Exclusive Interview: Eric Haywood (Screenwriter, "Empire")

Empire is on the tongues of everyone who watches TV nowadays. the Fox series has made waves every week since its premiere, and the buzz has only gotten bigger.

I was very excited to speak with one of Empire‘s screenwriters, Eric Haywood. We discussed the state of TV diversity, what fans can expect from the rest of the season, and the 411 on the one issue Empire fans have with the show—that it’s on the same night as black-ish.


 

COLOR: How did you get started in writing?

Eric Haywood: I’ll try to give you the condensed version of the story. My original career goal was to write and direct movies…but I started my career as a music video director back in the ’90s, doing a lot of rap and R&B videos. My goal was to get experience behind the camera in preparation for making film. In my spare time, I was writing screenplays, just trying to learn my craft. One of the screenplays I wrote actually ended up leading to an opportunity to write Soul Food on Showtime a few years back. So I actually got sidetracked into become a TV writer from one of my screenplays and I’ve been working in TV ever since.

Cool. It seems pretty clear that Empire will get a second season—

Actually, let me interrupt; we have been picked up for a second season, officially.

Great!

We don’t know how many episodes, it’ll be or when it will premiere, but we do know that a Season Two is coming. That’s official.

Okay, great, great! What do you make of the show’s success?

You know, I always tell people I always had a very strong feeling that the show would do well because it has so much going for it. Taraji [P. Henson] has a huge fanbase, Terrence [Howard] has a huge fanbase, we have this incredible music that Timbaland is providing, the show has fashion and it has intrigue, comedy and drama. It literally has something for everybody. I was very confident that we would find an audience, but I would be lying to you if I had any idea that it would be as well received as it is. It’s a huge pleasant surprise.

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Since it has basically made history over and over and over again this season, what does it feel like seeing those kinds of headlines of Empire breaking ratings records?

You know what? It’s shocking to me. Every time it happens. For the first few episodes, I kept saying to myself, “Okay, well we had a really strong start. This is going to be the week that the numbers either level off or start to drop a little bit.” And I’m wrong every single week. It never stops being a very pleasant surprise, to see that not only are people sticking with the show, but that they’re spreading the word and encouraging other people to watch it, so we’re attracting new viewers. It’s a real thrill. I love it.

There have been tons of articles about Empire‘s record-breaking season, with some articles just focusing on the ratings numbers themselves, while others are declaring diversity to be the next big thing in television, and others seemingly shocked that a so-called “urban” show is doing well on mainstream television. What do you think of the varying critical opinions, especially the reactions that labeling Empire as a successful “urban” show?

First of all, I would say that it’s far better to have people talking and writing about your show than not, because there are so many choices out there between broadcast, cable, streaming and what-have-you. Any new show could easily fall through the cracks. Any amount of discussion be it people talking to each other or writing articles or blog posts is good.

Having said that, I do feel like we’re at a point where, in my opinion, Empire has crossed out of the quote-unquote urban box. It’s pop culture. It’s on the culture of Entertainment Weekly; you don’t get much more pop culture than that. So, I think that fairly soon, it’s going to be time to let go of all the shock and surprise. The audience has always been there. It’s just a matter of needing the right show at the right time and the right network to get behind it and give it enough of a push and believe in it for the audience to show that this is the thing they’ve been waiting for.

Having said that, I feel you don’t get the kind of ratings Empire has been getting with just an exclusively black audience. I personally have white friends who tell me they love the show, never miss it, and it’s not just because they know me and know that I work there. They can quote lines back from the show to me and they have their favorite episodes. So I feel the appeal is much more than “urban.” Like I said, the time is approaching, I think for us to stop thinking of Empire as “urban” and to start thinking of it as pop culture.

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I know there’s a running joke on Twitter with people complaining about Fox and ABC putting Empire and black-ish on at the same time, which is especially relatable since I recap both of them and I’m flipping back and forth when they’re live. How do you feel about the fact that people are so looking forward to watching Empire live that they want the shows to move airtimes?

Well here’s the thing; I don’t believe that there’s a grand conspiracy with the networks putting the shows on at the same time. At the same time, I think people need to keep in mind that TV networks are competitors, and they’re not in the business of wanting to help each other. So whether it’s Empire and black-ish or any other two shows who seem to share an audience, I’m not sure what the incentive is for a network to want to move a show just because the audience says “We want to watch them both and stop putting them on at the same time.”

The other thing is that in this era that we live in, there are so many more ways to watch a show other than just watching it live. Of course networks prefer people watch it live, but you can jump on the internet the next day and watch Empire and watch black-ish live on Wednesday nights or vice-versa. You can go to the FOX Now app and watch Empire on Friday or Saturday. Or you can go to ABC’s website and watch black-ish if you choose to watch Empire first. So increasingly, I’m feeling like two shows on at the same time isn’t really the obstacle that it used to be. So for people wanting to seek out a particular show, it’s easily at your fingertips.

Like in my case, I go back and watch the shows On Demand through my cable service. 

Exactly.

It’s also kind of enlightening to me to see so much interaction with these television shows; people are so invested…It seems like it’s been a while since there’s been this amount of shows on that have black actors or Asian actors or whoever else on TV, so much so that people are glued to the television all the time. So I think it’s interesting that we’re beginning to be in this space in television in which people are clamoring to see these different points of view on TV. 

