As Empire hits British television on 5Star, we caught up with actor and musician Jussie Smollett on being out, being proud and
stanning for Mariah.
There’s hardly a long tradition of out African-American characters on TV, which makes Jussie Smollett’s turn as Jamal Lyon on Empire something of a groundbreaker. “And it’s a black gay man playing a black gay man”, the actor proudly points out.
Three seasons in, with another on the way, Jussie has settled into the character but did it dawn on him at the beginning just how big a deal it was? “It dawned on me how significant it was to me myself”, he tells Gay Times when we meet him at the 2017 Monte-Carlo Television Festival, “but it didn’t dawn on me that it would be so significant to other people. I mean, I never assume that something will resonate with people, I can only do the work that resonates with me then hope and pray somebody is touched by it.”
The 35-year-old Californian grins. “But the fact so many people across the board have been touched by Jamal is amazing.” And it’s not just gay men who have responded positively to his portrayal of the R&B singer-songwriter who defiantly came out in the first season despite the protests of his homophobic music mogul father Lucious (Terrence Howard). “Heterosexual men come up to me all the time to say Jamal has opened their minds, their eyes and their hearts.
He’s opened up a conversation across the homosexual and heterosexual community about this feeling of being boxed-in – the placements and titles and roles we put on people that are so unfair.”
Asked to elaborate about how that plays out across the straight community, Jussie thinks for a moment then says: “They don’t have a problem with gay people, but they’re taught to have a problem with us and if they don’t then it says something about them – but in actuality, if you’re comfortable with yourself you ain’t got no problem. Why do you care? On the show we’ve been able to shine a light on that without explicitly saying it. We’re just holding a mirror up to it and going ‘Y’all can figure it out.’ It makes you think.”
With the support of his mother (the fabulous Cookie, played by the equally fabulous Taraji P Henson) and an eventual, partial thawing of his father’s entrenched prejudices, Jamal has his share of dramas on the gloriously soapy show, but Jussie is proud of the fact he’s “a rounded, layered human being who is larger than his career, larger than his race, larger than his sexuality”.
Universally praised for his performance, the actor adds: “Jamal has crossed lines and borders of understanding and misunderstanding. We’ve all felt misjudged and misunderstood, with people having preconceived notions about who we are when they know nothing about us. I’m honoured to be able to bring his story to life because it touches on so many things I’ve gone through in my own life.”
Born in Santa Rosa, Jussie (a riff on his real name of Justin) was a child star in films like The Mighty Ducks and North, tried his hand at music, got back into acting as a gay medical student in rom-com The Skinny, guested on The Mindy Project and Revenge, then in 2015 landed the star-making role on Empire.
Performing on the show and co-writing songs for it allows him to combine his passions. “I love acting because it gives me the chance to step into different parts of myself and it gives me a chance to give voice to characters who maybe wouldn’t have a voice otherwise, but music is the love of my life and it’s all me.” Declaring himself “very happy” in his life away from the cameras, but declining to go into detail he adds: “I get scared of sharing too much about my personal life, but music is this beautiful thing I can hide behind.”
Formerly an indie artist, Jussie is now signed to Columbia Records. “And I miss some of the freedom I had as an indie artist”, he admits. But then he did get to record with Mariah Carey on the song Infamous on the show, so that’s not too shabby. “I know!” he yelps. He also interviewed her, in his pyjamas no less, when he co-hosted Kelly Ripa’s morning TV show, bowing to her when she came on set – or rather, when she was carried on because her shoes were too perilously high to walk in. “I always bow to Mariah”, he laughs. “Mariah is a goddess, she’s a queen, she’s fucking Mariah Carey! But people always see the larger-than-life Mariah – the ultimate diva! – but she’s also such a giving person. She spent three hours on the phone with me once talking about the music business.”
Despite all the machinations and interfamily feuds that go on between Jamal and his waring parents, Jussie is great mates with Taraji and Terrence. “I talk to them every single day. It’s weird because they’re like half mother and father to me and half brother and sister. They’re two of my dearest friends and I’m so blessed in the sense that I come from a large family and we’re extremely close, but I spend nine months of the year away from them. It feels very alienating. But when I’m in Chicago filming, Taraji lives four minutes to the left of me and Terrence lives directly in the middle. I can walk to both their houses and we hang out all the time.”
Empire’s gay creator Lee Daniels is a hero and an inspiration, guiding Jussie and his co-stars to delve beyond stereotypes. “If you look at any project Lee Daniels has turned to, you’ll see very layered, multi-dimensional characters. They’re never black or white, they’re all about the beautiful shades of grey that we all share. Even though we’ve become sort of a soap opera, it’s still based in reality. We’ve had some bumps in the road, we’ve made some mistakes, some things haven’t stuck, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”
Does he think there should be more gay African-Americans playing gay African Americans on television? Or indeed should more gay African-Americans be vocal about their sexuality? Jussie considers his answer carefully. “I think everyone’s journey is different. I don’t want to be that person to point a finger and be like ‘You should be doing more’. I don’t think it’s fair to expect everybody’s calling to be the same – that everybody should be open about what they believe in and who they love. It’s a very scary thing and no matter how much we think it’s accepted, it’s still very taboo in a lot of places – not just in the black community but all over the world – to be gay, let alone to be out and gay. There are still people who think ‘Why do we have to see that?’”
He’s weathered a few negative comments on social media. “But honest to God it’s 98 per cent positivity to two per cent negativity, so I’m good. I’m a man in his 30s and I’m here to make young people feel less alone. I’m not here to tell anybody who to be and I’m not here to tell anybody what to do, I’m simply here to tell anybody who feels they cannot be who they are, ‘I’m being who I am, I’m OK with it, you should be too’.”
Jussie leans forward. “As long as you’re a good, caring person and not fucking anybody over, who is anyone to judge you?” Well, quite.
“I’m here to tell anybody who feels they can’t be who they are, ‘I’m being who I am, I’m OK, you should be too.’”