Empire‘s combination of hip-hop, high fashion, and high drama has proven to be a hit since the very first episode premiered on Fox in January 2015. Created by Lee Daniels and Mark Strong, the story of patriarch Lucious Lyon, Cookie (the ex-wife who’s coming from a 17-year jail stint), their families and associates offers a compelling mix of music, crime, and family drama that clearly found its audience. The first season racked up more than 15 million viewers each week, with the numbers rising at each episode. That’s virtually unheard of in TV land. During its second season, it dropped from first place among the coveted 18 to 49 demographic but remained in the top 10.
The hip-hop drenched saga of the Lyon family has had a huge impact on pop culture and pays as much attention to the music as the drama onscreen with Timbaland producing all the tracks. After each episode, Columbia releases a digital download of the songs that premiered that week. Compelling characters and over the top drama spiced with great music have proven to be a winning formula and the first compilation, Empire: Original Soundtrack, went to the top of the Billboard charts. There have even been a handful of singles that have also charted after their release.
As with any production this complex, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, including all the little pieces that add up to the magic that is a hit show. Empire‘s stars and creators form a unique group, so let’s take a look at some of backstage facts and trivia behind this hit show.
15. Lee Daniels Bases A Lot Of The Series On His Own Life
Co-creator, executive producer and director Lee Daniels wears a lot of hats on the Empire set, but probably his biggest mark on the series has been that, in many ways, it reflects his own life, background, and family. Daniels and others have acknowledged that there are many resemblances between Lee’s real-life sister and the flamboyant, larger than life Cookie Lyon. Trivia note: the other major inspiration was Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in the 1980s TV classic, Dynasty. While writing generally isn’t one of the elements he gets involved with personally on a day-to-day basis, Lee takes a particular interest in the character of Jamal as a young, black gay man dealing with a father’s intolerance, which is something he knows about first-hand. In fact, that famous scene in Season 1 where Lucious takes young Jamal, wearing his mom Cookie’s high-heeled shoes, and dumps him in a trash can outside is something that actually happened to Daniels in real-life.
14. The Diddy Connection
Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has claimed to be the inspiration for the series, and it seems he may be right in a small part. Danny Strong, series co-creator, director, and writer, has also named Jay-Z, who has admitted to previously making a living as a crack dealer before hitting it big in the world of rap, as being one of the inspirations behind the character of Lucious. The story goes that Danny Strong, Lee Daniels’ collaborator in The Butler, was driving around LA when he heard a story about Diddy on the radio. Strong started thinking about a story that had to do with a hip-hop dynasty that included a criminal element. He called Daniels to talk about a movie concept, but Daniels suggested TV instead. Diddy actually had a highly publicized feud going with the show in 2015, claiming in interviews that Empire had ripped off his autobiography. Although there was some talk of a lawsuit, it seems pretty clear that it wasn’t any one particular real-life persona that the show’s creators had in mind. Lee Daniels has played down the idea that there was a single inspiration, naming Motown, Joe Kennedy, Dynasty, and the American Dream as playing roles in the series’ conception.
13. Taraji P. Henson Improvs A Lot Of Cookie’s Lines
Taraji P. Henson is an accomplished actress who has been nominated for Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards, and has even won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Cookie on Empire. Theater was actually Taraji’s second choice as a field of study, since she’d spent her first year at college studying electrical engineering. While she went on to study theater at Howard (where her nickname, coincidentally, was Cookie), she also worked as a Pentagon secretary and cruise ship entertainer. Taraji earned a “Triple Threat Scholarship” for singing, dancing, and acting skills from actresses Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad despite the fact that her son was born during her years at the university. Along with Terrence Howard, Taraji has creative control over the scripts and often ad-libs her lines. In fact, some of her most famous quotes and quips were the result of improv, including “Shut up, Dora,” and “goat ass” among many others. Taraji also came up with the nickname “Boo Boo Kitty” for her onscreen rival, Anika Calhoun.
12. Wesley Snipes Was Almost Cast In The Role Of Lucious
While by now Terrence Howard is indelibly etched into the collective consciousness of viewers as Empire’s Lucious Lyon, but he wasn’t actually the first choice for the role. That option went to Wesley Snipes from such hugely popular films as Blade and Expendables. Lee Daniels actually confirmed this revelation in a number of published interviews. According to Daniels, it was a strong-arm tactic by Taraji P. Henson, who he’d already cast as Cookie, that changed his mind. Taraji had worked with Terrence previously in Hustle and Flow, and she told Lee she would bail if he didn’t cast Howard opposite her Cookie in the role of Lucious. Wesley Snipes decided to go on record with his version of the story in his own interviews. Snipes says he was offered the role but turned it down, citing issues with time commitments, and said he’d otherwise would have taken it on. Snipes would have undoubtedly played the Lyon character equally as well, since he famously played Nino, the drug kingpin in New Jack City.
