Empire's blend of soapy family infighting and melodrama, all set to a Timbaland-produced soundtrack, has quickly made the Fox series a record-smashing juggernaut. But beneath the show's undeniable entertainment value is a strategically subversive undercurrent, which is not surprising, considering that Lee Daniels (The Butler, Monster's Ball, Precious) is its creator. At the center of that element is the Lyon dynasty's arguably most talented but ostracized son, Jamal, played by the hypercharismatic Jussie Smollett. We sat down with the actor and singer at our LA studio recently to talk about why he hopes characters like Jamal become "ordinary" on TV and the brutally honest, sometimes painful conversations he and Daniels have about how the series portrays homophobia. We also chatted about Taraji P. Henson's ferociously fur-clad Cookie (of course) and the upcoming duet with a music legend that brought Smollett to tears. Watch part of our interview below, and read on for more from our conversation.
POPSUGAR: Jamal has generated so much conversation. It's rare that we see a gay, black man portrayed on a network television show.
Jussie Smollett: It's incredible to be able to tell a story like Jamal's and go through his journey. It's extraordinary, and hopefully with characters like Jamal and people like [show creators] Lee Daniels and Danny Strong putting this type of work out, maybe soon it won't be so extraordinary. Maybe it'll be the ordinary.
PS: What kind of feedback have you gotten? I would imagine there are a lot of people out there who are so relieved to see someone like them on television, finally.
JS: I've gotten those negative tweets — people using the f-word — but that's what the block button is for. But I've gotten so much love. I'm a Cancer, so I cry really, really easily, and in the second week of the show, this 16-year-old kid wrote me and said watching Jamal gave him the courage to come out to his parents and it was OK. I also got a letter from a girl and she said that watching Empire made it easy for her to talk to her friend who was not yet out. As artists, we don't always get the chance to do roles that really truly matter to us. So when something like this comes along, it's the biggest blessing on earth to be able to act and sing and do everything you love and also slightly, even a little bit, be able to affect someone's life. There's nothing better than that.
PS: Let's talk about that really harrowing scene when Lucious throws a young Jamal in a trash can. It's a horrible, horrible moment, and I know Lee Daniels said this was based on something that happened to him as a kid. What kind of conversations did you two have before you did that episode?
JS: Extremely raw conversations. Lee is so extremely talented, and I think the reason why his work resonates with people is because it's just the truth. It's the good, the bad, the ugly, the horrendous. It's just the truth. And what he does is hold up a mirror to us as individuals and really make us look at ourselves. Because it's really easy to say "I'm not homophobic" until your son says that he's gay. It's really easy to say "I'm not racist" until your daughter brings home a black man. He was so honest, and in turn, it made me want to be honest with him. So, we shared a lot of different stories from our own childhood, what we've seen, what we've gone through, and really, he's become like a second father to me. And Genis Wooten, who played Jamal as a baby, is one of my godchildren. Literally. His mom and I were scared of how it would affect him — not of playing someone walking down the stairs in heels, but of walking down the stairs in heels and then being thrown in the trash. He's a kid, so you want to make sure he understands, but he's so unaffected by it. But it was a pretty special and intense moment. I cried when I was watching it, when I was on set, and I also saw Lee crying.
PS: Let's talk Cookie and Jamal. They have this alliance and closeness, but we've seen her use antigay slurs behind his back.
JS: I actually think that Cookie is completely comfortable with her son's sexuality. With that said, she's wrong for [using slurs], but that's the character, and this is who Cookie would be. I spoke to Lee about this, and he said, "I want to show the way even the people that are supporting gay people sometimes talk when they're not around." So yeah, it's wrong. Are there levels to it? Sure, because you look at someone like Lucious, who's clear-cut wrong. We're not going to sit here and debate that Lucious is right in this situation with his son. He's wrong, 100 percent. But with Cookie, there's a different level to it. She's wrong for using that language, but she is such a supporter of her son. The things she says about his boyfriend are so wrong. [Laughs.] It's so wrong, but Cookie is wrong like that. But you somehow just love her in spite of the crazy side of her. And I love Taraji. I live for Taraji!
PS: She is a force of nature on the show.
JS: She is! She's a goddess; there's nothing that she can't do.
PS: Tell me about your scenes with her. She is so impactful. Are you sometimes blown away being on set with her?
JS: I'm blown away every single second I'm on set with her. Her and Terrence. And the entire cast! But we're talking about Cookie right now. I keep saying that if Bette Davis could have had a baby with Samuel L. Jackson, it would be Taraji P. Henson, because she's just crazy! In my opinion, she's one of the greatest character actors of our generation. I'm the king of GIFs, and I was going through them looking for hers, and I realized how many different characters she's played, how many different wigs she has worn, how many different makeup jobs and wardrobes this woman has had. But it's so professional and she is so genuine and unselfish with her gift.
PS: Being that Empire is one of the few shows with a primarily black cast on network TV, do you feel a responsibility or pressure in some way to be representative, or to "get it right"?
