'Empire': Forest Whitaker Discusses His Extended Arc and Returning to Music

The Oscar winner breaks down his series debut and what's to come.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire, "Full Circle."]

No one can accuse Empire of being slow-moving. But Wednesday's episode of the primetime hip-hop soap was particularly eventful. Anika (Grace Byers) got released from jail and underwent a major makeover. Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) had Lucious' mother Leah (Leslie Uggams) committed after she confessed to Cookie that she murdered Tariq and wanted to do the same to Claudia (Demi Moore). Even Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) got in on the action, stabbing Jamal (Jussie Smollett) in the back to score a promotion at Empire when she switched out his vocals to Tory's (Rumer Willis) on a big song.

But most importantly, Wednesday's episode introduced Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker as a Quincy Jones-esque musical giant from Lucious' past named Uncle Eddie. Although the return of Eddie didn't jog Lucious' memory at all, Uncle Eddie was able to lend a shoulder to a struggling Cookie as he promised to help her and the family with Lucious once she told him the truth about Lucious' condition.

To the surprise of many. Whitaker even sang in the episode  a nod to his days in the high school choir and his early college days studying music.

With his series debut officially in the books, THR talked with Whitaker about signing on for Empire, agreeing to sing onscreen, his extended 10-episode arc and what's to come.

You had obviously worked with Lee Daniels, Terrence and Taraji before. Did you keep in touch with everyone in the years since? Who were you closest to?

I was reached out to through the writing team. They were thinking a lot about this character and so they had a feeling they wanted to have someone who could hold their own. We got on the phone and we talked about what they were thinking for the character and what was going to be happening and it was really exciting. It's a great opportunity to work with people that I really respect and I hadn't worked with in a long time.

What appealed to you about the character of Eddie specifically? How did he differ from other characters you've played before?

Well, No 1., he's someone close to the family from the past who is thought of almost like a family member, and I think [the fact that] he's brought in to help while this empire is kind of disintegrating because of Lucious' sickness is really interesting. I get to play a media mogul to go in and start to help and start to work on Empire's 20 for 20 [record deal] so it was really intriguing. My character, because he's trying to help run this company, he's working with a lot of different people inside the company, so it was really interesting for me to get to explore all these different types of relationships, with Lucious and Cookie and also the sons. It was a great opportunity to get to create something that would be different and it allowed me to play a lot of different sides to this character. He's a leader in a way. He sees situations and looks how to make them work and how to fix things. He has that enigmatic kind of quality.

You also get to sing in this first episode. Was that always part of the role? What were those early discussions about you singing on the show?

I haven't sang in a long time, and I was excited when they asked me if I would be willing to sing. We had a little discussion about what the song would be. I think one of the things that was really important was that it connected to the script and moved me.

Was there extra preparation you did knowing you would be singing? Any special warmups or lessons or anything like that?

I wanted to work with a vocal coach but I just started doing small things like working with the producer. It just came together that day. I had a good time doing it because it was fun in the studio. T

So many Empire characters say they can be trusted but they really can't. Can Eddie be trusted or what can you say about what is coming up?

(Laughs.) I can't really say much about what's going to happen with the character but I can say Eddie is there for Cookie and the family. He is truly a friend. But what happens when he's trying to save the label gets complicated, but I can't really get into it.

Will viewers get to see any flashbacks to when Eddie and Lucious first met or first worked together?

We certainly talk about it. It comes up again. We're talking about it a lot so I think we acknowledge it as does Cookie.

Eddie offers to help in this episode but can you elaborate on how he'll fulfill that promise in future episodes with the family and in regards to the company?

You're going to see him involved in the internal fray at the company. You'll see him working hard to make sure that everything is in place as a producer, as I mentioned, and he's trying to get the train back on track. You'll see him trying to support Cookie and Lucious too, they have an interesting relationship. They have quite a lot to go through.

What kind of dynamic will we see between Eddie and Claudia, since she's so heavily in Lucious' life? Will you share any scenes with Demi Moore?

As far as Claudia, she's threatened by his presence in the beginning. Eddie is a character with a big life force so he sees what the problems are and tries to fix things. He comes in and sees what problems there and tries to fix things, or does fix things, and he's coming in and moving forward and that makes for tension.

When it was first announced you were going to be on the show, it just said a multi-episode arc but now you're saying you'll be on 10 episodes. How much did the original plans change?

In the beginning, it was going to be six or so episodes. But then they came back halfway through and asked if I could extend it to 10 to stretch out this arc, which is really, really powerful and I said, "Let's do it."

You obviously have other commitments, so what made you want to do more episodes and spend more time in Chicago?

I think it's a great opportunity to show range. In the past, I had done 13 episodes of The Shield and I did six episodes of ER and both times I got to do really interesting arcs. Now I'm doing even more on Empire so it really gave me a chance to do the kind of acting

It gives you a new opportunity to do an overarching role, you can see what's coming up next. Also, Empire is built around music and I love music. It's fun to get to perform. And getting to play Quincy Jones or someone of that nature, it's a great opportunity.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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