Fox’s ‘Empire’ star Jussie Smollett (Jamal) embraces gay storyline

EMPIRE: Jamal (Jussie Smollett, L) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, R) share a moment in the "The Lyon's Roar" episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 25 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co CR: Matt Dinnerstein/FOX

EMPIRE: Jamal (Jussie Smollett, L) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, R) share a moment in the “The Lyon’s Roar” episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 25 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co CR: Matt Dinnerstein/FOX

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The phenomenon that is Fox hip-hop drama “Empire” keeps getting bigger. Every week since its debut in early January, the soap has seen its audience grow steadily in a way that no show in recent memory has done. And in Atlanta, it’s become a monster hit.

The week of Feb. 4, the fifth episode, drew 11.5 million viewers nationally and 634,000 viewers in Atlanta – more than the Grammys, more than Houston, Dallas, Chicago, even Los Angeles. In terms of share of audience with TVs on (22 percent), not even New York  could beat us.

UPDATE: The seventh episode, which aired Feb. 18, drew 13 million viewers nationally. Projected over a week’s time, that should grow to more than 17 million. The eighth episode drew nearly 14 million.

Why is the show working? It’s tapping into a market, especially black females, who love this type of dramatics, who already watch shows such as “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” and “Scandal.” It’s embracing a lifestyle and culture that is ubiquitous. And Taraji P. Henson‘s already iconic character Cookie dominates the screen every time she appears. And social media is fueling the need to watch it live even in a world where people are increasingly watching shows on the go and on demand.

Even Atlanta hip-hop star Killer Mike, who watches it with his wife, approves. “A lot of it is true to form with the music, the vendettas, the infighting,” he told me. “It feels like ‘Dynasty.’ People who are non-industry people will attach to themselves to the glitz and the glamor. When they do vignettes from the 1990s, it looks pretty dope, pretty accurate. I give it a thumbs up.”

Subscribers of myajc.com can read my story about “Empire” here.

I talked to Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal, the gay son of hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon and a burgeoning R&B star in his own right.

UPDATE: In case you were wondering, yes, Smollett is gay. He officially talked about it with Ellen DeGeneres in early March.

Q: How has the crazy experience been since the show debuted?

Jussie: It’s been pretty surreal. I wasn’t expecting it. To be right here in this moment is pretty dope.

Q: Why do you think the show is so popular?

Jussie: Taraji P. Henson. Cookie. It’s definitely that element. She and Terrence [Howard] set the tone, creating honest portrayals set in very soapy situations. [Co-creator] Lee Daniels is notorious about telling the truth. We get to speak to issues that have not really been spoken out loud. They’ve been whispered. And we do it in a non preachy sort of way but also an entertaining sort of way. Plus the music is legit and can stand on their own. All these elements play into the success of the show.

Q: When did it really hit you that you might have a steady job for while?

Jussie: I didn’t say I had a real job until we got picked up for a second season. That’s when it hit me. You never know. Some of the greatest TV shows and films were only seen by the people who made them. You never truly know what will resonate with the viewers until it does. I kind of went into this with this idea that I was doing a very special 12-episode series.

Jussie Smollett more than two decades ago in "The Mighty Ducks."

Jussie Smollett more than two decades ago in “The Mighty Ducks.”

Q: You were a child actor [“The Mighty Ducks,” short-lived ABC sitcom “On Our Own”], then took a 15-year break from acting. What were you up to in the interim?

Jessie: I didn’t decide to take a break. It’s something that happened. I was in that in between stage. Our show had been cancelled. I wasn’t cutesy anymore. I wasn’t a leading man. So I went to school. I just kept on working regular jobs. I worked retail. I was a waiter. I bartended. I was a clown for kids’ parties. I could make a mean balloon animal! I was just living life, creating stories I can write about and sing about.

Q: So how did this job come about?

Jussie: I had gotten back into the acting business three years ago. My brothers and sisters, we have this group message thread, always text messaging funny stuff. My older sister is a producer. She sent me a link about this show created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong about music. I hit up my managers kind of indignant. They said, ‘Dog, chill! We’re already on it.’ They sent me the script. The role that connected with me was Jamal.

