‘Empire’ creator will talk diversity, gay rights and more at SXSW

March 09, 2017
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 05: Honoree Lee Daniels accepts the Patron of the Artists Award onstage during the Screen Actors Guild Foundation 30th Anniversary Celebration at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on November 5, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for Screen Actors Guild Foundation)

Lee Daniels has never been to South by Southwest, but he’ll kick off his first appearance in a big way on Sunday when he delivers a keynote address for the film festival.

“All of my friends have been to South by before, and I’m excited to be finally coming to Austin for it,” Daniels says during a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he’s working on post-production for one of his two hot TV series, “Empire” and “Star.”

And he seems to be a perfect example of the diversity, independence and entrepreneurship that SXSW has tried to foster. He’s gay. He’s black. He develops his own projects through his own company. He was only the second African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar (“Precious,” 2009). And he works in both film and TV.

“I’m still trying to figure out how my career connects with the festival,” he says. “I think my recent TV projects such as ‘Empire’ have opened people’s eyes about how important it is to have people of color in front of the screen as well as behind the screen.” So that will be a big part of the keynote address, he says. But he’ll also touch on other issues regarding race relations and Hollywood, gay rights and homophobia among African-Americans — the latter topic has been a subplot on “Empire,” which focuses on a family that has built a big music company.

Daniels’ address will also be timely in part because of a surge to prominence of African-American movies lately. Daniels would include Oscar best picture winner “Moonlight” in that group, noting that it deals with the coming-of-age of an African-American gay man, but he also points out the more recent satirical horror film “Get Out,” which he calls terrific.

Lee Daniels is making his first appearance at South by Southwest; he’ll deliver one of the film keynotes. Contributed by Michael Becker / FOX Photo: Special to the American-Statesman

He says he wants to keep his audiences guessing as to what he’ll do and say: “For me, I don’t want to give you what’s expected. And at some point I hope that we can all get beyond talking about race, creed and gender.”

Despite his being tapped for the keynote address, Daniels says, he’s a bit wary about his first SXSW appearance. “I’m always nervous about delivering speeches,” he says. “But as long as I touch one person with what I say, it’s worth the nerves.”

Daniels has been in similar situations before. In 2012, he took his film noir “The Paperboy” to the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in competition for the Palme d’Or. Although it didn’t win or make much of a box-office splash back in the United States, it did help him become friends with Austin’s Matthew McConaughey, who starred in the film with Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman.

Asked if he will be getting in touch with McConaughey during the festival, Daniels responds with a question: “Will Matthew be there? I think I’ll call him right after this to see if he can maybe find me better accommodations than a hotel.”

And Daniels laughs at the last question lobbed at him as he enters an elevator: “Did you really propose that Oprah Winfrey star as a serial killer in a movie one time?”

“Oh, that was a long time ago,” he says. “But yes, I did. Oprah didn’t think it was right for her image. But the movie did get made eventually, with Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It was called ‘Prisoners.’”

The 2013 movie went on to critical acclaim and won the best ensemble award from the National Board of Review.