Jussie Smollett is howling with laughter. We’re discussing Season 1 of Fox’s ratings juggernaut Empire, and I’ve blurted out an (admittedly) ridiculous question: Is there any way to restore the trust between Smollett’s character, the newly out-and-proud gay R&B singer Jamal Lyon, and his disapproving father Lucious (Terrence Howard)? (Keep in mind, of course, that last week Lucious confessed he’s the biological father of Lola, the little girl Jamal thought he’d conceived with his ex-wife Olivia.)
“Lucious is the master puppeteer. He shot Bunkie in the face, in the eye! He left his wife in jail for 17 years and divorced her!” Smollett roars. “Can you trust him? Hell, no!”
The good news for Jamal, though, is that he managed to “cut those puppet strings” when he moved into a sketchy Brooklyn neighborhood and ended his reliance on the vast wealth Lucious accumulated as the head of Empire Entertainment.
“Jamal is now on more of an equal playing field with Lucious — not financially, obviously — but in a man-to-man sense of things,” reasons Smollett. “Lucious can’t pull the rug from under him because there is no rug that Jamal’s standing on that Lucious owns.”
TVLine caught up with Smollett to discuss last week’s pivotal parental confession (and the lack of a followup DNA test); Jamal’s triumphant coming-out moment; and whether or not his character will make good on his chilling promise from the end of Episode 3: “I’m going after [Lucious’] empire. I’m gonna take it.”
TVLINE | Let’s start by talking about that huge reveal in last week’s episode: We have Olivia’s deranged boyfriend waving his gun in everyone’s faces, and then Lucious confessing that he’s the one who impregnated Olivia. Walk me through that scene — and in particular, where Jamal’s head is at, because he actually steps right up to Reg and shows no fear whatsoever.
That is Jamal’s “Cookie Moment.” It’s Jamal’s moment where he has fallen in love with this child so quickly. I mean, this boy has not gotten a DNA test. [Laughs] Jamal wants to be a father, and he’s displaying that rage and that fire that only a parent can have. And also, there’s the fact that Jamal is a Lyon — and you don’t pull out a gun on a Lyon. We saw Jamal in the recording studio [earlier in the season] when a gun was pulled out on him — and he’s very much the hybrid of Lucious and Cookie. He’s very, very brave. That’s what people love about him, that he’s so vulnerable but yet so, so brave and so strong.
Shooting the scene was super, super intense, probably one of the most intense scenes that I’ve done, because it was done a million ways. Rob Hardy is such a great director. It is over-the-top drama, but hey, that’s what we do, just in a very truthful way. It was a huge turning point for the entire family. What Lucious did is unforgivable. But he’s lied so much, he could be lying about telling a lie, you know?
TVLINE | Prior to that gun standoff, we have the moment of Jamal talking to Lucious about wanting to be a father — and Lucious saying that Lola should not be “raised in that lifestyle.” Here we are, months into this story, and Lucious is still as entrenched in his homophobia as ever.
Men that have those beliefs, and women that have those beliefs, they are softening. Lucious is softening. However, he’s having moments of softening. He still is who he is. Keep in mind, we’re in Season 1, people. [Laughs] I know that you know [Empire] very much reads like a movie, so you feel like Season 1 has got to be like the end of the movie — until there’s the sequel. But in actuality, it’s still a TV show.
Lucious is not going to be okay with who Jamal is, but he is going to be put into a place where he is forced to respect his son, and to see that his son is a lot more like him — minus his sexuality. But listen… did we think that Lucious was suddenly going to wake up and be Gandhi? It’s not happening right now, but he is getting to a place, and you’ll see it. And you’ll be proud of Jamal and you’ll also be proud of the strides that he makes. It’s growth, that’s what it is.
TVLINE | I feel like week after week, Jamal’s confidence has grown in terms of his willingness to take on his father. Like, for example, when Lucious makes the “lifestyle” comment, Jamal notes that maybe little Lola won’t be perfect either. And he’s clearly also referencing Andre’s bipolar disorder — because he’s now seen Lucious’ cruelty toward another son for being “different.”
In my opinion, as an actor, Jamal is all about these bold subtleties of strength. He snaps back at his father, but still in a very grown-man way. He’s standing his ground. He’s not afraid of Lucious, and that speaks volumes as to the man that he is and about the man that he’s becoming. You definitely see him stepping up and protecting himself, and not letting Lucious just spew things without putting him in check. Lord knows, Lucious is living in a such a glass house anyway.
TVLINE | One thing I love about Empire is the relationship among the three brothers. Time and time again, they reject the rivalry that’s being thrust on them. And the scene last week where Jamal and Hakeem are putting Lola to bed and singing to her was so incredibly sweet. Then we also had Andre’s elevator meltdown a couple weeks ago — the resolution of which found Jamal and Hakeem in a group hug with Andre.
I don’t throw around the word “brother” because I’m so, so close to my real-life brothers and my real-life sisters, and being a brother is so important to me. But these two, Trai [Byers] and Yazz [the Greatest, AKA Bryshere Gray], truly are like my brothers.
