All it takes is one hit TV show or movie to put an actor on the map. And Jussie Smollett landed his when he bagged the role of Jamal Lyon in Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s award-winning musical drama, Empire.
The eldest of his other two acting siblings, Jake Smollett and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Smollett bagged minor roles in TV and film before landing his big break.
In playing Jamal Lyon, he got to explore both his disciplines as an actor and a singer. His character was multi-dimensional in that he was struggling to get his father to accept his sexuality while also proving himself worthy to take over the family empire.
In playing this role, he also became an icon for the LGBTQ community.
Smollett says: “I think that it has shown he’s just a man trying to make it work and that this is just who he is. What I’ve seen is that it has made a lot of people, both members of the LGBTQ community as well as allies, really open up a conversation and it has also opened up some sort of understanding.”
He clarifies: “And again, in this show we don’t preach. We never have and I don’t think we ever will. But I think what we’ve done is we’ve been able to hold up a mirror to society and the world, while also entertaining them. Everybody’s okay with gay people until they’re in their family. Everybody is okay with integration until your daughter brings home a black man. You know what I’m saying?”
The guest appearances by heavyweights in the music industry is another drawcard of the show.
On getting to work with Mariah Carey this season, he says: “Working with Mariah, it’s perfect. It is. I keep saying this. I was talking to her the other day just to thank her. She didn’t have to show the incredible amount of support that she has to me personally. But she has and I’m very honoured to work with her. I grew up in the ’90s and the 2000s when our main go-to vocalists were Whitney (Houston) and Mariah. To be able to sing with one of these greats is an honour. As far as recording music outside of the show, I would love to. I think that we just have to talk to Mariah and try to figure it out.”
Jamal has had an interesting journey since season one. Aside from his relationships hitting a wall thanks to his father Lucious (Terrence Howard) making life difficult, his brother staging a robbery after a bit of rivalry between the two, his ex-wife Olivia (Raven Symone) lying about him being the father of Lola, who was fathered by Lucious, he has to be one step ahead of Hakeem and Andre, who have teamed up to usurp control of the family business.
As for where we find his character this season, he says: “I’m very happy with where Jamal is going. This is the toughest season that I’ve done so far because it has made me do real research into PTSD and panic attacks and things like that. It’s made me have to do extra work and I love it. I will say, without giving too much away, I love exactly where Jamal is.”
He continues: “When we think of this good versus evil, I always say that no one is all bad and no one is all good. Lucious is not all bad and Jamal is not all good. But what we see is this battle between the good and the bad. He finally admits that he does have a problem, but what comes with that problem is rooted in the family.”
This is manifested in one of the episodes.
Smollett offers: “We get to see that he’s really tapping into his own awareness and sensitivity and awareness of what is really going on in the world because there’s a certain level of – I don’t know how to put it – there’s a certain level of guard that he’s had his entire life. I think that this season is really about the Lyon brothers opening up their eyes to the reality of what is out there, that it’s not just everything that is around us immediately. It’s something much bigger than us…”
On whether Lucious will ever get to a point where he can see beyond his son’s sexuality, which has caused much tension and pain in the father-son bond, he explains: “This season, it’s not necessarily about the sexuality. It’s so much bigger than that. That leads me to the whole thing of will Lucious ever accept his son’s sexuality? The thing is – and this is the point that I keep on trying to drive home – we don’t all have to see the world in the same way. You know what I’m saying? Lucious has every right to think and to believe that Jamal being homosexual is wrong. He has every right to believe that. It only becomes wrong when he sh*ts upon Jamal and Jamal’s basic freedoms. That’s all.”
Shedding light on the music aspect and how that spills over into real life, he notes: “Well, I have input obviously in what Jamal does. I’m so blessed because there is such a collaborative thing that happens here at Empire, from the acting and the scripts and all that type of stuff, the writers and the show runner, Ilene, and our creators, Danny and Lee. They’re so collaborative, and I think that’s why, even though it’s so big, the show and the music reads in a very real way.
“So yes, a lot of the songs, I Want to Love You, which was in season one, was written for my album. I was working as an indy artist, and that was written before Empire. All of the Above, I wrote and recorded before Empire. So when season one happened, I was also pulling songs that I wanted to release on my album and was pitching them.”
Empire 3 returns on Fox (DStv Channel 125) on Thursdays at 9pm.