JS: No, and I'll tell you why. I don't feel pressure because we're telling a story. We're not telling the story. This is not a story that is necessarily everybody's story, but is a piece of the puzzle of the human experience. There are characters on this show that I know are wrong, but that's why people are so involved. Because there's somebody in the cast, or a character in there somewhere, that you can identify with. And as far as Jamal being black and gay, we're dealing with homophobia in the black community, but we're dealing with homophobia in the black community because we're telling the story of a family that is a part of the black community. That in no way is to let any other culture or race or anybody off the hook. I have Jewish and Middle Eastern friends, and Italian, and Spanish, and German, and British friends, and they experience homophobia as well. This is not an isolated situation. Homophobia is an earthling epidemic. So I just feel the pressure to tell a story and tell it as honest as I possibly can.
PS: The opportunity you have with this show to tell this story through music is so remarkable. It was really awesome to see you perform "I Wanna Love You," a song that you actually wrote yourself. Timbaland is the music supervisor — did you guys collaborate on this track?
JS: On this track, no, we didn't. There was another song that was chosen, and it was a dope song; it just didn't fit the scene. So I sent the song to Lee, and then Sanaa heard it, and the bigwigs at Fox, and they approved it. I never pitched any of my music, but I was recording my album before I booked Empire, so it was just a perfect song. It wasn't autobiographical about Jamal's parents or anything like that; it was just a sexy, soulful, M.J.-esque song that was actually produced by my producer David Ott and written by me.
PS: What's it like on set when you guys are actually shooting those performances? Does it feel like you're genuinely performing for an audience?
JS: Yeah, it does. Plus, I sing it live every single time. We are singing to track, but what I mean is, I sing it and they record my playback every time. It's important to show the veins popping and to get that vibe going. That's the exciting part.
PS: This show has already had so many amazing guest stars. Naomi Campbell, for example. Kind of huge.
JS: Did you see the way she walked up to the VIP? It was like it's a catwalk, because she's Naomi Campbell. We've already had Gladys Knight. Rita Ora is coming up. Jennifer Hudson. Courtney Love started her arc a couple weeks ago. And Raven-Symoné.
PS: OK, let's talk about that for a moment. When did you find out Jamal was going to have a secret daughter?
JS: About five days before we shot it. Lee and the writers have so much fun with it; I feel like they just switch it up. They'll write something and then be like, nope, let's switch it up. So, he told me on the phone, and we were coming up with names of people that should play [Olivia], and I was like, "Wait a second. Lee, we need to get Raven." And he said, "No, would she do it? Would she come back to TV?" Raven is truly one of my best friends in the whole world so to be able to work with her is just a dream come true.
PS: What kind of dad do you think Jamal's going to turn out to be?
JS: I think that Jamal's heart is really, really big, and I think that he's going to — without giving too much away — step up and enjoy it more than he thought. It complicates his life, but the baby didn't ask to be here, and she's so damn cute. But it's twisted. It's just another layer of Empire and crazy Lee Daniels.
PS: You've got to feel a little sorry for this baby being born into this crazy, dysfunctional family.
JS: But she has a nice bedroom. [Laughs.] She's got nice toys. I mean, hey, we can pay for therapy!
PS: We have to talk about Courtney Love. Her character is kind of loosely based on her, or at least the public idea of who she is. Do you get to share any scenes with her? What's she really like?
JS: I do get to share scenes with her in upcoming episodes. In the first couple episodes, I don't and I was waiting because we actually got cool during the shooting; her trailer is right behind mine. She's actually a cool person. She's really chill and I've been a fan of Hole and Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. I remember when we were doing Mighty Ducks back in the day, we would get on the bus and listen to Nirvana and Hole because they were the cool, edgy, something new that I had never heard before and felt very authentic to me. Her and Naomi Campbell are bigger than life and then you see them in person and they're like, [in a soft voice] "It's so nice to meet you."
PS: What would you like to explore about Jamal in season two?
JS: See, I know what's going to be explored a little bit, but I don't know what's going to be explored for season two. But the journey of Jamal is so spectacular, and really the journey of all these characters. Where you meet them in the pilot is not where they're at in the season finale. Where we end at the end of season one is so high, it's like, where do you take this now? I know that Lee has so many projects he's working on; I'm just so happy that we're one of them, because whatever they churn out is going to be pretty spectacular. Jamal's becoming a grown-ass man. I can't really say where he's going to be because I don't entirely know, but that's the exciting part about playing Jamal. You don't really know.
PS: Can you give away any upcoming guest stars that we don't already know about?
JS: Patti LaBelle. I'm dueting with Patti LaBelle.
PS: That has to be a little mind-blowing.
JS: I had to take a moment when we filmed it. Again, I'm a Cancer, so I cried. It was so embarrassing, but I was very emotional that day. She doesn't know this. Nobody knows this except Gabby [Becky], AzMarie [Chicken], and Ty [Porsha]. They came into my dressing room, and I had a towel over my face and I was crying. And then Az was like, "Are you serious?" I was a total loser, crying, but it was such an emotional moment in the show. It's Patti LaBelle!
PS: What about your album? Are you still working on that right now?
JS: Yeah, we're working with Columbia on that right now, and it's going to be exciting. It's not far off from Jamal's vibe. After I booked Empire, they knew my voice, and they really did integrate my style and influences into his music. But it will be a little more guitar-driven. It's a little bit more rock-infused. It's exciting because it's going to be my stories. Jamal is very much like me in the sense that he's an autobiographical songwriter, and I'm that way, too. So it'll be interesting for people to get to know me and my stories and what I've been through and what makes me sad and what makes me happy.