“Empire” is shooting in Chicago’s Loop Thursday. | Richard Roeper~Sun-Times
Those NYPD squad cars in the Loop Thursday weren’t there to give Chicago cops a helping hand.
They’re part of Fox’s upcoming TV series, “Empire,” from Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and Danny Strong, the team whodirected and wrote the 2013 film “The Butler.”
“Empire” is a family drama based in the world of hip-hop music, which will play a big role in the series. The show is set in New York but it’s being filmed in Chicago. Shooting began earlier this month and is expected to go on through February.
“I’m not looking forward to the cold but maybe it will help with the bitterness of my character,” co-star Trai Byers told me during an interview at a TV critics meeting in Beverly Hills, California, over the summer.
Byers plays the business-minded, Wharton School-educated, oldest son of Empire record label mogul Lucious Lyon, portrayed by Chicago-born actor Terrence Howard (“The Butler,” “Hustle & Flow”).
Lucious is a savvy music superstar about to take his company, Empire Entertainment, public. This happens around the same time his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, “Person of Interest”), is getting out of prison after spending 17 years behind bars. The former couple from Philly produced three sons — and the record label they created together many years ago using money from selling drugs.
“We get busted,” Henson said at the TV critics event. “I decide to take the fall because he has the talent and if he goes down, how would I feed my sons? She makes the sacrifice like only mothers and women know how to do.”
“It’s very King Learish,” Henson added about “Empire.” “Lucious finds out he’d dying. He has to pick one of his sons to take over the company. Everybody wants what they think is theirs.”
Henson’s character wants the family business to fall into the hands of her youngest son, played by Jussie Smollett.
“I’m the only one that went to visit her in jail,” said Smollett, whose character is a gay singer/songwriter that has shunned the spotlight. “Mom gets out of jail and convinces him to become a huge pop star.”
Until the “Empire” gig, Smollett’s ties to Chicago were limited; one of his closest friends calls Chicago home, but that’s about it.
“I know New York and L.A. like the back of my hand,” he said. “It’s going to be fun to get to know a new city.”
The pilot was shot in March in Chicago, where co-star Grace Gealey happened to move after doing theater work here. The Cayman Islands native was in ATC’s “Rent” in 2012 and did two productions last year —“The Misanthrope” and “Tartuffe” —at Hyde Park’s Court Theatre.
“I thought Chicago was going to be a temporary thing,” said the Bucktown resident, who plays Lucious’ lover and the record label’s talent-hunting head of A&R. “I didn’t know how long I was going to stay and then this pilot came along. It worked out well.”