Actor Jussie Smollett plays Jamal Lyon in Fox’s highly anticipated new show “Empire” co-created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, which premieres this week on January 7.
He plays one of the sons of Luscious Lyon and Cookie Lyon (Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, respectively). On the show, we see his music career blossom as he battles with his other two brothers to run his father’s record label.
Congrats on the show, how did you get involved?
I auditioned like everybody else, but when I read the script I immediately connected with it. Being that it’s about family and about music, it was something that I would be able to act as well as showcase my singing and dancing and songwriting and everything, that’s an amazing opportunity. I jumped on Instagram and I direct messaged Lee Daniels and I just told him, I said ‘I know that you get this all the time, but I really feel that I’m Jamal Lyon.’ Now obviously I don’t think that, that got me the role but perhaps it made him take notice.
Tell us about your character Jamal.
Jamal is the heart of the Lyon family, he’s the middle child and somewhat of a music prodigy. He’s the only one that visited Cookie played by Taraji P. Henson while she was in jail. His loyalty runs deep. With that said, he shies away from the spotlight … and is trying to not be like his father and he too has secrets as well as what the music business did to his family
He struggles with his identity and acceptance, can you speak about that?
He struggles with his identity and his sexuality, he struggles with knowing that he’s good, but not completely certain if that’s something he wants to pursue fully in the grand scheme of things because if he is willing to undergo scrutiny and the judgment that comes with it, but when Cookie gets out of jail and she goes full force and turns into momager. She really does bring him out of his shell.
What was it like working with Lee Daniels?
It is the greatest experience I’ve had in my life. Honestly. I’ve never worked with a director that was so giving, so unselfish but still lets you know exactly what he wants. He also allows you the freedom to explore your character and just have fun with it . He’s just a genuine and completely professional but loving spirit and it’s just been a huge blessing.
What was it like working with Terrence Howard and Taraji? What was that dynamic like?
Number one we obviously all know they’re phenomenal actors, they have so many great roles under their belt. They’re so unassuming and so unselfish in the way that they are with the younger cast they’re very, very supportive. Taraji has literally become one of my best friends so when you see the show and you see the dynamic between Cookie and Jamal that’s real because we really do have that relationship in real life now. Terrence is just a beast. I feel like working with Terrence is like working with someone like Marlon Brando because he’s so passionate about what he does yet so unselfish in the sense that he will give slight adjustments here and there, but he’s not a show-off. It really is because he wants you to be the best that you can be. Taraji and Terrence have been nothing short of incredible because they’re great actors, but they’re also incredible human beings.
What was it like having brothers on the series and playing family?
For me that’s easy because I come from a large family and my role as a brother is very very important to me, it’s one of the most important things in my life, so I take my job and my role as an older brother, especially, very seriously. I have one little sister and two younger brothers and an older sister and older brother, but as far as doing the brother thing, that came very easy to me because Yazz, who plays Hakim is 20 years old, I have a 20 year old brother and it was really easy to step into the brother thing and I really did bond with Yazz and we went to Miami together and recorded with Timbaland. The show is crazy as hell but it’s definitely about family.
What was it like working with Timbaland, for the music of the show?
You know what’s funny and I told Tim this when we first started recording, we realized that this time four weeks ago I was recording my album with my producer and now here I am in his factory in Miami where “Hotel California” by the Eagles was recorded and Michael Jackson recorded there and all of this type of stuff. It’s very surreal because here we are working with someone I grew up, even before Timbaland was Timbaland, I still grew up with his music even back to working with Devante Swing. I grew up with that music, I’m a 90’s kid so to be in the same studio with him, to get the stamp of approval from him it was really intense and it was really special.
You play a singer too, how did you get your start in singing and acting?
I got my start into acting when I was four years old. We were in New York and we started as child models and doing commercials and by the time I was seven we moved to Los Angeles because back then that was the move. There weren’t as many productions all over the country as there are now. If you wanted to be on TV you had to go to LA. So we moved to LA when I was seven and that’s when I did the “Mighty Ducks” and “Queen” with Halle Barry, but that’s pretty much how we got the start and we really never stopped.
You’re also working on your own music, how would you describe your sound?
My sound is definitely hip hop driven, but it’s also pop. It;s very vocal and soul driven. I say pop because I don’t like to hold myself to any one genre of music, but it’s definitely soulful and has biographical lyrics.
Any final thoughts?
I just hope that everybody goes into the show with an open mind because there’s so many characters and so many story lines in the show, and I hope that it sheds some light on the issues of humanity. But I hope that people can take away an understanding of people they thought they knew, but didn’t.
Be sure to catch Jussie on “Empire”!