11. Terrence Howard – Art Imitates Life
Terrence Howard has said in interviews that he uses his own life as inspiration on how to portray Lucious, and it doesn’t seem like he’s kidding about that. While real life doesn’t quite match the fictional character’s record of the murder of a childhood friend or choice digressions like fathering a child with his son’s girlfriend, Howard does have a fairly extensive rap sheet of his own. It includes multiple charges of assault from former wives and girlfriends, allegations that hit the spotlight again in the summer of 2016 when Howard was in court trying to renegotiate his divorce settlement from his second wife, Michelle Ghent. She made claims that he’d repeatedly beaten her. Terrence is also no stranger to tangled romantic relationships. He secretly divorced his third wife in the fall of September 2015, only to make several subsequent appearances as a couple. In May 2016, they ultimately announced that the pair were expecting their second child together.
10. Lucious Lyon’s Favorite Color Is Purple
Everyone knows that Lucious Lyon has brought his ruthless way of doing business from his background as a drug dealer (his days on the street in his previous life as Dwight Walker) into the music business. Even crossing the line of murder isn’t going too far when his Empire is threatened. He doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in the figurative sense, but when it comes to the literal sense, Empire Entertainment CEO Lucious Lyon, played so well by Terrence Howard, likes to maintain an impeccable image. He’s always turned out in style, even when it’s to put a bullet through someone’s head. His favorite color is purple, and the show’s wardrobe team have been keeping him in a range of designers, including that iconic purple paisley silk scarf by Gucci, ties by Tom Ford, and a Gucci purple floral print blazer. Lucious’ preference is also why ex-wife, Cookie, is also often seen decked out in various purple hues.
9. Hakeem Has The Most Expensive Clothes
Style and fashion get a lot of attention on Empire, both from viewers and the media. The wardrobe is specifically developed to illustrate and enhance the sense of each character. Costume designer, Rita McGhee, revealed that despite Cookie’s high profile animals prints and Lucious’ sartorial flair, it’s actually Hakeem who wears the most expensive wardrobe on the show. It makes sense since his character has grown up with a wealthy background, and he’s the resident hip-hop star from Season 1. That wardrobe, a wealthy kid’s version of street wear, has evolved into a more powerful image as the character developed in Season 2, and includes high-end labels like Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Dolce & Gabbana. The sense of style inevitably comes with the territory. Hakeem, played by Bryshere Y. Gray, is a rapper in real-life who goes by the name of Yazz the Greatest. Actually, his role as Hakeem on Empire is his first acting job.
8. You Can Buy Lucious Lyon’s Mansion
The opulent mansion where Lucious Lyon makes his home is a real house, not a set, located at 45 Lakeview Lane in Chicago’s upscale Barrington suburb. The enormous mansion measures 20,000 square feet and was designed in the “French country” style with five bedrooms and nine bathrooms. It took 5 years to build, largely due to the custom woodwork and intricate decorative elements. The estate includes 8 acres of landscaped private gardens near two lakes with gorgeous waterfront views. The property is owned by Sam Cecola, a strip club mogul with a bit of a troubled history himself. Cecola had to give up a club in Las Vegas after running into some legal issues, like tax fraud and ties to organized crime. Ironically, this seems like a fitting setting for the Lyon family, for sure. The estate has been on the market since 2013, with the asking price reduced from $15.9 million to $13 million in 2015, and then reduced again to a mere $12.5 million by the spring of 2016.
7. The Art Is Real
Series creator, Lee Daniels, is a big fan of contemporary African-American art, as it turns out. Along with the museum quality Van Goghs and Andy Warhols that a serious art collector like Lucious Lyon would own, the music industry CEO’s walls display a range of original pieces. Luckily, the show has a generous budget for art, and set designers have been able to splurge on a range of better known artists like Kehinde Wiley, Walter Lobyn Hamilton, and Mickalene Thomas. Yet, Daniels also wanted to go beyond the work of established artists. Empire scouts went to several art schools looking for talent, and made the dreams of several of the art students come true by taking pieces to put on the show. Lee was reportedly so excited about the work of one of them, New Orleans’ artist and athlete Jon Moody, that he’s vowed to help make him famous through featuring him on Empire. It’s not just that paintings and other works decorate the walls. In the filming, there is often a focus on prominent works of art in a room, especially at the beginning of a scene, to frame the character shots.
6. Backstage Drama
The show’s atmosphere has been called a soap opera within a soap opera because of melodrama backstage as well as in the script, including near constant buzz about feuding between stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. There have been threatened lawsuits, courtroom dramas, and many, many headlines about the cast. The feuding rumors may be PR hype, since other stories say the two also jointly oversee script supervision. Henson and Grace Gealey (who plays Anika “Boo Boo Kitty” Calhoun) don’t get along and avoid each other on the set. There were rumors that Trai Byers was going to leave the show during the second season, and that Henson had been fired. The series’ stars have acknowledged the feuding in interviews, but by all accounts, it’s not all drama and tension on the Empire set, either. Taraji Henson has also talked about the pranks cast members play on each other and the upbeat vibe of the shoots in interviews.
