This interview was first published in Attitude issue 274, September 2016.
During its epic first season, there were many signs that the network TV smash Empire was a defining work of its era. The most conclusive, perhaps, arrived when the show’s soundtrack beat Madonna’s Rebel Heart to top spot in the US Billboard chart. As the show’s LGBT+ emblem – its most prominent gay actor playing it most compelling gay role – Jussie Smollett didn’t feel any personal responsibility for short-circuiting the Queen of Pop’s run.
“Oh. My. God,” he says now, two years later. “I never thought about the irony of that. But I will say that if Queen Madonna is going to be number two to anybody, I’m sure she’s OK being number two to a gay man.”
Currently in Chicago, filming the third series of Empire. Jussie says: “I fucking love her. Let’s just break this down real quickly. What we have to admit is that Madonna – aka our generation’s Marlene Dietrich – was so fucking ballsy. Right from the get-go she did not give a fuck. She had gay motherfuckers all up in her videos. She had a black Jesus and she did not give a shit. She did not care. She pushed the envelope and she did not push the envelope just to be cute about it. She pushed the envelope because she believed in something. She stood for something.”
For two and a bit seasons now, Empire has told the story of the comic, camp, cutthroat and ultra-glamorous machinations of a fictional American hip-hop music dynasty, in the mould of Russell Simmons’ Def Jam and Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment. Empire Records has been built by Lucious Lyon, a hot-headed patriarch extracted from the DNA of Quincy Jones and King Lear, and his ex-wife Cookie, a sharp-tongued recalibration of Alexis Colby by way of Lil’ Kim.
When Lucious is diagnosed with a fatal illness during the pilot, he must decide which of his three children should inherit the family business. Smollett, 33, plays gay middle son, Jamal, with gentle tenacity. As a child, Lucious attempts to throw Jamal in the trash. As an adult, he doesn’t treat him much better.
In person, Smollett is delightfully more ferocious than his ground-breaking fictional creation, if just as much a hero of his times.
Jamal Lyon is part of a long-standing thread of American culture that has nurtured non-binary representations of BAME men, dating right back to Little Richard and the birth of rock and roll. The sexuality and gender spectrum Jamal is sketched on is indebted to a pantheon of amazing US performers from Sylvester through Luther Vandross, taking in Prince, Leroy from Fame, Rick James, John Legend and Frank Ocean.
“This is American culture,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, there was Little Richard and Sylvester but there was also Rock Hudson. This idea of homophobia, this idea of hiding, of not being able to truly be who you really are, well I hate to tell my nation, but it’s American culture.”
US rapper Frank Ocean’s impeccable open letter to another man, who could not love him back, prior to the release of his debut studio album Channel Orange, was an iconic moment in American urban music culture — its timing just prefacing Jamal’s majority storyline in Empire – and the struggle to be an out gay commercial artist.
“Listen, Frank is just a fucking phenomenal artist,” says California-born Smollett. “I love that regardless of what he said, people just listened to his art, man. He’s brilliant. That’s all that matters.” Yet in songs such as Bad Religion, Ocean faced the tension of his sexuality head-on. “He addressed it in a bold, brave way that nobody had addressed it before. Frank Ocean was so ground-breaking that he eased the punch for Jamal, therefore easing the punch for me.”
Empire is the handiwork of blue-chip screen executives Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken. Daniels is one of the most powerful gay men in Hollywood, the director of gold-plated successes Precious, which turned future Empire favourite Gabourey Sidibe into a star and gave Mariah Carey a serious acting proposition, and The Butler, which Strong wrote. Chaiken, meanwhile, was responsible for the long-running TV hit, The L Word.
While Jamal Lyon was hardly the first BAME gay man to make an impact on American screens, the casting of an openly gay actor in the role presented a further progressive shift up from Six Feet Under and Will & Grace.
The question of being open about his sexuality at work was never an issue for Smollett. “I get tired of the idea of someone telling me what my truth is. I’ve said from the beginning of my journey, I do not hide who I am. I love who I love. No one is going to tell me that somehow that is going to be my disability.”
He continues: “I am told so many times that I should not walk truly in my blackness, that I should not walk truly in my sexuality, I should not walk truly in who I am. I say thanks but no thanks, fuck you and goodbye. I honestly think that me being myself has actually helped my career move forward.”
Lee Daniels first became aware of Jussie Smollett in his starring role in The Skinny (2012), a pioneering gay film from the early hand of Patrik-Ian Polk, an American writer/director previously responsible for the soapy gay TV series, Noah’s Arc.
