The Fox drama series Empire is undoubtedly a hit, with a second season already locked in. Whether it’s the ruthless but damaged Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), his brash and fearless ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), or any of their three sons – Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) or Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) – all battling with each other to take over the family business, Empire Entertainment, there is more than enough drama to go around and to keep everyone talking until the next episode. And to top it all off, the show is filled with some amazing music that you’ll keep singing, long after.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor/singer Jussie Smollett talked about how he got involved with Empire, only recently realizing just how much people are responding to this show, cutting up his unemployment card now that they’ve been picked up for Season 2, what he sees is the key to the show’s success, what it’s been like to work with Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, his responsibility to always tell the truth of his character, the intense family dynamics, why Jamal is more like Lucious than anyone, what Jamal’s perfect world would look like, and his hope that his own music will speak for itself. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did you get involved with Empire?
JUSSIE SMOLLETT: I read the script and I automatically fell in love with Jamal. The way that it happened was that my brothers, my sisters and I text message each other, all the time, and we have group text message threads. My older sister, who’s a producer, sent the link on the thread about Lee Daniels and Danny Strong doing this show. So, of course, I called up my manager acting indignant, and they said, “Dude, chill out! You’ve got it. Here’s the script. We’re already working on it. Let us know what role you want to try out for.” And then, I read it and was like, “Duh! Seriously?! We all know that I need to go out for Jamal.” I immediately went on Instagram and I direct messaged Lee Daniels, who I had never met. I said, “I know that you get this all the time, but I’m a singer / actor / songwriter / dancer. I am Jamal Lyon, in more ways than one.” I don’t even know why I jumped on and did that, but I did. It was one of those things you do, where you have no expectations. But, he wrote me back and said, “Casting will be in touch.” By the time that he wrote me back, I already had an audition the very next day. So, I went in and saw his sister, who is the casting director that casts all of his projects, and I sang “Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill. And then, I went back in to meet Lee and I sang again. And then, he brought me back again. I went in seven times. It was the most beautiful and hellacious casting process you could imagine.
When you read the script for the pilot, and even when you were actually working on the show, you had to have had the sense that you were a part of something special, but you couldn’t have ever imagined that the show would hit in the way that it has and that audiences would be responding in the way that they have been. How did you realize that people were really responding to this show?
SMOLLETT: That honestly did not hit me until about two weeks ago. I was dealing with family situations, so I was all stuff in that. That really kept me ground, and I wasn’t able to experience the craziness and the hoopla around the premiere. But, you never really know. You work hard and you pray, and you do something where you know the energy around the project is right, but you never really know if it’s going to hit and resonate with audiences the way that it has. Some of the greatest films and television have only been seen by the people that make them. And some of the greatest music is only heard by the people who make it. You really never know, but I guess the stars were aligned, or my daddy was up there, making moves. Something was really special about it. We love making this project, so much. The fact that anybody loved it, even a quarter of the amount that we love making it, is really special. But it didn’t hit me until about a couple of weeks ago, when I went into Whole Foods and there was a truck full of women who were like, “Jamal!” It took me forever to get out of there because they could not figure out how to use their camera phones. That’s when I was like, “There’s something different about this situation.”
Do you find that the fans you come across feel very protective of Jamal?
SMOLLETT: He’s an underdog, but he’s also very strong. He’s not weak, and that makes you want to protect him even more. I love Jamal. I’d be friends with him.
As much as I love this show, it’s also exciting to know that the success of this show might open the door for the next different, original, amazing project that might not have otherwise been able to happen.
SMOLLETT: As an artist, you sometimes feel that it’s all been done. I love the fact that what this show shows is that that’s actually not true. It hasn’t all been done. There is so much more ground to break, and there are so many more envelopes to push. For that, it’s really, really, really special. It really is. I’m just overwhelmed and excited and beautifully exhausted. It’s phenomenal.
How exciting is it, as an actor, to know that you already have a second season, before the first season even finishes airing, especially when you’re in a business that doesn’t always have the best job security?
