Empire co-star Jussie Smollett tells TV Drama how he got the part of Jamal Lyon on the FOX series and what it’s like working with such a talented ensemble cast.
Jussie Smollett began acting when he was a child, appearing in feature films and TV movies. At age 12, he and his five siblings starred in the TV series On Our Own. He continued acting while developing skills as a singer and songwriter. When he heard about Lee Daniels’ series Empire, featuring a hip-hop mogul, Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard; his inimitable ex-wife, Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson; and their three sons, Smollett felt it was the perfect vehicle to showcase his talents. Little did he know Empire would take off as one of FOX’s top-rated shows, offering lots of dysfunctional family drama, polished musical numbers and A-list guest stars.
TV DRAMA: There is so much talent on Empire. What’s it like acting on the show?
SMOLLETT: It’s like an artist’s orgasm! [Laughs] I’ve never said that before but that’s exactly what it is. It’s like an artist’s orgasm every single day. We are so into what we do, and we will fight for the characters, and if we don’t believe in something, we say that we don’t believe it. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve thrown things up against the wall that didn’t stick. But that’s what artists do; they mess up sometimes.
TV DRAMA: What a wonderful atmosphere for an actor and performer.
SMOLLETT: Yes, as an actor and a performer, for me to be able to do so many things that I love to do and be mixed up in this gumbo pot of Empire, led by Terrence and Taraji, who could so easily not be giving, [is amazing]. People could just say, Listen, they are Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-nominated actors, and have been doing this for so long and are so respected, just let them do their thing. And yet, they are so giving. They are so unselfish with what they know, and they genuinely want us to be better. They know that what makes the show great is if we’re all great. Terrence is not trying to outshine Taraji. Taraji is not trying to outshine Terrence. I’m not trying to outshine Trai [Byers, who plays Andre Lyon]; Trai is not trying to outshine me. We all shine because we shine collectively. I could not ask for a better situation.
TV DRAMA: Tell me about the musical numbers. If a talking scene takes X number of takes, how much more complicated are the musical numbers?
TV DRAMA: A lot more complicated?
TV DRAMA: And you shoot the performance pieces from multiple angles, so you have to do them over and over?
SMOLLETT: Yes, the performance scenes are difficult, but they are my favorite scenes to do, and people think I’m a psycho! If it’s an eight-hour shoot, I will perform full out every single time because [say there] might be Taraji’s close-up or Terrence’s close-up—I want them to experience the performance the same way Cookie and Lucious would experience it. I don’t want to be that selfish actor who says, I’m only doing it [right when the camera] is on me. It’s difficult, but it’s so much fun. And I lose a good two pounds every time I perform because it’s all in!
TV DRAMA: As a performer, have you ever experienced the type of performance block that Jamal did after he was shot?
SMOLLETT: It definitely happens. I’ve dealt with anxiety. I still deal with anxiety at times, but I’ve never dealt with PTSD the way Jamal did. But with that said, writer’s block? Hell yes! Creative block? Absolutely. That’s the moment where you just have to step back and find something else to do that is separate [in order] to be re-inspired. [A block] just means you need to be re-inspired somehow, at least it does for me. I try to re-inspire myself, whether it’s with family or memories or just nothing at all.
TV DRAMA: Is Jamal a good guy at heart? We’re seeing other sides of him but is it due to the situation he’s in?
SMOLLETT: That’s the thing; anything that’s bad is circumstantial. In season two, everybody came against Jamal. But Jamal didn’t have the support from Cookie and his brothers when he was running Empire the way that Hakeem had support from Jamal and Andre and Cookie when he was running Empire, and Andre had from Jamal, Hakeem and Cookie while he was trying to run Empire. Jamal didn’t have their support; they were trying to take over the company while he was trying to run it. Jamal is absolutely a good guy. He is an onion; he’s very, very layered. He’s not black and white; he’s all of those beautiful shades of gray.