Trai and I are the same age, so we bond and we love good cinema and books and all that stuff. And Yazz is just like the world’s little brother; you just want to wrap your arms around him. You just really want to make sure that he’s okay and that vultures are staying away from him. You really want to protect him in the same way that Jamal wants to protect Hakeem. It’s just that, honestly, Yazz is much smarter than Hakeem because he has had to work for everything that he has.
I love when we get to work together, though. The scene in the elevator, for instance, that was the first time that Jamal and Andre have said a word to each other since the pilot.
TVLINE | Really? Wow. I don’t think I realized that.
Yeah. It was one of the most special scenes about brotherhood that I’ve seen in a while. I’m really, really proud of that scene.
TVLINE | So going into the finale, we have Rhonda stumbling cross the fact that Lucious was planning to siphon off stock options from his own sons to try to buy Cookie’s loyalty or love back. That moment got interrupted by our gun-waving maniac, so I’m wondering if the finale will pick up that loose plot thread again?
You’ll have stay tuned, my friend. I like my job and I don’t want to let anything slip. I’ll get fired. I’ll have no job. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Fair enough. So, Jamal’s relationship with Cookie is the polar opposite of what he has with Lucious. She’s supported the idea of his coming out right from the get-go. How has it been exploring that less-tormented parent-child dynamic juxtaposed with the Jamal-Lucious arc?
Cookie always had the best intentions, but what she was doing in the beginning is that she wanted him to come out the way that she wanted him to, not the way that he needed to. Then, she really started to back off and let him have his moment. She respects him, but she respects him the way that a mom respects her kids. Now, there starts to be a certain level of respect as an adult that she has for him, just like Lucious does — but in different ways. Without the support of Cookie, though, it would’ve been much harder for Jamal to come to that conclusion and to be fully who he is.
TVLINE | When Jamal finally performs “You’re So Beautiful” and flips the gender in the lyrics at the White Party — that was one of the most joyous coming-out scenes I’ve ever seen. What was it like on set?
It was probably one of the most special moments that I’ve shot in the series, because I co-wrote that song. It was already really close to me anyway — and to be able to do it within such a joyous moment, it felt almost like a very, very hip church service. There was something very freeing about that. And I sang in real life for every single take — and I gave it my all every single time because the energy in the room needed to be that high.
It was such a large room and there were so many different characters in different parts of the room that had to look at me. It became an all-day thing. I wish that I’d been wearing a Fitbit, so I could’ve seen how many calories I burned in one day. The adrenaline in the moment, every single time it felt so real. I’ll remember it forever.
TVLINE | When Jamal moved out of the apartment Lucious was paying for, he said to Michael that he was going to take the whole empire. Does that motivation remain as strong for Jamal as we’re heading into the finale? Or has he softened a little toward his dad?
[Laughs] You’re good, man. You’re a shady little one, because you ask questions in a way where I’m like, “Ohhh, don’t get caught up there!” You [asked] that so cleverly, let me see how I can cleverly answer it. [Pauses]
Jamal’s drive is still there — but I think that the reason behind wanting to get the empire is now different. He genuinely cares about the empire. It’s not a thing to show up his father. Jamal doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody any longer. He’s who he is. So, now he’s stepping into who he’s always been, because you can’t fight fate.
TVLINE | Jamal has not been especially lucky in love. Michael disappeared from the scene really quickly, then Ryan sensed Jamal might become a full-time dad and took himself out of the equation, too. Can Jamal find romantic bliss as his career takes off, and as he embarks on this fight to inherit his dad’s role as CEO?
I don’t think Jamal’s love life always has to take a backseat, but it takes a really particular [person] to be with an artist who is having that type of lifestyle, and to be loyal when they’re away , to keep their mind open and be understand — and vice-versa. You’ll have to wait and see. Because you know what? Jamal isn’t lucky in love, and neither am I. Join the club, Jamal! Welcome to the Lonely Hearts Club. [Laughs] And no, Jamal’s not done with Ryan.
TVLINE | Empire‘s showrunner Ilene Chaiken recently told TVLine that the Season 1 finale will include a lot of big decisions and big moves, and that ultimately, everything is going to change and be flipped on its head.
Everything! Everything will be flipped on its head.
TVLINE | Change, though, can be as scary as it is exciting. Any trepidation about these shifts in the story?
No, no, of course not! Hell, no. Because you think about life. And sometimes, in one year’s time, life can become completely different than it was. We are dealing with an entire family: three sons, one mother, one father, wives, boyfriends, lovers. We’re dealing with all of these different people coming in and out. The world is going to be flipped on its head at some point. That’s just the way it is, but I really think that people will join the Lyon family on their crazy, dysfunctional, f—ed-up journey and want to see where they go.
TVLINE | I’m going to boldly predict that we will see Jamal behind Lucious’ desk at the end of Season 1 — running Empire Entertainment.
[Laughs] Well, you need to call Miss Cleo and ask her — because I’m not telling you anything!
TVLINE | Is Miss Cleo still working?
No, I don’t think so, poor baby. [Laughs] What I will say is this: There is a moment where you see Lucious and Jamal through song in a way that you’ve never seen. And it’s one of the most powerful — and one of my favorite — scenes that I’ve shot in the entire season.