An Interview with “Empire” Star Jussie Smollett

Photo Credit: Amanda Demme/FOX
Photo Credit: Amanda Demme/FOX

Season 2 of FOX’s Empire left fans wondering about the fate of the entire Lyon family, including fan favorite, Jamal, fresh out of the hospital from a bullet wound. True to form, the Season 3 premiere, which bowed September 21, did not disappoint. We see Jamal struggling with PTSD in the aftermath of his shooting, Lucious threatening Anika while she’s giving birth to Hakeem’s baby, and Rhonda shattering the glass ceiling a little too literally.

Talk Nerdy With Us was invited to participate in an interview with arguably the most rational member of Empire‘s Lyon family, Jussie Smollett, as he discussed Wednesday’s breathtaking episode, working with Mariah Carey, and his prank war with the cast.

What has LGBT fan reaction been like over the past couple seasons and how do you think it has changed the dynamic of the culture?

I think it’s shown a man trying to make it work and that this is just who he is. I think that it’s shown, from what I’ve seen, that it has, for a lot of people in the LGBTQ community as well as allies of the LGBT, has opened up a conversation and an understanding that everyone knows someone, whether you know it or not. [Empire] doesn’t preach, but I think what we’ve done is hold up a mirror to society while also entertaining them: “Is this you?” Everybody is okay with gay people until they’re in their family. Everybody is okay with integration until your daughter brings home a black man. You know what I’m saying? So, I think what it’s opened up is a very strong conversation about “Who am I? And what is it to you?”

How has it been working with Mariah Carey? Are there any plans to record with her outside of Empire?

It’s perfect. I keep saying this, and I was talking to her the other day just to thank her; she didn’t have to show the incredible amount of support that she has to me personally, but she has. I’m very honored to work with her. And it’s everything. I grew up in the 90s and the 00s when our main go-to vocalists were Whitney and Mariah. Now, to be able to sing with one of these greats is an honor. It’s been wonderful. As far as recording outside the show, I would love to. I think we just have to talk to Mariah and try to figure it out.

What kind of love interests would you like to see for Jamal this season?

(laughs) No, no, no. You’ll just have to watch and see. I will say this: I’m very happy with where Jamal is going. This is the toughest season that I’ve done so far because this season has made me have to do real research. Not just digging inside myself, but real research of PTSD and panic attacks. It’s forced me to do extra work, and I love it. So without giving too much away, I will just say I love where Jamal is.

How are you preparing for your Thanksgiving performance with Mariah?

(laughs) Praying to the Lord a lot! This is the biggest thing that I have ever done, so it’s got to be on point. We’re working hard. I’m working with my creative team and Frank Gatson. We’re going to put on the very best show that we can. I’m preparing. I’ve already started. I flew here to Los Angeles to start preparing already. It’s exciting, and it’s unbelievable because you’re already going to have the Mariah fans there and you have to keep their attention because they’re waiting on Mariah, so that’s what I’m aiming for. So it’ll be great, it’ll be fun.

After all the events of the past season and the season premiere, Jamal getting shot because of Lucious, his PTSD, what can fans expect to see coming up? It seems like Jamal is the anchor here.

When we think of good versus evil, I always say that no one is all bad or all good. Lucious isn’t all bad and Jamal is not all good, but we see this battle between the good and the bad. Last week he finally admitted that he really does have a problem but what comes with that problem is rooted in the family. So in that episode, we saw that he’s tapping into his own awareness and sensitivity of what really is going on in the world. There’s a certain level of guard that he’s had his entire life. I think this season is about the Lyon brothers opening up their eyes to the reality of what is out there, that it’s not just what’s around us immediately. It is something much bigger than us. You saw in this episode that this is the opening of his eyes so to speak.

Do you think Jamal and Lucious will ever reach a point where Lucious accepts and embraces Jamal’s sexuality?

I’m glad that you asked this because it leads me to a slightly bigger point. At this point, I don’t think that it’s necessarily about Jamal’s sexuality. Not to say Lucious is this supportive father and he’s going to join the front lines of PFLAG. I think that they just have a problem with each other because more than anybody they are the most alike. And that is the issue. So this season you’re going to see that it’s not necessarily about the sexuality. It’s so much bigger than that. Will Lucious ever accept his sons? The thing is: we don’t all have to see the world in the same way. Lucious has every right to believe that Jamal being homosexual is wrong. It only becomes wrong when he shits upon Jamal and Jamal’s fundamental freedoms. That’s all. Obviously, Jamal is a bigger picture for the world as a whole. We don’t all have to agree, and that doesn’t make us bad people. It only makes us bad if your belief traipses over my simple basic freedoms and I think that goes for Jamal as well.

Last Wednesday’s episode dealt with Black-on-Black violence. How do you feel about this episode as potentially starting a conversation about violence in the black community and how do you think Jamal feels about that?

I think what [Empire is] able to do in an entertaining way is show a conversation: two very valid views in that conversation, but two views that if joined together could actually be very powerful. Angelo (Taye Diggs) had some good things to say, and Jamal had good things to say, but there has to be common ground found between what they’re both saying. I think there’s a much bigger conversation. My problem is when someone talks about police violence or racial profiling and then someone throws up “Oh, but what about Black-on-Black crime?” These are valid points, but one does not outweigh the other. That’s the conversation that got started. (I’m trying so hard not to give too much away!)