SMOLLETT: I cut up my unemployment card! And I was praying when I cut it up! I was like, “Do not make me have to wait six weeks until they reissue it!” But, the job security is great. I’m definitely happy and blessed beyond measure. I wasn’t expecting to be picked up after Episode 2. I was thinking we’d have to wait until the season was over. I called up my mom to tell her. So far, so good. It’s been a great ride.
What do you think the key to this show’s success is?
SMOLLETT: I think that the It Factor is Taraji P. Henson. That’s our It Factor. Everybody comes to see Cookie, and then hopefully they stay because we’re good enough. I give all praises to Taraji and Terrence [Howard] and Lee Daniels. Lee and Danny Strong have created something so truthful. In this day and age, with all of the things that are happening politically and socially, something is reawakening us, as a people, to be more conscious and more aware, and not complacent and apathetic. What we’re doing is pushing the envelope, but we’re telling stories that matter and are truthful, and we’re doing it in a very non-judgmental, non-preachy and entertaining way. When you mix all of that together, and then you add the music of Team Timbaland and the music that legitimately can stand on its own, even if Empire didn’t exist, this music could be released and people would be feeling it. All of those things come into play. It’s a universal story of human experiences, and that’s what people want to see.
What’s it been like for you to work with Taraji P. Henson?
SMOLLETT: I just feel blessed, every single day that I get to go to work and call Taraji and Terrence my co-stars. Even more so, I feel blessed to call them friends. They’re such genuine people, and unselfish artists. These are artists that are at the top of their game. They’re still releasing #1 films, and they’re Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-nominated. These are the type of artists that I grew up idolizing. So, to be able to breathe the same air as them is great because they’re so unselfish. And they genuinely want us, who are coming under them, to be the best that we can be. Aside from that, Taraji and Terrence are just crazy as shit, and I love them. They’re just dope people to be around. When the cameras stop rolling, my love for them does not stop. They’re so real and so genuine. I just love them, and I’m so blessed to be able to work with them. I keep saying that, if Samuel L. Jackson and Bette Davis could have a baby, it would be Taraji P. Henson. To me, she’s one of the greatest character actors of our generation, let alone leading ladies. She’s just phenomenal, in everything she does.
The family dynamics for Jamal are such an important and heartbreaking part of the show, with one parent accepting him regardless of his sexuality while the other parent throws that disapproval in his face. Why do you think Cookie accepts Jamal in a way that his father doesn’t seem to be able to?
SMOLLETT: She’s his mom. I believe that there’s a certain level of love that a mother has that just can’t be duplicated by anybody. Cookie is also the champion of the underdog. Cookie is one that believes that she can take anybody the same way that she took Lucious, who at that point in his life, was the underdog. He’s a black man in west Philadelphia. All of the odds, by society’s standards were against him, and yet she was able to inspire him, pick him up by his bootstraps, and really make him who he became. Now, she has another opportunity to do that with her son. He’s a son who shares the drive and hustle of Lucious, and yet shares the heart of her. That’s really a bonding moment. He’s the only one who’s come and visited her, all throughout those 17 years while she was in prison. Jamal is her best friend. So, it’s more than just protecting her son. It’s also having her best friend back. It’s pretty incredible because it’s almost a love story between a mother and her son.
As much as we love this show, the characters and the music, acceptance for who you are is a serious issue and really speaks to a lot of people who have had similar experiences. Knowing that the storyline is inspired by Lee Daniels’ relationship with his own father, do you ever feel an extra weight or responsibility, in playing that aspect of the role?
SMOLLETT: No, I don’t. I feel the weight of just telling the truth. There really is no weight to telling the truth. It’s a little scary sometimes, but if you tell the truth, you don’t have to be looking over your shoulder. You don’t have to do any of that type of stuff. Lee Daniels is notorious, and so famous and legendary, for telling the truth, the good, the bad and the horrible. I so look up to him. He’s one of my biggest mentors, and he’s become one of my best friends and like a second father. If he’s brave enough to tell this story that happened to him, the least I can do is tell it in a truthful way, and be honest to the character and to the situation. We’ve all gone through it. It’s a universal story. There’s not one human being on the planet earth who has never felt, at some point, unaccepted. At some point in our lives, we feel like we’re not good enough, but we have to step back and realize that we are. So, it’s not a weight. I’ve talked to Lee in depth, and all he expects of me is to tell the truth. I’m down for that.
