Empire, Pepsi team up: Lee Daniels previews Jussie Smollett's new campaign as Jamal Lyon
Following in the footsteps of Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and more, Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) is taking center stage in his first Pepsi commercial.
The advertisement, which airs during the winter finale of Empire, will live outside of the hip-hop drama as well and was directed by series co-creator Lee Daniels. Daniels will guest-star as himself on next week’s episode, titled, “Sinned Against,” stepping behind the camera as Jamal gears up to become the next Pepsi spokesperson, and EW has your exclusive first look at his upcoming appearance.
EW caught up with the Oscar-nominated director on location at the New York Transit Museum, where he admitted that the song chosen for the commercial, “Ready To Go,” was an “unconventional” choice. But even though the track, created by Swizz Beatz, might be “very un-Pepsi,” it received the seal of approval from two of Daniels’ toughest critics: his children.
“My kids are the answer,” Daniels tells EW. “They know the heartbeat of what’s out there in the streets. So even though everybody around the table was scratching their heads — everybody — my kids said, ‘Dad, this is the song.’ So I said, ‘Well, this is the song.’”
Fox announced Pepsi as an official sponsor of the breakout hit ahead of its season 2 debut, but, according to Daniels, crafting the commercial was no easy task. (And he wasn’t too keen on the idea at first.)
“First of all, [I thought], ‘How do I do this in an organic way that doesn’t make Empire look like the sell-out?’ That’s important — to seem like it was seamless and it was honest and that the world of Pepsi was a world that we hadn’t seen before,” Daniels says. “How do I genuinely make that world, and would [fans] really buy it? And that we don’t know yet,” he adds with a laugh.
While Jamal’s career continues to reach new heights, Empire‘s sophomore season has focused on some timely political issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the family struggles — inspired by Daniels’ own life — that fans of the show have come to expect. (If you haven’t caught up yet, there’s still time.) And asthe Fox hit prepares to air its final episodes before a long winter hiatus, Daniels reveals the story line he’s most excited about is the one surrounding Cookie’s family and Lucious’ family, since it explores the origin stories of the infamous duo (which could also make for a good spin-off, right?).
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“I have to talk about the things that are affecting me in my life right now. Oftentimes, they’re politically incorrect to talk about. And my life has changed since Empire has happened. So I have to figure out: How do I continue to tell my story?” Daniels says. “Right now, my story is: How does one that comes from poverty — I was always an artist and I made an okay living — but, how is it when you’re making a little bit of money? How does it affect the people around you and the family members that are around you that are still where you came from? And how are you navigating [all of that]? I try to infuse that into the Lyon family. So a lot of it we’ll see this season is really true stuff about the experiences I’m going through with my family.”
For example, “When do you stop giving people money? When do you stop feeling guilty? Do you feel guilty? What is your obligation to your family? In the African-American community, there’s a sense of obligation and commitment to family. But then you can be taken advantage of, so where’s the fine line? We find out through this season — a lot of it has to do with Lucious’ past and his family coming in, and Cookie’s past and her family. It’s something that my celebrity friends of mine that are African-American certainly deal with daily. That’s a part of it, too; not just social issues but personal issues, too. I can only write about my experience.”
But Daniels’ next big project, Star, offers up a side of him that has yet to be explored. Star — announced at this year’s Television Critics’ Association press tour — follows the rise of a girl group based in Atlanta. Inspired by his own experiences starting out in Hollywood, the musical pilot shines a light on “what one does to succeed.” And there might be a crossover possibility with Empire.
“We haven’t talked about it. I go back and forth about whether to bring it up because they’re two separate entities and they’re two completely separate worlds. But anything is possible, you know?”
Check out the exclusive new images ahead of next week’s episode — available above — which is also set to feature an appearance by Alicia Keys as Skye Summers. Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.