'Empire' creator Lee Daniels tells not-so-shiny story behind Fox's 'Star'

Star cast
STAR: Pictured L-R: Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O'Grady in the special premiere of STAR airing Wednesday, Dec. 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. STAR makes its time period premiere with an all-new episode Wednesday, Jan. 4 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Annette Brown/FOX

NEW YORK - Lee Daniels is putting himself out there again.

The filmmaker and TV producer from West Philadelphia has never been shy about acknowledging the bits of his past that find their way into his work.

Even, or maybe especially, the not-so-pretty ones, like the flashback in the Fox hit Empire in which a homophobic Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) dumps his high heels-wearing young son, Jamal, into a trash can, an incident taken from Daniels' childhood.

Star, his new music-driven drama for Fox, premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday after Empire's midseason finale. It's a gritty, absorbing story about three young female singers at the beginning of their careers, still far removed from the glitz of Empire's Lyon family.

It's personal, too.

"The Jahil character is me," Daniels told me in a post-screening interview at SoHo's Crosby Street Hotel late last month. He was referring to the character played by Law & Order veteran Benjamin Bratt who's introduced in the pilot as a sleazy, dissipated-looking talent manager whom Star (Jude Demorest) meets in a strip club. She's gone there hoping to persuade him to represent the girl group she's formed with her half-sister, Simone (Brittany O'Grady), and their new friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny).

"You said it - sleazy," Daniels said of Jahil, who goes toe to toe in the pilot with the girls' unofficial guardian, Carlotta - played by Queen Latifah.

"When you don't have the foundation, and your father dies, and you grew up the way I grew up? I expressed what my family was like in Empire if they had money," said Daniels, whose father, a Philadelphia police corporal, was murdered in 1975.

"I don't ever talk about the life that I led when I first landed in Hollywood, and the things that I did that I'm embarrassed about," he said.

"My work is therapeutic for me. I have to look at myself in the mirror. And I want to make sure that kids don't make the same mistakes that I made. And so, Jahil is me. He's a drug-riddled, sort-of artist trying to find himself . . . not that I'm drug-riddled now, [but] when I was lost," said Daniels, who cocreated the show with Tom Donaghy (The Whole Truth).

"Jahil - he used his skills that he learned from the streets to survive. As opposed to pimping, managing, which is what I did. But I lived in the back of a church, and out of my car, and, yeah, so it's very personal to me.

"And hopefully we'll see his evolution, and how he finds, inevitably, God. And spirituality," he said of the character (who happens to share a first name with Daniels' partner of six years, stylist Jahil Fisher).

For now, the spirituality in Star is represented by Carlotta, who once dreamed of the kind of secular success that Star, Simone, and Alexandra are chasing but who when we meet her is running a beauty salon and singing mostly in church.

"My intention was to, in a very cool way, not hitting you over your head," put God in the picture, Daniels said.

"I think that's what's missing. Maybe it's my age or something [Daniels will be 57 on Dec. 24], but when my son told me at 16 that he was an atheist, it hurt me to my core. Because my mother raised me in the church. And I realized that me, working so hard all of my life, that I had not raised him with the same values that I had."

Viewers who know Bratt best from his years as Law & Order's Detective Rey Curtis or as Javier, Gloria's ex-husband on ABC's Modern Family, may not have seen him looking as seedy as he does in Star, but for the actor, it's a welcome change.

"That was the ultimate enticement, to be able to play a younger version of Lee in this new world he's created," Bratt said after the screening.

"It's not telling tales out of school. . . . He's been very forthcoming about his personal addictions and behavior that might have derailed some of his aspirations when he was a younger man. And on some level, Jahil's a reflection of that," said the actor.

"The character is a man who's older than Lee was back in the day but who still has not reached a point of emotional maturity, because that emotional maturity's been stunted by substance abuse.

"A lot of it's been cut from the pilot, but Jahil is still very much a cocaine addict, a heavy drinker. And yet he's still got the burning spirit of an artist within him, and a belief in himself that he can still achieve something, that keeps him going.

"When we meet him in the pilot, he's on his last legs. He's faking it, essentially. But he does have a skill and a knack for recognizing talent. And upon meeting Star, he knows immediately that this is his ticket up."

The girls won't hit the big time overnight - "if they did, we wouldn't have a show," said Daniels - but Bratt at least knows Jahil is modeled on someone who did eventually make it. (A few days after we talked, Daniels received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)

Not that the actor knows Jahil's future.

"As an artist, he can be very withholding in terms of where he's going," Bratt said of Daniels. "He shares with you the broad strokes. In a way, I find that kind of an interesting challenge as an actor, because I wake up every day ready for a new surprise."

The two met when Bratt was in the 2004 Daniels-produced film The Woodsman, which was filmed in Philadelphia and starred Center City native Kevin Bacon.

Star, Bratt said, is "an opportunity for me to branch beyond what people expect of me, and what I've been offered in the past. . . . It was an opportunity to come play in a sandbox that I'm not often given an invite to."

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