Kicking off the evening festivities at Saturday’s inaugural EW Fest, Empire stars Taraji P. Henson and Jussie Smollett took the stage by storm. Their characters might currently be at odds on the show, but the actors are anything but.
Moderated by EW’s Tim Stack, the panel, which you can watch above, took things back to the auditioning process for the hit show, for which Smollett remembered how he DM’d Empire creator Lee Daniels on Instagram before the casting process because he was so passionate about the role of Jamal Lyon. He also remembered the moment that Henson spoke up, claiming that she and costar Terrence Howard wouldn’t do the show if Daniels didn’t cast Smollett. “I kinda meant it,” Henson joked.
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But Smollett wasn’t the only cast member that Henson went to bat for. Henson has spoken previously that she knew Howard had to play Lucious. “I just knew it had to be him and I was willing not to do it,” she said during the panel. “I know that we have that relationship. We trust each other.”
As for Henson herself, she was hesitant to get back into the television genre. “Television to me always felt like a caged little box,” she said. “By that I mean, to me, it always felt like a genre for the writers. I’m like a true artist, I need to be free. Don’t cage me. Let me breathe. Art is supposed to be free.”
But when Henson, who was doing theater work at the time, got the script for Empire, she chose the project because she knew that “this could kill my career. I only choose projects that scare the s–t out of me because I know in some way it’s going to change me. “
As to how Cookie has changed her, Henson said that Cookie Lyon is more like her alter ego. “She’s my Sasha Fierce,” she joked.
For Smollett, he said the show has affected him because “it’s allowed me to allow people in just a little bit more. It’s made me walk in my truth.” Smollett then compared his career to Jamal’s. “In many ways, [we are] going through parallel journeys, except he’s a billionaire. I’m a hundred thousandaire baby,” he joked, adding, “There was a time when I was a one-inaire so this is a huge deal.“
Other highlights from the panel include:
- Talking about how the cast visits Howard’s house on the weekends (and play spades every Saturday), Henson and Smollett spoke about how “sensitive” Howard is if they don’t come over (or stay long). The last time the two visited, they ended up falling asleep, and when Howard woke up at 3 a.m., he called Smollett wanting to know where they went. “Home!” they both said in unison.
- The song “You’re So Beautiful,” which has been featured on the show, was written by Smollett for co-star Gabourey Sidibe. “We were just talking and joking about how dope Gabby is. She’s so funny. She’s so confident. She’s so sexy. [But] everybody needs to hear every once in a while you’re so beautiful, So we wrote it about Gabby.”
- When asked what other character they’d like to play on the show, Henson said “Jussie, because I’d like to sing like that,” to which Smollett responded: “Cookie, because I’d have an ass like that. Cookie cakes are so real.” (In reality, he’d love to play Lucious …but only if Howard were to play Jamal)
- Smollett promised an album in the summer of 2016.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.