When asked how his life has changed since “Empire” became a sensation, Jussie Smollett laughs. “It’s probably easier to say what has not changed,” he says.
“The great side of this is that I have a platform to show people what I can do, what I love to do and what I have been doing for so long.” Smollett was a child actor who appeared in The Mighty Ducks and North, as well as a recording artist who released the 2012 EP The Poisoned Hearts Club and subsequently signed a recording contract with Columbia.
But nothing he’d done previously had the reach of Empire, on which he plays the gay son of Terrence Howard‘s homophobic music-business mogul. The actor, who came out as gay on “The Ellen DeGeneres” show in March, says he’s heard countless stories about how much his character has meant to young people who might otherwise feel alone.
“I don’t believe you need a big hit TV show or a hit record to make an impact, but I’m glad that I can affect lives in the way my life was affected by people I looked up to,” he says. “It’s so amazing to be able to maybe change minds by simply doing what you love. If that’s not fulfilling, I don’t know what is.”
JOSEPH KAPSCH: What has changed about your life now that “Empire” has struck and become this big monster of a hit?
JUSSIE SMOLLETT: Everything. [laughs] What has not changed about my life? It’s probably easier to say what has not changed. My family and friends have not changed at all. But what has changed, the great side of it is that I have a platform to show people what I can do, what I love to do and what I’ve been doing for so long. And a couple people are listening now. So that’s a good thing for any artist. Any person period. The other side of it is the scrutiny that comes along with it. And people all up in your business, but again that goes with the territory –I guess. The great, not even the good, so outweighs the bad because it’s been such a phenomenal way to not only show my art and my creative side but also show, bigger than that, the side of me that really cares and people listening to what I’m saying about social issues as well. That to me is more important than anything. And I’ve said this a million times before. I don’t believe you need a hit TV show or a hit record to make an impact, but I’m glad that what I was saying years ago is now, you know, can now somehow affect people’s lives in the way that my life has been affected by people I looked up to.
What was the toughest scene you had this season on “Empire”?
That’s a good one because there were a lot. Probably the toughest scene were actually two scenes. The scene with the brothers in the elevator. That was great. It was so emotional. We were all so emotional that day because we all love each other like brothers. It was all just so real. Those tears, those cries, those screams, they were all real. We stayed very disconnected for the main part of the day and when we came together for that scene, that’s exactly what happened. We came together. The other one was probably the scene where Jamal lets it all go and tells his father “I don’t want your money. I’m leaving the loft.” That was hard because I just love Terrence so much. And I respect him so much and I trust him so much. There’s never a time when I do a scene with Terrence and I don’t end up afterwards feeling very empty emotionally because they’re usually very, very intense scenes. Even when we’re walking by and we’re just saying hello to each other, it’s always so intense because the vibe is exactly the opposite of the relationship that I have in real life with Terrence. I think that that works on both ends of the spectrum, where it’s a thing of it’s difficult to do those scenes because I love and I trust him so much, but it’s also easier because I love and I trust him so much.
Did you ever work with Terrence or know Terrence before you got the show together?
No. The only thing that we’ve ever done before “Empire” is we used to be managed by same person so I would see him in passing all the time. And then one time when I was like 9 years old, there was this film and they were just doing a table read for it, it hadn’t been sold or anything like that, and I came in and read the role of Terrence as a child.
Did he remember that when you booked the show?
He did. You know what’s so funny? Terrence is so funny because Terrence comes from Planet Terrence– he doesn’t forget anything.
What was the most fun scene to film this year on “Empire?”
Every single scene with Taraji. Period. I really have to think about this because she’s so much fun to film with. One of my favorite scenes that I ever shot with Taraji was cut from the pilot. And it was the very first scene that I ever shot on “Empire” on the first day of filming. It was this whole scene inside of an SUV and we were joking and it was just such a great scene and it was an emotional scene as well. For time, it got cut, but it was truly one of my favorite scenes. As far as the scenes that did not get cut, probably I loved the scene when I did “Up All Night” for the family and then gave that whole read to Terrence. I love doing scenes where it’s the whole family also, because we have such a good time shooting those. And honestly, my favorite scene also–how the hell could I forget this?! Jamal’s coming out scene. Obviously.
With the song “I’m So Beautiful”– the “Jamal remix” of course. It’s a fave.
[Laughs] First of all, I co-wrote that song. We wrote it for that scene for the family but then it shifted when Fox heard the song, Lee heard the song, Danny heard the song and they loved it so much that it kind of became a staple for the show. And then it switched to Jamal’s coming out song. But that scene was so great because it was my first time performing that song and I went in every single time. And then of course there’s the scene with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with my baby. There’s too many.
If you met somebody who has never seen “Empire” what would you say to persuade them to watch it?
It’s kind of everything you need in your life. It’s a lot a bit of everything you need in your life.
If you were an Emmy voter and you can’t vote for yourself or any co-star on your show, who would be at the top of your ballot?
If I couldn’t vote for anybody, if I couldn’t vote for Taraji, if I couldn’t vote for “Empire,” if I couldn’t vote Terrence.
Viola Davis and Robin Wright. I think that they’re so phenomenal.
What’s the last TV show you binge-watched? And for how many hours or episodes?
“House of Cards” Season 2. For that, it’s like three, because I’m much busier now. But when “Breaking Bad” was out, I would binge watch that. And one time, I was so embarrassed because I swear to God I watched like 12 episodes. By the time I was done, I was like “I have wasted my entire day, I am such a loser. I have to get out of this house.”
Everyone reflects back to “The Golden Age of Television,” but would you say right now is the second Golden Era of TV?