Smollett’s first hint that Daniels had noticed him came when, at Outfest, Daniels presented Polk with an award for Skinny at LA’s Egyptian Theatre. “He said that the director was bold and that he tries to be as bold as he can in his projects but that he has not yet tackled the gay [issue],” recalls Smollett.
“Then he added, ‘but I’m about to’.” At this point, Smollett’s mother, a long-time confidante and supporter of her son’s ambition to conquer music, stage and screen on his own terms, turned to him and said: “you’re going to work with him.” Smollett started at the suggestion. “I turned to my mom and said, ‘oh my God, I am so embarrassed. Please do not say that out loud’.”
Two years later, Smollett’s manager handed him the pilot script for Empire.
“It was not only one of the most entertaining but also one of the most important scripts I’d ever seen. I wanted to be part of it as an artist but, genuinely, just as a person I wanted to see this project made.”
Prior to his audition, Smollett sent Daniels a message via Instagram. “I said ‘Mr Daniels, I am a singer, an actor, a dancer and a musician. I am Jamal Lyon in more ways than one’.” The week of the audition he received a reply which read: “Casting will be in touch. Peace.” It was enough to make him adore Daniels. “Lee is so old Hollywood. He’s very [Hollywood’s Golden Age producer] Louis B Mayer. He’s the classic Hollywood guy. He is not to be fucked with.”
For his Jamal audition, Smollett read the lyrics from Lauryn Hill’s Ex Factor, the work of an artist whose personal career arc could easily be culled from an Empire storyline. “I read the script and I saw Jamal’s pain. Lauryn Hill has a way of tapping into universal pain that I don’t see often in a lot of artists. You can put The Miseducation Of up there with Songs in the Key of Life.” Daniels took to Smollett. “I think he saw pieces of himself in me, which is what they needed because Jamal is based on him.”
Becoming Jamal has been a thrilling ride for Jussie. “This character resonates with me and resonates with so many people because he is the underdog. He is just trying to live his life.”
Smollett loves his relationship with his on-screen mother Cookie as well as the dilemmas that underpin the generational divide between Jamal and Lucious. “It’s a machismo issue but it’s also a fear issue. When I say homophobia, I say fuck that. I love what Morgan Freeman said about homophobia. ‘You’re not homophobic, you’re just an arsehole’. The point is that when you think about phobia, you think about fear. Are you afraid of me or are you afraid of what I represent about you?”
While filming season three, Smollett kept a keen eye on the political lunacy gripping his country. He supported Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency and said of Donald Trump: “The only thing I hate about living here in Chicago is that out of my apartment I can see a building and it says the name Trump on it.”
Away from the White House, it is the disunity of the United States of America right now that particularly rankles. “I’m bubbling up with so much stuff that is inside of my soul, so many things that are happening in the world, so many things I want to speak on: Orlando, all of the racial profiling, my people literally dying – and when I say my people, I mean my people on all fronts are dying. My people of colour are dying, being murdered by the police. My gay sisters and brothers are being killed for simply fucking being who they are. There is so much in the world that is so heavy that I feel like I am bubbling, my blood is boiling.”
During breaks from Empire, Smollett filmed Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. On this, he is unusually silent. “If I say anything, I will be killed and my soul will be sent into outer space or something.”
So he returns to what we can expect from the new series of Empire. “Season three will return to what we loved about season one. And that to me is the family. At the end of the day, yes, the show is huge and it’s fashion and it’s glitz and glamour and it’s music. It’s ground-breaking and ballsy but at the end of the day all of that stuff is the backdrop. At the end of the day it’s all about family. This season is very much about the dark and the light. Jamal is the light.”
Smollett continues: “But not just the good guy. “I saw an interview with Kerry Washington. She was saying Scandal’s Olivia Pope is, at her core, a good person but she is still flawed. I don’t think that it’s important for Jamal to be the good character. What’s important is for him to be a layered character in a very real way.
“It’s important to show he’s a good person, but he’s not good all the time. I care about people, I’m extremely loyal and I am genuine, but I still have arsehole tendencies. Nobody is one thing.”
For the past two years, you sense that Jussie has not so much been playing Jamal Lyon but inhabiting him. It’s here that characterisation magic happens.
“To me, it is important to show a fully flushed-out character who is all of the things we are: a caring, sometimes compromising, sexual, loving being. We’re complicated. We all love sex.” He catches himself. “At least I think we all love sex. I know Madonna and I love sex.”
Words by – Paul Flynn
Photos by – Victoria Will
Styling by – Joseph Kocharian