In your memoir, A Curious Mind, you describe decades of “curiosity conversations” with luminaries from Beyoncé to Edward Teller. Is it hard to get on their schedules?
Mostly, they suggest that they come to me. But I’d be willing to go anywhere. The only rule I have is that I don’t like to do it with food involved. I don’t like anyone to eat while we’re doing it. As they’re eating, their blood sugar is changing, and you find these sort of peaks and valleys when you’re eating.
You interrupted Jennifer Lopez singing you a Spanish ballad to take Oprah’s call. How can less connected people sate their curiosity?
I wasn’t always a well-known producer. I was someone who could grovel and write good letters. You don’t have to meet with Jonas Salk to understand something about medicine, or Jeff Bezos to understand something about technology and economy and packaging. You can meet people who live within the constellation of these people.
Has any conversation made you want to change careers?
Yeah. The more I’ve gotten to know Charlie Rose, who is uniquely exceptional at interviewing people, there’s part of me that wishes I could do that. He’s a purist–he’s genuinely curious.
Is there anything that doesn’t interest you?
At one time in my life, architecture. But then I met Rem Koolhaas, and I went 180 degrees in the other direction when he stated how humanistic it was. But what am I not interested in at all? Things that are absent humanity. Great tools of technology actually enhance humanity.
How has the Internet changed curiosity?
I don’t think there’s any real replacement for actually meeting with somebody. The physics change. You’re at a place that you never would have imagined emotionally. You can’t do that on the Internet. Nor can you have sex [with] the Internet.
Your movies’ protagonists are complicated men. Is it hard for you to conceive a woman’s point of view?
Yes. I love women, and I love women in movies. It’s just that I’m not a woman, and I don’t have the same emotional issues as a woman. I think in order to make good movies, you have to be as close to the truth as possible. The truth is usually best understood from self-awareness, and my self-awareness is limited when it comes to women.
You produce Empire. What accounts for its runaway success?
I think people just love the soap opera, the drama of family. It deals with basic things like greed and jealousy. Those things just make it really juicy and create unexpected emotion.
It has a more fundamental appeal than being about race.
I think it’s leastly about race. That is so secondary in the show. I don’t think we really deal with racial politics much. We deal with cultural politics, like homosexuality. We deal with coming out, or not coming out. Empire didn’t have to be black, really, at all.
24, which you also produced, is an era-defining show. But some critics said it made Americans more amenable to torture.
I don’t think we made it O.K. at all. I think we just stated it was going on. Ultimately, Jack Bauer was a wish-fulfillment character–the guy that we wished we could be when we saw political injustices or terrorism, either in our country or other countries.
Spiked hair is your visual signature. Have you ever worried that nature might make the look impossible?
I’ve had it for 20 years. And 10 or 12 years ago, I totally freaked out. I went to my barber and a series of doctors to wonder: Is my hairline receding? And it wasn’t. But only in time did I realize, Oh, I guess it didn’t happen.
This appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of TIME.
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