I think we’re going that way. I think we’re going the way into being a golden era of television. I think that that golden era of television really started though–if I’m being completely honest–when someone gave Shonda Rhimes a deal. I genuinely believe that she was one of the people that really started the whole transition of the way that television worked. And that’s why I have so much love and so much respect for her. Because, again, she is very much like Lee Daniels and Danny Strong in the sense that she knows how to tell the truth, she knows how to be impactful with what is happening in the world currently and she also knows how to do it in a non-preachy, non-judgmental, very, very entertaining way. She also knows how to show the world the way the world actually looks, which is not one color, not one gender, not one sexuality. So for that, I think that people like her and Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, they just get it.
Who doesn’t love Shonda Rhimes!
Yes. I would do anything for Shonda Rhimes. I love her.
If you were nominated for an Emmy. Which “Empire” episode would you want to represent your work and why?
That’s a good question. I’d say probably–it’s kind of a mix though. It would probably be the episode where Jamal finally gets his balls — when Jamal’s balls drop. [laughs]
The episode when he’s holding Beretti over the balcony after Lucious sends him to shake him down over the contract?
No, I feel like Jamal’s balls dropped when he told his father that he’s leaving the loft. Singleton’s episode was really special for Jamal also, when he was held up at the studio. And the season finale for me was really big and it was really special. So I don’t know. Why can’t the Emmys take three damn episodes? [laughs]
If you could add any new category to the Emmys, serious or silly, what would it be?
You have to give me 60 seconds, I’m very clever [laughs]… “Best Shade Thrown By a Leading Actress in a Drama” because obviously Taraji would win every single bit of that.
Have you started recording music for next season yet?
I have. I started recording with my own producer and songs that I’ve written. I’ve started recording with Ne-Yo and I have been talking with Jim Beanz about ideas for new songs. And Timbaland and Swizz Beatz is incredible. It’s definitely happening already. It’s starting to get more and more, the scheduling is all about “Empire” recording now. There will be many, many more recorded in the next couple weeks.
The relationship between you and Terrence on screen is very relatable. Speaking from experience, I think growing up as a gay male many of us have experienced similar relationships with our fathers. Share one of the most touching stories that you’ve experienced directly because of the portrayal of Jamal and the gay storyline on “Empire.”
Yeah, so many. So, so many. A girl, a young woman, a young lesbian woman. She came to me and she had cuts in her arm and said that she was going to commit suicide, and then she saw me on “Ellen.” That day, she just so happened to see me on “Ellen” and she didn’t know who I was because she had never watched “Empire” and so she binge-watched “Empire.” She said that that day she decided not to and it changed her life. I hugged her, she was crying, and of course I’m a Cancer, so I was weeping like a sucker. I had to hold up the line and just hug her and make her promise that that would never be an option. And I just told her, “in those moments I need you to talk to me. I may not ever physically see you again, but I promise you I’m going to answer back through energy. You have to believe in energy. You have to believe in that kind of stuff, because if my words on ‘Ellen’ affected you, if my character on ‘Empire’ affected you, than that has to be enough to get you through what you’re going through. And you have to believe that there’s someone out there that really genuinely cares.” She promised me, and I told her it’s a legally binding verbal contract and I would sue her ass if she did anything crazy.
But there’s been so many stories. There was a father that came up to me, an older black guy and he told me that his son was able to come out to him because they watched “Empire” together and the world kept spinning –because it does. It’s just been so many things, and if I talked about it any more I would start crying. It’s so amazing to be able to do what you love and maybe change minds by simply doing what you love and simply being who you are. If that’s not fulfilling, then I don’t know what the fuck is.
Who else on your show really deserves an Emmy and why?
I think that everybody honestly in their own way has done such strong performances that it would hard for me to pick one. But if I had to pick one, I think obviously I would say Taraji. What she has brought to Cookie–and again this is not to take away from the brilliant performances of everyone else, this is a stellar cast. But Taraji what she has done, she’s been able to find the humanity and explain the love that takes place in motherhood, that takes place in parenthood, that takes place in when you love someone so much. Cookie’s not a perfect person, she’s a flawed human being, she says things that are not right sometimes, that are hurtful. But at the same time, her intentions are so right. Taraji has breathed life into Cookie in a way that I don’t think that anyone in this world could’ve done the way that she did. There are actors that are just as talented as Taraji, but there is no actor that was made for Cookie and built Cookie the way that Taraji did. Period, I’m sorry.
Well I feel like her character is like–you couldn’t do “Dallas” without Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing. You couldn’t do “Empire” without Taraji as Cookie.
Absolutely. And there’s no way we could’ve done “Empire” without our leading man and our leading woman. Terrence and Taraji are our everything. They set the tone for all of us. All of us are better because of them.
So would say that they elevate the cast?
I feel like they elevate everybody they’re around. I keep saying this that working with Terrence–I would love to sit down with Al Pacino and ask him what was it like to work with Marlon Brando, because in my fantasy it would be the same way to work with Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” the way it is to work with Terrence. He’s definitely from Planet Terrence, but you should be so lucky to arrive and be able to spend some time on Planet Terrence.
Anything you want to share in terms of projects on the horizon?
Yeah. I’m actually doing a 2-episode stint on my little sister’s show “Underground” and this role aside from “Empire” and a role that I did many years ago where I played opposite Halle Berry and Danny Glover as a child in “Alex Haley’s Queen” is one of my proudest roles. This one coming up, I’m playing a character named Josie and he’s a runaway slave who takes this white couple hostage who are abolitionists. But he says they sold his wife, so he takes them hostage. This performance is truly one of my proudest moments. It’s called “Underground” and my little sister is the star.