As you play this character, going through these trials and tribulations, are you surprised to find out new things about yourself as a person and actor?

Sure, but I think that that’s a part of the art. Yes, I learn something new about myself every day playing Jamal, but I learned something new about myself as a broke artist before I even knew of anything called Empire. I’m older than Jamal is—not by much, but by enough, like five years—so I’ve been through a lot of what Jamal has been through already. The only thing is now I feel like I’m going through this stuff again because more people are watching me go through them. So it’s a different experience. If I’ve learned anything from playing Jamal, it’s to be as honest and fearless as I possibly can. And while that may not always work in your favor in the short run, in the long run, it will. 

How much input do you have into your character’s music or the music of the show in general?

I only have input in what Jamal does. I wouldn’t stick my nose in certain things. I’m not about to roll up into Yazz’s (Bryshere Gray) session and be like, “Yazz, brother; you got to do it like this!” ‘Cause let him come and try to show me how to do a run. That side has nothing to do with me. But with my music, I’m so blessed, because there’s such a collaborative thing that happens here at Empire, from the acting to the scripts, the writers, and the showrunner, Ilene [Chaiken], and the creators, Danny [Strong] and Lee [Daniels], they’re so collaborative even though the show is so big. That’s why it reads in a real way because it’s so collaborative and that comes across as real.

But a lot of songs, “I Wanna Love You” was written before Empire for my album. “All of the Above,” I wrote and recorded that before Empire, so when Season 1 happened, I was pulling songs I wanted to release on my album and was pitching. On Wednesday’s episode, there’s a song called “Come Undone” which is a song that I wrote four years ago before Empire. So I do have a say, but the team that I’m working with this season is so phenomenal, the whole Darkchild team. Everyone this season has their own team, so everything is tailor-made to that artist, and I love that.

Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night, the fear that Taraji P. Henson is recording you sleeping? (In reference to the ongoing Instagram prank war)

(laughs) Every fucking day. It’s become this thing. The thing is, I am the most brilliant at this. All these other mark-ass bustas on the set think they cute about it. But here’s the thing, bruh: they all got it from me. I’m the original. But the problem is because I’m so good at it, everybody wants to try to get their little shine, their little two minutes by videotaping me. So I’m always on guard, and I get tired! In between takes sometimes, when we’re waiting for a different set, I do fall asleep, so a lot of people over the last couple months since we’ve been back for Season 3 have gotten me. I think Grace [Byers] is posting something on the Empire fan page of when she got me. But that’s alright, because I don’t need to get them with that anymore. I’ll get them in other ways. Watch. Raise my shit up. Raise it up.

How difficult is it being part of such a dramatic onscreen family?

I would think that being a part of the Lyon family would be difficult although it does have its perks. For me, playing a part of the Lyon family is sometimes difficult because the scenes we have to play are so emotional and we genuinely, truly love each other. But the reason it’s not that difficult is because we trust each other in real life and that’s why, again, the show comes across as so real, and you believe us as a family. Good, bad, and ugly, we all genuinely love each other and are like a family. When we get on each others’ nerves, it’s like a family; when we are loving on each other, it’s a like a family. But it’s so… family.

You said in the 90s; we had big stars like Mariah Carey. Why do you think we don’t have any more superstars like her nowadays?

I think every one of these big stars makes their own path. There’s a huge freeway; everybody has their lane. But I actually disagree. I think there are a lot of incredible artists out now that are our generation’s superstars. I think there’s a lot of great, great artists. Whatever we grew up on—we’re turning into our parents. Whatever they grew up on was absolutely the best. Whatever we grew up on is absolutely the best. And we are going to look down on everybody else like the next generation will do the same. That’s just the way it goes.

Which of Jamal’s character arcs has been the most rewarding for you to explore?

This character arc in the third season. It’s trying in a way that’s absolutely exhausting. And it’s emotionally exhausting. Before it was emotionally exhausting because I felt like I had to dig up so much old stuff and I had, to be honest, and real, but now it takes a lot of work. After a scene, you feel like you’re about to pass out. But I love it so much as an actor. It’s an actor’s dream to be able to sing and do all of this wonderful stuff and to be able to dig so deep into what this character is going through. That’s my favorite. This is my favorite arc that I’ve had a chance to play because I feel like I have to be bold in it.

Can you talk a bit about your character in Alien: Covenant?

(laughs) No, I cannot because I literally signed a phonebook’s worth of [non-disclosure agreements]. I think I have to give up my first-born. But what I can say is that he is a member of the covenant. It’s awesome. Working with Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Carmen Ejogo, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride. Such an excellent crew. I’ve been so blessed in these casts that we are actually cool with each other. I haven’t run into any casts that I’ve worked with where it’s been like, “God, I hate these people! I wanna go home!” It’s always been cool. That was a great time. I don’t know if that answers any of your questions about Alien. It’s going to be dope. It comes out August, 4 2017, and it’s pretty incredible. Kinda scary.

You can see more of Jussie on Empire, Wednesday nights at 9/8c on FOX, as well as WGN’s Underground, Food Network’s Smollett Eats, and the upcoming film Alien: Covenant


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