Ilene Chaiken Q&A: ‘Empire’ showrunner
"For the most part, I’m not paying attention. I really am just focused on how we can do just the very best job that we can telling these stories … but Thursday mornings I would just be lying to you if I told you that I didn’t wake-up thinking, 'Okay, bring it on. What's it going to be?'" admits showrunner Ilene Chaiken about the unprecedented ratings climb her juggernaut show "Empire" experienced every week during its freshman season.
"Empire" was a game-changer this TV season, not only for its network, FOX, but seemingly for network TV as a whole, showing that, in an increasingly cable-dominated landscape, a network show could still rule the roost in not just ratings but buzz. Chaiken says she noticed something special right away in the show created by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels and Emmy-winning writer Danny Strong ("Game Change"), but it did take some convincing for her to sign on.
"I really went over to FOX that day thinking: 'I'm going to say no,'" she says. "They put me in the little room, put the DVD in, pushed play and went out, locked the door behind me, and I watched this pilot. The assistant came back and opened the door and let me out, and I was on the phone as I was walking out of the room calling my agent and manager and saying, 'I want to do this! What's it going to take? It’s a game-changer. It's everything that I want to spend the next however many years of my life doing."
If the ratings are any indication, Chaiken may be busy for years to come, and it seems the industry is taking notice as well. "Empire" has gained a swell of Emmy buzz in large part thanks to its star Taraji P. Henson and her iconic character of Cookie Lyon, for which she scored a Critics' Choice nomination for Best Drama Actress; the show also picked up a bid for Best Drama Series. Chaiken says that while the show isn't made to win awards, they are much appreciated: "We're really, really thrilled and grateful. The nominations mean everything to us."
In our exclusive chat, the "Empire" showrunner also tells us about the challenges of maintaining a balance of drama and music in the show, what her ultimate dream in Hollywood was, and what it's like on set with the cast of the hit drama.