Benjamin Bratt on How Lee Daniels’ New Series ‘Star’ Reflects the Shared Black & Latino Experience

Naomi Campbell, Lee Daniels, Jude Demorest, and Benjamin Bratt attend a screening and reception for Fox's Star. Photo by Al Periera. Courtesy of Fox

In Star, Lee Daniels hopes to recreate the bonkers fabulousness that made his other Fox show, Empire a hit. But while that New York-set hip hop soap opera was set in the high glamour world of the record industry, Star sets its sights on the bustling music scene in Atlanta. That’s where Star, her Insta bestie Alex, and her sister Simone, who hope to form a girl group, end up. They’re each harboring secrets about life in foster care, a bloody altercation involving a kitchen knife, and in the case of Alex, a wealthy and famed background that sounds straight out of Empire itself. Not so big spoiler alert: her parents are played by Lenny Kravitz and Naomi Campbell.

The key to whatever success Star’s girl group aspires to lies in the hands of Jahil Ramirez. He’s a washed up Atlanta music manager who has, unbeknownst to them, a connection to Star’s mother and the drug addiction she never could shake off. Jahil is played by Benjamin Bratt and despite the protestations of Star’s godmother (the always fabulous Queen Latifah who runs a hair salon and takes the girls in), sets out to make the stars out of the talented trio. That should be enough to get you to tune in to what sounds like you’re next music obsession, and we haven’t even mentioned the energetic music sequences, the male eye candy (courtesy of Chad Buchanan and Quincy Brown), and the endlessly quotable dialogue that runs through the show.

Ahead of the show’s sneak peek premiere on Fox, Remezcla chatted with Bratt about what drew him to playing such a dark but engrossing character, how the show reads in 2016’s political climate, and why you should look out for a certain female Dominican singer later in the series’ run.

On the Main Reason He Signed Up for Star

Lee Daniels, for one. I’d worked with him in the past when he was a producer on a film called The Woodsman back in 2004. Then, of course, after becoming friends on that job and following his body of work I, like everyone else, has come to know Lee as an artist slash provocateur, so I knew that to say yes to him on something like this was going to put me in a position to be challenged as an artist. And I’m at a point now where that’s what I’m looking for. I know how to make a living. I’ve been very lucky to work on a lot of different genres but I’ve never been giving the opportunity on a television forum to play someone who has the issues that Jahil Rivera faces daily. Whether it’s substance abuse or checkered past or petty crime or blinding ambition. I’ve never had the chance to do that on TV before. Luckily, Lee was familiar with my independent film work which has given me those opportunities and that’s why I think he had the confidence to think that I could do it.

On Playing a Version of Lee Daniels

When he pitched the show that was the most influential part of his pitch was that on some level Jahil Rivera was gonna be a reflection of who Lee himself was back when as a young man he first arrived in Hollywood as a talent manager to actors. He actually had a pretty impressive stable of performers that he was representing but to his account he derailed himself for a number of different reasons none the least of which was an involvement in drugs and just bad behavior in general. When he shared that with me, I knew that he was gonna put me in a position of playing this character that might be uncomfortable just in terms of the behavior that I would actually engage in. But that again was part of the draw. I find that a little bit terrifying because it’s so different than me but it’s also the challenge. I look forward to playing someone who’s so very different. And then to have him as a natural touchstone to go back to on any questions I might have a particular motivation or ways of thinking, different scenarios that might be similar to what he went through, I knew it was gonna be research gold! And at the end of the day, the saving grace in playing a role like this was I wasn’t going to be participating in bad behavior for bad behavior’s sake. It wasn’t going to be merely for exploitation. It was going to serve as the groundwork that Jahil would have to work through on his way to some sort of spiritual redemption. And that to me was very compelling and ultimately the thing that the excited me the most. Because if you look at Lee now, he’s a very different person than he was when I started working with him in the early 2000s. He’s cleaned up his act. I think he’s spiritually more evolved and recognizes now what his demons are and how to keep them at bay. And I think that’s something to look forward to for this character. In the meantime, I am going to wallow in the gutter.

On the Show’s Widely Diverse Cast

I’m surrounded by incredibly talented people. All of whom can sing—and, of course, I’m the one outcast who cannot sing, and I love the fact that Lee is principally motivated by reflecting the world as he knows it. Its eclecticism. Its quirks. Some of the social ills that afflict our communities, especially the world that he reflects in Star and the intersectionality that he draws between black and Latino culture. By the third episode he introduces a new character who is somewhat mysterious played by Sharlene Taule, who is an actress and an accomplished singer and recording artist in her own right. And I think that’s not just smart from a storytelling point of view but Lee is also a very commercially successful artist and he recognizes that the world we live in is, as it’s always been, incredibly diverse, curious, interested, and ultimately comprised of many different cultural influences. It always has been here in the United States of America. And regardless what anyone else is saying on a national platform, that’s the world as we know it. But we also know the industry has seldom really depicted it that way, the way that it really is. The good news is that with Lee’s shows and other shows that are on the air and other content being created on the internet, finally finally finally we’re in the dawn of a new age where American-made film and television content is beginning to reflect the diversity—and I hate to use that word but there’s no other word for it—and eclecticism that we all know exists and actually enjoy daily.

Photo credit: Tommy Garcia/FOX
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On How the Power of Music Drives the Story in Star

It’s interesting to note the chronology of how things have unfolded. We shot this pilot a year ago, December. That was at a time when there was seemingly weekly if not daily depictions of police violence, the rise of Black Lives Matter, the public outcry of these needless shootings and killings that were happening, which Lee in his own words likes to say seem like it was bringing us to the point of near-Civil War. I think he was unabashedly political in the pilot, in covering a lot of different issues. And I think he has since in the wake of the presidential election decided to back off of the heavy politicism of the storylines and recognize that at this time what we need is entertainment. So he’s still going to be Lee Daniels, because he’s gonna be who he is and he’ll continue to provoke and push those hot button issues that are being discussed at the national level, but I think he’s gonna be more subtle about it and recognizing that it is the music within the show that will carry us forward. As it always has been in any culture, music is the final redemptive art form that not only provides inspiration but a kind of spiritual ascendency.

Star premiered on Fox December 14, 2016 and will air new episodes again in 2017.