The film marks the first time that the Great American Gangster Story has been told by a Latino writer-director and portrayed by Latino leading men.
Empire is a story in which the dangerous streets of the South Bronx and Wall Street collide. Reyes tells the story with vivid, compelling details in this debut offering from Arenas Entertainment, the first major Latino film label in Hollywood. The Universal Pictures-based Arenas acquires, produces, finances, markets and distributes films tailored to Hispanic audiences worldwide.
Empire is the story of Victor Rosa, played by Leguizamo, a charismatic young Latino Gangster who holds money above everything and fancies himself a self-made entrepreneur a' la Rockefeller and Bill Gates. But Victor's domain is a successful "street pharmaceutical" business, built around a customized heroin mixture he has dubbed "Empire". After a violent street war with Tito Severe, played by Fat Joe, turns deadly, Victor considers a deal to get out of the drug business. He is offered a safe haven into legitimate business, where clean money and a sophisticated Soho lifestyle await. Unfortunately, as he tries to buy his way out, Victor finds the old ties are not so easy to break and that the price of going legit is much higher than he ever could have imagined.
Writer-director Reyes talks about his motivation for Empire, "I began writing the screenplay during a very difficult period in my life. We were coming out of the whole crack epidemic in the early '90's, and people were losing their lives to drugs or for drugs. Some of them were friends of mine."
Empire is personal in many ways to Reyes and he believes that as a Latino it is his responsibility to tell the story in all of its complexity. "I saw many people like Victor Rosa as I was growing up," he continued. "The lifestyle of a drug dealer can absolutely be glamorous, as well as violent and risky. It was important for me to show all aspects with truth and accuracy. Victor's struggles within his world, and the sacrifices he must ultimately make to get out, make for a passionate and real story."
But Reyes doesn't just show the dark side. He also wanted to highlight the unique Latino culture in this community and get beyond stereotypes of the ghetto for a balance portrayal. "What I wanted to show people was not so much dirt and grit because that's not what the ghetto was to me. To me it was family," he said.
Empire writer-director Reyes began his career as a dancer and choreographer. In 1984, he made his screen debut in the hip-hop classic Beat Street, produced by Harry Belafonte and David V. Picker. Soon after, Reyes wrote his first script, The Headliners. He also continued his dance career, becoming a top New York choreographer and staging shows for leading dance music artists of the time.
In 1990, Reyes tried his hand at writing songs for some of these artists. By 1992, he had written two Top 10 singles, Lisette Melendez's "Together Forever" and "A Day In My Life Without You" for Def Jam/Columbia Records. He also wrote the #1 Billboard dance hit, Corina's "Temptation" for Atco/Atlantic Records. He soon established King Reyes Music and signed a partnership deal with E.M.I. publishing.
In 1993, Reyes was asked to stage the club sequences for Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, and his return to film drew him back to screenwriting. He wrote a succession of screenplays including In the Deep South, which was produced as a 35mm short. Reyes directed this story of political corruption in the South Bronx, which starred Jon Seda (Selena, Price of Glory) and Lauren Velez (I Like It Like That, New York Undercover). He has written three additional feature-length scripts and several songs for accompanying soundtracks. His next project is Ceramic Life, a feature film he will write, direct, produce and score.
Leguizamo has exhibited his extensive talent in film, television and theater. His award-winning performances cross many genres, including comedy, drama, action adventure and psychological thriller. Leguizamo moved with his family to New York when he was four. Accepted into Lee Strasberg's actors' studio he studied with the master for one day before Strasberg died. After studying acting at NYU, he began his career as a stand-up comic. Parts in numerous films followed, including the role of Miss Ch-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, for which he won a Golden Globe award, and Tybalt in Baz Luhrman's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. He played the diminutive artist Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Other film credits include Carlito's Way, Casualities of War, and Regarding Henry. He has appeared on the New York stage in A Midsummer's Night Dream and La Puta Vida, both at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Leguizamo became an Off-Broadway sensation in 1999 with his one man show, Mambo Mouth, which won him an Obie and several other awards.
Fat Joe was raised in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood not unlike the one depicted in Empire. He was introduced to rap music by his older brother Angel and with his 1993 single "Flow Joe" (a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart), Fat Joe became one of the first Puerto Rican emcees to achieve mass success. He has five successful albums to his credit Represent, Jealous One's Envy, Don Cartagena and Terror Squad. His 2001 CD, Jealous One's Still Envy (JOSÉ), is his first to go platinum. His latest CD is entitled Loyalty. Using his business knowledge, Fat Joe formed his own entertainment company Mystic Entertainment, and production company, Terror Squad Productions. Additional film credits include Prison Song, Thicker Than Water and Blazin'.
Arenas Entertainment and Universal Pictures present Empire, a drama written and directed by Reyes and produced by Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailefrof Bigel/Mailer Films (Black and White, Two Guys and a Girl). Robert B. Campbell is the executive producer and Evan Lamberg and Steven C. Beer are co-executive producers. The impressive international cast also includes Isabella Rossellini, Sonia Braga, Peter Sarsgaard, Denise Richards, Vincent Laresca, Nestor Serrano, Delilah Cotto and musical talent-turned actor Treach.
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