin Luther King Jr. I vividly remember him. I vividly remember Malcolm X. I vividly remember the [Black] Panthers. They were people I could look up to. I felt that the character that Quincy Brown plays, Derek, — since there weren't any leaders out here — that I was going to create one.
I wanted to tell real-life stories about what was happening in America today on the streets where my family can connect.
When it happened, when Trump was elected, I realized that I couldn't watch the news. I haven't picked up a newspaper except the arts and entertainment sections. Seriously. My partner, Tom Donaghy, who co-wrote this with me, sent me the making of "I Dream of Jeannie" and I escaped. Then I went on and watched the making of "Bewitched." And I realized why "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie" were important at that time — because we were at war. We wanted to escape. I realized that I need to satisfy the audience, my audience. I'm not going to be as political as I started out the show to be because I think we need escape a little bit, but then we know what's going on out there. This world is a fantastical, magical, mystical mess.
Queen Latifah: That can be a rap lyric: fantastical, magical, mystical, mess.
With "Empire" you had artists like Timbaland and Ne-Yo as music supervisors. Talk about forming the music identity of this show.
Daniels: I'm just old school. My library, literally probably stops at Whitney Houston: OK, maybe a hit or two of Beyoncé. I have to go to my kids. And this is when the collaboration comes in because I know what I don't know. But I know what feels good. What that thump is. What makes me move. As long as I'm able to move, I'm feeling good and I think that when "Empire" is about hip-hop and rap, this is a mixture of things. It's a new kind of gospel. When I grew up, the girls were flawed. What made Patti Labelle or Aretha Franklin [who they were] was that they scratch. You could hear it in the voice. There's this imperfection that is perfection. That's the voice, sound, that I'm trying to re-create because I think it's lost now.