Wednesday night’s episode was a pivotal one for Empire’s most poignant storyline: the tempestuous relationship between homophobic Lucious (Terrence Howard) and gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett). Aspiring singer Jamal defied his father and came out at the White Party by covering one of Lucious’ most famous songs and changing the lyrics.
For Smollett, the experience of playing Jamal has been incredibly rewarding. EW sat down on the set a few weeks ago with the actor for an emotional interview about this incredible role.
EW: How did you get involved in this? Did you audition? Did you read the script and loved it? How did this all come about?
SMOLLETT: All of the above. My older sister, Jazz, sent this link saying that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong were developing this show. It was a link in Variety or Hollywood Reporter, one of the traits. And I immediately called up my manager and said, “I have to do this.”
So I immediately jumped on Instagram and I direct messaged Lee Daniels and I said, “I know that you get this all the time, but I sing, I act, I dance, I write music; I’m a musician. I am Jamal Lyon in more ways than one.” I wasn’t expecting him to look at it, but I knew that I was going to get an audition. And he responded the night before my audition and said, “Casting will be in touch. Peace.” That’s all he said.
So I met him that following Monday and after I was done singing for him he said, “You direct messaged me.” And I said, “Yes I did.” And he said, “You’re a smart little kitten.” [Laughs] And I said, “Thank you sir.” But he took me through the ringer to make sure that I was the one for Jamal. I went in seven different times. He made me sing for my life.
Why this script?
It’s such a script that carries so much heart and carries so much truth. I keep saying this, that this is the Lee Daniels’ way. I think that any actor, any artist period, would love to work with an artist like Lee Daniels. Because what he and Danny Strong have done by creating this show, is really, I felt like what they were doing is they weren’t preaching, yet they were getting such important messages out there about acceptance, about sexuality, about mental disorders, but about family. At its core, it’s about family, and family and music, personally, is my life. So, it just told a story that I relate to, and also a story that I want to tell. So, that’s why.
The Jamal and Lucious storyline is very representative of his life and it’s very emotional for him. Was that sort of why he put you through the ringer? Did he tell you—was it because he wanted to make sure that the right person was playing this role?
He wanted to make sure that it was 1000 percent truthful. That it was organic and authentic and real. That’s why Lee has no problem, in the middle of you acting, says, “Your acting—throw it away. Give me less, cut it in half.” That’s the Lee Daniels way, because he’s all about getting to the truth. Sometimes, even the truth that is very ugly that we don’t want to face within ourselves. But I do think that’s why he’s gotten such great performances out of some of the most made up and beautifully perfect artists. He strips them down and holds up a mirror to them and says, “This is what you really look like. Show me.” And it’s brilliant. I love him. We talked a lot about his life and his life growing up and the similarities between our lives growing up and the differences between our lives growing up. We really bonded in a way that I feel that whoever was going to play Jamal had to be able to bond with Lee because at the end of the day, Jamal is so close to Lee’s heart that you had to tell it the way that he saw truthful.
What’s the response been like for you? Do you have people approach you to talk about this storyline?
It makes me wanna cry, it really does. It’s really, really special. [Starts to choke up and cry] As artists, we don’t always get to do the roles that really mean something. To be able to tell this story is such an honor because I get so many letters from kids that say that they didn’t know where to turn, they didn’t have anybody to look up to. Somebody wrote me a letter after the second episode and they said that it gave them the strength to come out to their parents. To me, it’s such a blessing to be able to play Jamal because it’s making people somehow feel like they’re not alone. And growing up, we all feel alone at some point. And if a kid can look at whether you are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, heterosexual, whatever you are, you can see yourself in Jamal. That’s what I love.
You guys keep growing each week in the ratings. Have you been able to enjoy the success?
It hasn’t clicked yet. The other day I went to Whole Foods and bought some chewable Vitamin C and got mobbed by like 15 girls. Today I was seven minutes late to work and I’m never late to work. I have been late to work two times. But a van of women were in Whole Foods and I was there to get my salad for lunch. Literally, they come up and they’re like “Jamal!” And I was late because they had to stay there and try to figure out how to use their camera phones.
I kind of feel like how Michael Jackson must have felt after “Thriller” was out and he had to come out with “Bad.” Here we are through the first season and we’re five months out until we start the second season, and I’m like, “What the hell are y’all gonna do next?” Because it’s going to be very difficult to top this season.
There’s been a lot of talk that Empire is sort of galvanizing Hollywood in terms of promoting more diverse casting. Do you think it’s going to change things?
Yeah, I mean, things are always changing. Not fast enough, but things are changing. We have to realize that we have to give credit where credit is due. A large portion of that change is due to Miss Shonda Rhimes. It’s just a fact. What she did is she truly mixed it up and lent a face of normalcy as to what it is to be a person of color. And Lee had managed to do that in film. The things that he did with Monsters Ball and The Butler and Precious. It’s phenomenal. It only makes sense that Lee would be the one that kind of took us on. It only makes sense that Lee would be the person to join the race, for lack of a better word. But to join the race of changing the face of television. I feel like people like Lee and Shonda Rhimes, they are partners in this race.
Tease the last half of the season—what’s going to be happening with Jamal?
Jamal comes into his own. Jamal fiercely demands respect from Lucious, and in turn, Lucious is given a choice. You will see Jamal grow as a man and, in turn, you will see Lucious grow as a man. That’s all I can really say.
Is there going to be a Jussie Smollett album now?
There will be a Jussie Smollett album. I signed to Columbia. So darling [Laughs] I’m label mates with Beyoncé and Adele and Barbra Streisand.
Will it be Empire music or is it a whole different thing?
It’s going to be a whole different thing. Now, the Empire family will still have something to do with it. I would love for Terrence to come and oversee the production of all of the music. And I would love for Timbaland to come on and Jim Beanz. We’ve all talked and they’re all down to work on it.