Jamal has ended up in a very unexpected situation, with Olivia showing up with a child she says is his. What does Raven-Symoné bring to the show?
SMOLLETT: First of all, Raven is one of my best friends in the whole world, and has been for eight years. I’ve known her since she was four and I was six. It’s such a blessing to be able to work with one of your dear friends. To be able to tell this type of story and work with her in this type of situation is even more interesting. She’s just bringing that fabulousness that is Raven-Symoné. The fun thing is that you’ve never seen Raven quite like this.
What can you say about the growth of the relationship between the three Lyon brothers. We’ve seen Jamal really be there for Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) on more than one occasion, but we haven’t seen much between Jamal and Andre (Trai Byers). Will we see more of both of those relationships?
SMOLLETT: You will. In Episode 109, one of the scenes that is one of my favorite scenes that we shot, the entire season, is with Hakeem, Jamal and Andre. It really tells a backstory of who they were and how they came to be who they are. Jamal and Andre have not said a word to each other since the pilot, so I’m glad that I got to work with these two incredible actors. Brotherhood is so important to me because I’m so close to my brothers. Being able to tell this story is dope. You’ll see a backstory, you’ll see where they come from and why they have issues, and you’ll be able to understand them more and see that they’re all victims, in this situation. Any person that has a father named Lucious Lyon are victims, trust me.
In order to survive in a business that is as ruthless as the one that this family is in, do you think Jamal will have to change who he is, to a certain degree?
SMOLLETT: He’s growing and it’s his journey. You’ll see a change, but you’ll also see that he’s more like Lucious than anyone – the good, the bad and the ugly. He’s shied away from that so long, and it’s a little heartbreaking to watch. He said, “I don’t want to become my father,” but it’s in the stars. What can you do?
What do you think Jamal’s perfect world would look like? Would he be happy with a successful career in music, does he want his father’s unconditional love, or does he have his eye on taking over this company?
SMOLLETT: That’s a good question. Damn you for asking a good question and not the same questions! I think Jamal is a perfect hybrid of Cookie and Lucious. He is coming into his own, and he’s figuring that out. He doesn’t yet know exactly what he wants, but that’s the journey of Jamal. That is what we’ll see. It becomes a thing where he has something to prove. And then, it becomes a thing where he’s a man and he realizes that he actually doesn’t have anything to prove, except to be who he is. But, I do think that he’s starting to realize that what he thought he didn’t want is actually what he does want. He was just scared. He was scared of the scrutiny that comes with that, and scared of the eyes that will be on him. He’s been told, his entire life, that who he is, is not good enough. He doesn’t know if the public will accept him, so it’s better to just stay away. Now, he’s coming into his own and he just doesn’t care. He’s going to do what he wants to do. That is his strength, and that’s when Lucious really has no choice but to respect him.
Is being a part of something like this, with the music side of it and having a music background yourself, does it change how you want to approach your own music, or does it reinforce what you’ve always wanted to do?
SMOLLETT: It reinforces what I’ve wanted to do, my entire life, it just remixes the opportunity and the way that I go about doing it. It just reinforces what I’ve always wanted to do.
Do you worry about people not separating your own musical identity from the character’s?
SMOLLETT: Nah, I’m not concerned with that. Honestly, that doesn’t concern me, in the least. I could care less. If the music doesn’t speak for itself, then that’s it. But, I feel like the music does speak for itself. Jamal is very much like me, and Jamal is very different from me. Me releasing my music, if anything, is an opportunity to show the world my stories and tell the world my stories. Jamal is very much like me, in the sense that he’s a very autobiographical songwriter, and I am, as well. It will be fun, interesting and a challenge to share my personal stories, as opposed to Jamal’s. We have some of the same stories, and we have some different stories. It will be exciting. I just try not to worry about that type of stuff. I try to let the universe and God do their thing.
Empire airs on Wednesday nights on Fox.