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What can you expect in season 5 of Empire? Well, nothing crazy, just something that’s “never been done on television.”
The declaration comes courtesy of star Jussie Smollett, who can’t hide his giddiness over what he and showrunner Brett Mahoney are saying is a reset of the hit Fox drama. “This season is probably the best yet, because it grounds us in a way that we haven’t been able to be since season 1,” shares Smollett, who portrays the soulful Jamal Lyon. “I think it’s just incredible.”
Ahead of Empire‘s season 5 premiere, EW chatted with Smollett about the show’s renewed sense of energy, his “groundbreaking” storyline, and The Lion King.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s crazy that you guys are in season 5 at this point…
JUSSIE SMOLLETT: I know, it’s so psychotic.
How are you feeling about where the show is at?
I feel excited. There’s a new energy. Somehow it feels like a reset, which is exciting for us. We’ve been playing these characters, when you really get down to it, not that long, but it seems like it’s been forever with the success of the show. But—in my opinion—this season is probably the best yet, because it grounds us in a way that we haven’t been able to be since season 1.
At the end of season 4, showrunner Brett Mahoney also referred to season 5 as a reset, so you can clearly feel that this early on?
Definitely. For instance, I tend to not really comment on Jamal’s love life or anything like that because I never really know where it’s going to go. We broke new ground in season 1 and I think that’s undebatable. And then it’s kind of like, “What do you do now?” And I think that this season we found a way to break new ground and do something that has never been done on television before and kind of speak about and to the people that I represent and that I care about so deeply. I’m trying not to give too much away because there’s so much that I want to say! But, the storyline specifically for Jamal and his love life and just his life in general, I love playing this part of Jamal.
Last season ended with Jamal off to London after the death of Tori (Rumer Willis). Brett said Jamal would have to reassess who he is and how he fits in with the Lyons. So how has that journey informed him?
He’s grown now. When I was 20 years old, I went and lived in London and I was performing and recording, and I’m telling you, when you go away, if you ever have that opportunity, it doesn’t have to be far, even to your own apartment, there’s a certain sense of perspective and boundaries that you build for yourself. And losing Tori, I think it was an extremely cautionary tale and it really made him look inward and say, “Well, that’s not me, I didn’t get that far, but I could and I could have.” You’ve also got to remember that we’re starting two years forward, so where he’s been, the things he’s been through, the relationship that he’s been in, which is very healthy, he’s grown and he’s a grown man. He’s got his full mane. He’s a grown ass Lyon. He’s Simba after Simba was hanging out with Timon and Pumbaa.
You mentioned it’s been two years, but is he still dealing with the grief of losing Tori and also the worry about his own addiction?
Tori ended up being one of his closest friends and being that they met in a place trying to kick the very addiction that took her, I think being Jamal and as sensitive and emotional as he is, but also as strong and loyal as he is, I don’t think that’s something he would necessarily get over. But I do think that it’s something that inspired him. That’s why he had to get away, he found a way to turn it into an inspiration versus something that keeps him down. We can go either way, but anyone who knows anything about addiction is that it’s not something that you just flip a switch off and it’s just done with. It’s something that you think about and is with you forever. You can take it and use it as one of your strengths, if it’s something you’ve gotten over. And just talking to so many people who thrive and survive and also suffer and deal with addiction, I think it’s something that will definitely drive him — we see that.
Season 4 also ended with Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious (Terrence Howard) getting married, which I assume means everything is suddenly completely chill and happy and calm, right?
You know, you’d be surprised though. Cookie and Lucious are okay, they just don’t got no damn money! That’s what I mean by a reset. Also, we see them in real time doing what we fell in love with them doing via the flashbacks in the previous seasons of them creating when they had nothing. Now we see them as who we love now, but they are back to that, having nothing, her helping him create music, and having to create their company from scratch. Now they’re doing it all over again and they’re doing it together. So actually, Cookie and Lucious, the fans don’t even need to worry about that, they all right. Believe it or not, Cookie and Lucious have the most sane relationship of us all.
That’s even more impressive considering it’s been two years since we last saw them.
I mean, they ain’t got no damn money, what are they going to do? [Laughs] They stuck together. But also, I’ve said this for so long and I now that we got it right. What we love about Empire is the family element of it, and all that inner turmoil is still there but the family is not fighting each other. There are way too many people out there to fight that they’re actually not fighting each other. That doesn’t mean there’s not arguments or drama, but they’re actually together as a family unit and that’s what I love and that’s why I’m most excited.
I can sense the excitement from you about the show, so does that mean you feel like there’s a lot of life left in the show? Or do you think you’re more in the home stretch?
What the hell you heard? [Laughs]. No, I think it feels like… Let’s get this straight, I’m in it with Jamal for the long run. Obviously it would be up to the network, but I still do feel like we have good wattage in us, because it ain’t been that damn long. But I do think that our stories are firm and grounded. And I definitely would say that I want us to dip out while we’re still telling great stories. My whole thing is this, as long as we’re telling great stories and we’re able to entertain the fans and as long as we’re still excited about doing it then we’ll go. But I think all of us are smart and all of us are artists and all of us will know when the time is right to be, “Alright y’all, it’s time for the Lyons to sleep.” But that time is not now, not with season 5 on the horizon.
That’s good to hear because you definitely have me intrigued about season 5.
Pay attention to Jamal’s storyline this year, man, it’s going to be groundbreaking. You ain’t gonna see anything like it. I will say this, it’s never been done on television. You’ve never seen two black men in this way.
Empire returns Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.