If, as the saying goes, your empire is how they will remember you, then Wendy Calhoun is pretty much set.
The Dallas native is co-executive producer and writer for Fox's megahit Empire, which is slaying ratings records. The show was renewed for a second season after only its second episode.
Rather than the normal slide, the ratings have gone up each week, winning last Wednesday with a season high of 14.2 million viewers for its ninth episode. The show has quickly produced one of the most unforgettable characters to grace the small screen: Taraji P. Henson's "Cookie."
"I think everyone felt that Cookie, she leapt off the page," Calhoun says. "You knew that was going to be the thing that grabbed people's attention."
And if anyone can call a winner, Calhoun can. She was nominated for two Writers' Guild awards for Nashville and Justified, both bona fide hits, and she was a producer for Revenge. When she heard about Empire, she wanted in. Who wouldn't? Empire was co-created by filmmaker Lee Daniels (Precious and The Butler) and writer Danny Strong (The Butler; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay).
"I was producing a show called Nashville in Nashville and a friend sent me the pilot script for Empire," Calhoun says. "I remember reading it early, early, early one morning ... before I had to go to the set of Nashville and thinking, 'Oh, my gosh. I would loooove to write this show.' ... And I went for it. It wasn't a reactive thing whatsoever. I actually, like a laser beam, decided that I want to do this show."
Her "blind gumption" and her talent are homegrown. She's an alumna of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and she's quite proud of it. The school has produced its share of luminaries, including Erykah Badu, Nora Jones, Edie Brickell and many more. According to Calhoun, there's a good reason.
"It was a complete, wonderful training ground to be a producer in the sense that you got to do everything if you wanted to," she says of her time at the arts magnet. "It was perfect for me. I needed the smorgasbord."
That smorgasbord wasn't by accident, according to Nedra P. James, who was one of Calhoun's teachers.
"The curriculum kind of dictated that," James says by phone, referring to classes in acting and technical theater. "She had that going into the game. ...That was our goal.
"The curriculum was an intensive artistic journey. And she came in like gangbusters," James says, adding: "One of the things I really clearly remember about her is that as a freshman, she was cast in a major production in a major role. She excelled in all that she did."
So it was not a surprise that Calhoun went to New York University and then to California, starting out as a script reader and assistant to two agents. She's been busy plying her craft since.
What that experience in Dallas "gave me, when I got to Hollywood, was a certain sort of confidence, always a quiet confidence," Calhoun says. It was "a just-keep-trying kind of thing. Hollywood is a place where you can die of encouragement."
To Calhoun, Dallas is "a place that really supports the arts and supports young people wanting to explore the arts. It's not something that's thought of as secondary. ...It's actually celebrated as something of value in society."
She's obviously fond of her hometown, for more reasons than just visiting her family of high achievers - her brother is a pilot who ferries heads of state and CEOs. She even stopped by the school she credits with helping her find success.
"I got to walk around the new facility," she says. "It's amazing. When I took play-writing, we wrote in what we called the rat room, which was this windowless room which about 10 of us could fit in behind the seats in the old auditorium."
She continues, laughing a bit: "Now they have a wonderful writing lab there, and they have windows."
The facility didn't matter. James cites other star alumni from her 29 years at the school: singer-actress Kisha Grandy; jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove; actor Cedric Neal; and Guinea Bennett-Price, a co-founder of Soul Rep Theatre Company.
"That was talent that created no matter what we had," James continues. "They were thirsty, hungry. They got fed and went into the world."
It's no wonder that Calhoun feels a responsibility to carry the name as well as a responsibility to fellow writers of color, of which there are six in the writers' room at Empire. This lends an authenticity to the dialogue not often heard on TV and an affirmation of worth not always felt.