5. Empire Is Being Sued By Former Prisoners
As the second season of Empire began, Lucious was in a federal prison after being arrested for the murder of Bunkie. Those scenes were shot at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, and currently, they are the crux of a class action lawsuit. Newspapers reported that Twentieth Century Fox Television, Inc, Fox Broadcasting Company, Inc., Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc., Fox Entertainment Group, Inc., Fox Networks Group, Inc., Fox Television Group, Cook County, and the center’s superintendent Leonard Dixon are all named as defendants in the suit that alleges that the detention center’s residents were unwitting pawns in a bid to facilitate the series’ taping. Two former residents of the facility filed the suit in late August 2016. In part, their claim reads, “The Fox Defendants deliberately encouraged the Government Defendants to improperly place the JTDC on lockdown during the filming of Empire, for commercial benefit.”
4. Boo Boo Kitty Married Andre Lyon!
Romance sometimes blooms amid the drama and media hype. Actors, Trai Byers and Grace Gealey actually tied the knot in 2016 in real-life, although marrying Anika Boo Boo to Andre Lyon would have definitely made for an interesting storyline on the series. An Instagram post confirmed the good news that Grace Gealey (who plays fiancée and then-wife of Lucious Lyon, Anika ‘Boo Boo Kitty’ Calhoun) and Trai Byers (Lucious Lyon’s older son, Andre) got married in a romantic tropical setting on Grand Cayman Island in April 2016. The pair had confirmed their engagement in late 2015, but the ceremony was kept private. Gealey is a Chicago resident who taught ballroom dancing and sold paintings before her acting break came along. For her, the wedding ceremony was going home since she is a native of the Cayman Islands. Gealey moved to the U.S. at the age of 18 and has stated that she still has to work to speak without her natural Caribbean accent.
3. Chicago = New York City
While Empire is supposed to take place in New York City, the series is actually largely filmed in Chicago. The bulk of shooting goes on at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, where several areas have been converted to the various interior scenes of the series, such as the Empire Entertainment offices. The reason the series shoots in Chicago actually boils down to the financial aspect. Shooting in Chi-Town makes the production eligible for significant tax credits, and Illinois programs are measurably more advantageous than that of New York. Luckily, the two cities feature a similar architectural style both historically and when it comes to contemporary buildings. In wide shots, you can see an address purportedly on Madison Avenue in NYC, but the Empire Entertainment HQ is actually a building at 353 North Clark Street in Chicago. When Cookie was released from prison in the pilot, the exterior of Cook County Department Of Corrections Division 10 at 2950 S. California Avenue was used. Street scenes have been shot in various locations, including North Columbus Drive and East Illinois Street, and West 14th Street and South Talman Avenue. The seminal scene where Lucious kills Bunkie was shot by the river on South Grove Street, under the Dan Ryan Expressway.
2. Candace’s Real Life Feud With 50 Cent
Sometimes the real world and fictional world collide in odd ways. Vivica A. Fox plays Candace, Cookie’s older sister and a reminder of her past. It’s a bit ironic since the casting, which will continue in Empire Season 3, has made Fox an online target of rapper 50 Cent for two reasons. The first reason is due to the fact that the two are exes, and apparently not friendly ones at that. The second reason is that Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is involved with a rival show. He seemed to take the issue personally. 50 Cent went the route of posting a pic on Instagram with a woman’s face on one side, apparently disfigured by botched plastic surgery and Vivica’s face allegedly on the other side. This post both tarnished Empire while mentioning his show, Power, the rival show he’s producing for Starz on cable. The Internet didn’t enjoy the slander, and filled the comments section with full of posts calling him out for the petty move.
1. Jussie Smollett, Twitter, And Death Threats
After the finale of Empire Season 2, Jamal Lyon’s character, played by Jussie Smollett, had taken a bullet in the stomach for Lucious, and was being rushed to the hospital. It was a classic cliffhanger, with fans left in the lurch as to Jamal’s future on the show. Jussie took to Twitter in what he later said was a joke (one that went south quickly). He Tweeted, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time w/ @EmpireFOX. I love you all. Truth. Time 2 make a record & some movies. #Empire.” Fans took the message to mean that he was leaving the show and went nuts. Fans lashed out at anyone connected with the show, and Lee Daniels even received death threats. Some people were also angered at the idea that it was a diversion and hype tactic, like the way Kit Harington supposedly left Game of Thrones, only to return. Jussie went back on social media to calm the situation down, insisting “Listen 2 my words … I’ll see y’all season 3.”