At 40, Danny Strong’s most iconic role may be for a series in which he doesn’t even star. The actor-turned-writer—when not acting on Girls or Mad Men, he’s writing HBO’s Game Change or the final two Hunger Game films—has scored unparalleled success with Empire, a show he co-created with director Lee Daniels.
As a writer for the hit Fox series, Strong has channeled Daniels’s own childhood experiences with homophobia into the story to help shatter taboos surrounding homosexuality in the hip-hop community and to attack social injustice. “I thought we could really tackle homophobia in a blunt, upfront, and brutal way that’s not common for network television,” he tells Out. “The idea of doing something subversive like that in a network soap opera was very hip and exciting for me.”
Ahead of the show’s two-hour finale tonight, the writer answers Out’s 10 most burning questions.
Out: A lot has been written about your close relationship with Lee Daniels. You dubbed the two of you “salt and pepper” and I was curious what actually brings you two together?
Danny Strong: I think we are kindred spirits artistically. We’re kind of polar opposites in personalities but I think creatively we are kindred spirits. We love the same things in movies and TV and in drama in general. We’re both like our stories to be entertaining and bombastic but also important and with depth. Neither of us are afraid to go there. And it’s turned into a neat partnership.
You mentioned that you and Lee both love the same movies and TV shows. Can you share some examples of something you two bonded over?
Lee and I are both big theater people. The movie All That Jazz is a favorite movie of ours and very influential for both of us because we both constantly talk about it. We both love musical theater. It kind of all stems from there. There is a theatricality that both drives our work.
When you and Lee finished working on The Butler together was there an immediate desire to do another project together?
Oh yeah. I’d pitched him Empire—it wasn’t called Empire yet—as a movie. I had pitched it to him before we were done with The Butler. So we’re still working on The Butler when we’d talked about doing something else together. When The Butler turned into a big hit—I think when you work with someone and it succeeds, you want to do it again. It’s so hard for anything to be successful in our business, so you feel like you tapped into something here.
How does working with the same director or producers influence your work? Does that partnership change the process at all?
The personality of the person will affect the process on the whole for sure, especially when you’re working with someone like Lee or Jay Roach—these incredibly talented people, extremely creative people. You’re hope—at least in my case—is that they will bring their own creative talent to the process and we can raise the bar for each other by bringing what we each do to the project.
Empire deals a lot with race, class, and sexuality — not to mention all of the storylines each week — do you ever worry about doing too much or adding too many layers to the context of the show?
No. I don’t think you can ever have too much as long as the storytelling is good. If the storytelling becomes preachy then it’s just bad storytelling and we’re just doing a bad job. But if it stays dynamic and engaging then you can kind of do whatever the hell you want, I think dramatically.
You have been an actor for a while before you wrote Recount for HBO. What turned you on to writing?
I just started writing to help me get my mind of auditions and take some control back in my career. I felt like I was very much at the whim of other people, producers, casting directors. I was always waiting for my agent to call to tell me if I got the job. And I literally had no control over my life whatsoever. Then a friend of mine wrote a script and sold it. I was so excited for him but simultaneously brimming with jealousy. He was very encouraging to get me to start writing and, once I did, I loved the creative outlet. I loved being able to do something creative where I didn’t have to get anyone’s permission to go do it. So I wrote a script and it was a great experience.
Do you find writing more rewarding than acting?
I do find it more rewarding because they’re my projects and I find it a much more difficult job. But I also find that rewarding in its own right. That’s why I still do it from time to time. I think it’s a lot of fun.
Is it weird being known for very specific acting roles—say, Elijah’s ex-boyfriend on Girls, Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Doyle on Gilmore Girls—or do you like that people have that reference?
Yeah, I love it. I went to theater school as a theater major and wanted to be an actor and spent many years working as an actor. To be having roles on famous TV shows to me is the equivalent of being a Major League baseball player and making it to the Majors. Even though I’m not Barry Bonds, I’m playing for some Major League team, hitting away. I think not a small accomplishment even thought people view actors like you’re Tom Cruise or you’re second tier. I just don’t think it’s that way. It’s incredibly difficult and competitive to get cast in anything. To be part of great shows is in my eyes is the fulfillment of what I set out to do all those years ago.
Having seen what Julianne Moore did with Game Change and knowing that she signed on for the final two Hunger Game films, did you find yourself writing anything specifically for her?
I’m not specifically writing for Julianne Moore. I just think she’s one of the most talented actresses in the country so if you can get her then you’re pretty damn lucky. In the case of Mockingjay, I suggested her to the producers because I had seen her at an award show in which she said that she would love to be Coin. And I was said, “Oh my god, I’ll tell the producers right away.” And they were thrilled to hear that she was interested.
With the monumental success of the show, did that add any pressure to writing the Season 1 finale?
Yeah, it puts a little more pressure on you. I try not to let it get to me though. You feel plenty of pressure before the show is on the air because you want it to be as good as it can. And you definitely don’t want to veer from the course it’s been on now that you’re successful because that course you were on is what made it successful in the first place. So if you start responding to stuff outside of it you could very well be comprising the exact ingredients that made it work originally.
The two-hour finale of Empire airs March 18.