I jumped on Instagram and went to Lee Daniels. We never met before.’I know you get this all the time. I’m a singer. I’m a dancer. And I’m an actor. I’m Jamal Lyon in more ways than one.’ The day before my audition, he DMed me. ‘Casting. Will be touch. Peace.’ I auditioned seven times and got the role!

Q:  What makes Jamal tick?

Jussie: His heart. That’s what I really identified with. The fact is no human is universally accepted. Everyone is judged for whatever reason. Your culture. Your race. Your sexuality. A handicap. It doesn’t matter.That really spoke to me. Plus, on top of that I got to work with Lee Daniels and Taraji and Terrence Howard and get to sing. It’s everything I ever wanted mixed up in this jumble!

Q: How has the public reacted to the fact your character is gay?

Jussie: We are no longer going to have this cycle where preconceived stereotypes further perpetuates stereotypes… I’ve had so many people support Jamal who are Team Jamal.  We actually do want to love each other. We want to accept each other. It’s been an incredible ride. I’ve gotten letters like this kid who after the second week was inspired to come out to his parents. He was so scared. It ended up being okay. It’s a blessing. Sure, I get these a**holes that tweet me racist and homophobic s***. But that’s what block is for!

Q: Why do you think Cookie is so much more accepting of your sexual orientation than your dad?

Jussie: Because Cookie is the champion of the underdog. She believes in Jamal the way she believed in Lucious when he was younger. We’re told someone like Jamal can’t make it. Back in the earlier generation, that’s how people saw Lucious. Cookie is smart. She recognizes how Jamal and Lucious are more alike than they’re not.

Q: Does Jussie really want to run Empire one day? So far, it seems like Andre is the one who really wants it.

Jussie: Without giving up too much, Jamal has the guts to run the company. We’ll see how. I can’t say. I like my job. It’s going to be really exciting. The show is one big ball of craziness.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 06: Actress Raven-Symone attends the premiere of Fox's 'Empire' held at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on January 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)

HOLLYWOOD, CA – JANUARY 06: Actress Raven-Symone attends the premiere of Fox’s ‘Empire’ held at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on January 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)

Q: Raven-Symone is your surprise baby’s mama. She’s our Atlanta girl. How was it like working with her?

Jussie: Raven’s one of my best friends in the whole world for eight years. We’ve actually known each other since I was four and she was like six. She’ll give me a look and I’ll bust out laughing. I thought she had retired from acting so when we were coming up with names, I didn’t know if she would do it. Lee was on it.  Funny. Before she was cast, the name of the character was Olivia. [That was her character’s name on the “Cosby Show.”] There were rumors back in the day in that we actually had a baby. This is so funny. Art imitating life – but not!

Q: What’s your take on your rivalry with Hakeem?

Jussie: Hakeem is a jack*** sometimes. But he has a huge heart. And he has no issue with me being gay. It seems to be the only person who has a real issue is Lucious. The rivalry is there but I think they will always find their way back to each other.

EMPIRE: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, L) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, R) share a moment in the "The Lyon's Roar" episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 25 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

EMPIRE: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, L) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, R) share a moment in the “The Lyon’s Roar” episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 25 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Q: Andre hasn’t gotten much air time so far.

Jussie: Oh, don’t you worry. More Andre is coming. You’ll see a lot more layers. Everyone who is a son of Lucious is a victim. No one is all black and white. There are a lot of shades of gray.

Q: Fifty shades of gray?

Jussie: [laughter] No handcuffs but definitely bibs!

Q: Any Atlanta connections?Jussie: I’m a Southern boy. My mom’s from New Orleans. I love Atlanta. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’ve worked with Chris Willis.Q: Any favorite hangout spots?

Jussie: The Waffle House! It’s the time I can be country and not care. I can go there and eat what I want!

CREDIT: ajc.com

CREDIT: ajc.com

Q: Are you guys planning to tour?

Jussie: No details yet but yes. We have an ‘Empire’ album on March 10. And I’m working on my own solo album.

TV preview

“Empire,” 9:01 p.m., Wednesdays, Fox

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