Jussie Smol­lett

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS si­mon but­ton

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.’”

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