Yeah, I definitely agree with you. In addition to being a writer, I’m a consumer of television. I totally agree that I can’t think of a time when there have been this many options to choose from for seeing these kinds of faces on network TV. Even if I didn’t work for Empire, I would watch it. I would also continue watching black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin and all these other shows. They’re good shows, first and foremost. But at the same time, people feel like representation matters. You want to see people on screen who look like you or look similar to you, and I think some people are able to take this for granted because it happens so frequently.

But I also don’t think that the black audience because of black faces. I don’t think black-ish because of black faces, or that Asians are watching Fresh Off the Boat because they’re Asian characters. I think first and foremost that all these shows are very well made. That’s what’s attracting the audience and that’s what’s keeping them on the air. There’s plenty of evidence, historically, in which an audience samples a show for a couple of episodes and then they go away or they don’t show up at all. That isn’t the case with this current crop of shows.

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To go back to Empire, the plot of it, it’s touched on a lot of things that affect America and I guess some would say some issues that affect black America, like homophobia and ideas of manhood, mental illness stigma and hip-hop culture, etc. What do you hope America—not just black America—takes away from this show when it comes to those issues?

First of all, that they’re not black issues. As you said, these are American issues. Hip-hop is an American art form. It’s certainly a black art form, but it’s also an American art form. So, none of us should be surprised that the entire country has embraced it. Hip-hop has been international for decades now. So, I would love for people to acknowledge, like I said, that these are American issues, first and foremost. Homophobia isn’t exclusive to black America. Neither is mental illness. I like the fact that Empire is tackling things from a certain perspective, but also doing it in a way that opens people’s eyes to the fact that we deal with a lot of the same things that everybody else deals with.

When it comes to writing the show, I’m assuming Empire is one of the more diverse writing rooms out there—I don’t know the exact break down of the writer’s room. It seems like there’s been a shift towards getting people with diverse backgrounds in writing rooms, but it seems like, from my outsider perspective, that it’s not moving quickly enough. What do you think about diversity in the TV writing industry right now?

Well, I don’t know the exact makeup of other shows’ writing rooms, so I can’t say this with exact certainty that Empire‘s room is the most diverse or more diverse than average. It probably is, but I don’t know the exact statistics to see where we’d measure up against other shows. But, you know, when I sit in the Empire writers’ room, I don’t think of it as a diverse room because there’s a lot of black faces. The Empire‘s writers’ room is black and white and male and female and gay and straight. To me, that’s diversity. It’s not just diverse in that there’s a lot of black writers here. There’s diversity in a lot of different kinds of ways.

I think we need to…condition ourselves to think that the word “diversity” means more than just one thing because everyone on our staff brings their individual experiences to the table when it comes to creating these stories. We have writers who have kids, we have writers who don’t have kids. We have writers who are married, we have writers who are single. There’s a whole universe to draw from as far as diverse experiences.

So, honestly, I think the question needs to be directed to the shows who don’t have diverse casts. I think the question needs to be “Why don’t you?” as opposed to looking towards the shows that may be a little bit different and asking “What makes you guys a diverse room or “How does it function?” A diverse writing room should be the norm.

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I agree. To go back to the method of writing the show, do you have a favorite Empire character to write for?

No, honestly, I really don’t. I find that from this show and other shows I’ve worked on, it’s kind of counterproductive to let yourself fall in love with a particular character at the expense of the other ones. If I said Hakeem was my favorite character to write, and I’m writing…a scene that Hakeem is not in, I wouldn’t really give it 100 percent. I’m basically writing this scene to get to the next scene with Hakeem in it so I can really swing for the fences, and you don’t really want to do that.

You have to get yourself in the mindset of falling in love with all of the characters equally and finding the things that you like about them the most and are the most creatively challenging…I could write an entire episode from Rhonda’s view if I had to because you have to be able to invest yourself in all of the characters equally. Even though Cookie is obviously the breakout character, Cookie is the breakout character because she’s bouncing off all the other characters. So, it’s always a team kind of thing. So yeah, no particular favorite, but they all offer their own particular challenges, which I love.

That goes into my next question, which is if there’s a character that challenges you the most or, to say it in a different way, what challenges do these characters present you as a writer?

I do think, not to contradict what I just said, but I do think as far as the most challenging, Cookie is a particular challenge because she could very easily become the character you rely on to walk into the room, say the funny thing or do the outrageous thing, and leave. You don’t want Cookie to become a two-dimensional cartoon character. You always want to keep her real….There’s always—for me, anyways—a back and forth I always go through in terms of trying to figure out where the line is drawn. You want her to deliver the crowd-pleasing moment, but you also want to keep her grounded in reality so that she comes across as a real person. She can’t beat Hakeem with a broom every single week; otherwise, she becomes predictable. Cookie definitely is a real challenge, but in a good way.

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What can fans expect from the last two episodes?

Boy. [laughs] I’ve got to figure out what I can say that won’t get me in trouble. The only thing I can really tell you is that whatever you think is going to happen probably isn’t going to happen. It’s a real “expect the unexpected” kind of thing.

Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, who created the show, and then Ilene Chaiken, who is our showrunner, they all have a very clear vision of what the show is and they have since the very beginning. They are the ones who guide the path of the show, and there’s never been a single moment when they were winging it or making it up as they went along. They’ve known exactly where they’re taking this. They’re some of the best [people] I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

So while I can’t give you any specific plot details, I can tell you that if you’ve been with Empire this long, you definitely don’t want to miss the last couple of weeks.

Photo credit: Michael Lavine, Chuck Hodes/FOX