"Empire" is TV's most-talked about new series, and it's all thanks to the "crazy-ass mind of Lee Daniels" -- at least, that's what series star Jussie Smollett tells us.
Daniels' new series, which tied "How to Get Away With Murder" as the season’s highest-rated debut, has been praised for its diverse casting and its harrowing depiction of homophobia within the hip-hop community -- Smollett plays a crucial role as Lucious' (Terrence Howard) closeted son.
"It's very easy for somebody to say, 'Oh, I'm not a homophobe' -- until your son tells you that he's gay. And it's very easy to say, 'I'm not a racist' -- until your daughter brings home a black man," Smollett recently told MTV News over the phone from the Chicago set of "Empire." "So for that, it says a lot about our culture that the show is being embraced the way that it is. Because it means that people want to see something that reflects the truth."
Below, Smollett (Jamal Lyons) reflects on "Empire's" success and previews the drama ahead for the Lyon family. Plus, he reveals who would really put Lucious in his place -- and no, it's not (Queen) Cookie.
MTV News: Let's talk about Rhonda's bib. That scene seemed to really take on a life of its own on Twitter. Where did that idea even come from?
Jussie Smollett: The mind of crazy-ass Lee Daniels! He's crazy. That's why we love him. But you know, Rhonda and Andre are extremely impulsive, and she's in her outfit about to go work -- she can't get messy. And now I guarantee you people will be buying bibs!
MTV: Cable networks have seen a lot of success with reality shows with predominantly African-American casts. Do you think that audience is also tuning in to watch "Empire?"
Smollett: I think that the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" is for this audience, and I also think that "60 Minutes" is for this audience. This is a very intelligent show, but it also gives you the drama you want to see. And the thing is -- and this is why I will never piss on reality TV -- I remember back in the '90s when all of the ladies and all of the fellas used to watch the talk shows. To me, reality TV is our generation's version of talk shows. We used to watch Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, and now reality TV has stepped in. People love to see things that they can relate to: the good, the bad, and the absolutely crazy. So what Lee and Danny [Strong] have done, they created a show that really combines every single thing that you can possibility imagine from today's world. There are elements of rachetness, but there are also elements of social activism.
I do believe people are waiting for more shows like this. You have shows like "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder" and "Power," where you can swap any of those characters out with white characters and it can still be done. And I think you can do the same with "Empire." Yes, the cast is predominantly black, but this is a show that touches everyone.
MTV: I see what you're saying, but I can't imagine anyone else as Cookie. Taraji P. Henson owns that part.
Smollett: Hell no! That is Taraji's role. There's nobody in this world that can play Cookie the way that the great Taraji Henson plays her. There is a fearlessness to her that is so incredible to watch and be part of. There's really nothing that she can't do. "Porscha, get my damn shoe!" No one else can deliver that like Taraji.
MTV: Your character Jamal is the moral center of the series. Would you agree with that?
Smollett: Yes. For now. [Laughs]
MTV: And this was a very personal project for Lee Daniels, who took a lot of his own experiences as a gay man and wrote them into the story. Is there a lot of Lee in Jamal?
Smollett: So much. Lee Daniels' life is all up in "Empire." This show is Lee's life set in a higher-stakes environment. I met Lee's sister, and she is Cookie Lyons. Straight up! He grew up just like Lucious in Philadelphia, and the things that Lee has seen and been through are all present in the series. Lee has talked to me about it, and we've gotten so close. He started working with me when I was still auditioning. He had me come in seven different times. It was a tough audition process, but there has never been a project that I've done that has been more rewarding. My goal is to show the silent strength that Jamal has in himself -- the same strength I see in Lee.
MTV: Jamal was ready to come out publicly in the first episode, but then we saw him change his mind in the second episode when Lucious threatened to take his cash flow away. Was that the only reason Jamal flaked on the press conference?
Smollett: I think the reason why he didn't is because all of the elements were not there. This isn't Lucious' journey, and it isn't Cookie's journey. So for Lucious to bully him to stay in the closet, and for Cookie to bully him and tell him to come out of the closet, it's not their journey to tell them to do either one of those things. It just wasn't the right time for him, especially to do it in such a grand way -- with the press conference and the performance. That was a s--tshow! That's not Jamal. It don't think that the money was entirely the reason, but I do think that Lucious was a big reason why he didn't come out.
MTV: Now that Becky knows about Lucious' ALS diagnosis, is there a chance she's going to let it slip to Jamal?
Smollett: No. Becky is ride or die for whoever she's loyal to. She's not tell Lucious Jamal's secrets, and she's not telling Jamal Lucious' secrets. Becky is a beautiful spirit who respects Jamal for who he is, but at the same time, she ain't trying to lose her job! I mean, she walked out of the bathroom and he was throwing M&Ms at her. I was like, 'This fool is throwing M&Ms at her. How very, very old-school Diddy of you.'
MTV: Judging from the teaser for the upcoming episodes...
Smollett: "Especially hoes who try to have her followed." I want to know how are you going to be praying to the Lord, and calling someone a ho? But hey, you can if you're Cookie. Cookie can do anything, pretty much. Except sell drugs, apparently, because she'll get caught.
MTV: But in the teaser, it looks like Jamal might get involved with Cookie's criminal past. He pulls a gun at one point, and I'm a little worried.
Smollett: I really, really love my job, and I would really love to keep it, so I'm going to keep hush about that. However, what I will say is that you will see Jamal slowly start to become exactly who he did not want to be.
MTV: Now, there's a lot of singing in "Empire," and so far, we've seen a lot of characters sing, except for Cookie. Are we going to hear Taraji sing this season? We know she can sing.
Smollett: Taraji really can sing! [sings] It's hard out here for a pimp. You will get a little taste of the voice of Miss Henson, and hopefully, you will get more in season two.
MTV: And finally, there are a lot of amazing guest stars on "Empire" -- Gladys Knight, Raven Symone, Courtney Love, etc. Is there any chance we're going to see Oprah at Empire Entertainment?
Smollett: I have heard whispers about that! Obviously, that would be the dream. I think Oprah should sit down with Jamal Lyon and do a "Next Chapter," or maybe a at home special with the Lyon family. That would be a hot mess. She would be the ultimate guest star. I have a few dream guest stars, personally, but Oprah would be amazing.
MTV: Who are they?
Smollett: I would love -- no, I would die -- if Kanye West or Janet Jackson came on the show. Somebody needs to call out Kim and tell her to let Kanye do the show.
MTV: I'd be so down for that if he brought North West and/or Blue Ivy with him.
Smollett: You know what? We need to have Blue Ivy come and kick Lucious' ass. Yo, she'd be the one that would straight get him together. She'd give him that side-eye and he'd feel like nothing. Blue Ivy would make Lucious feel the way that Lucious makes Jamal feel.