'Empire' Team Debates Bringing Jussie Smollett Back as Others Question Salary Motive

Jussie Smollett-v2-Getty-H 2019
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The increasingly complicated story of Jussie Smollett’s January assault, and the mounting evidence that he staged it, has left many of those who have worked with him in shock. But nothing has been greeted with more confusion than his motive, which police allege was a pay grab on an aging hit series — a job for which he was already well compensated and may be able to hold onto until he sees a jury.

Chicago police said Thursday that the embattled Empire star choreographed the "publicity stunt" because he was "dissatisfied with his salary" on the Fox show. Sources familiar with his and other deals on the Lee Daniels and Danny Strong drama say that he never expressed dissatisfaction with his rich compensation. 

Smollett’s salary is substantial, especially for someone who was a relative unknown when he was first cast on Empire before its 2015 premiere. His base pay was originally said to have been in the $40,000-$50,000 per-episode range at the time, considered typical for an actor of his previous stature and placement on the call sheet. After Empire broke out as a massive ratings hit and cultural phenomenon, Fox and producers 20th Century Fox TV renegotiated the cast's contracts between the second and third seasons. (Producers 20th TV also gifted the cast Rolex watches as wrap gifts after season one.)

Remaining in the second of what sources describe as three tiers of cast salaries, Smollett’s pay was elevated to upwards of $125,000 per episode. By comparison, stars Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henson — both household names on the top of the call sheet — started out earning in the $110,000-$120,000 per-episode range and, in 2016, were elevated to the $225,000-$250,000 ballpark.

Given the current demand for talent in TV, when Netflix and Apple are driving the price for stars of all levels upwards, multiple sources describe Smollett's current salary to The Hollywood Reporter as being in the the upper echelon for an actor with his experience on a successful show.

Complicating Smollett's financials, however, is that his original Fox contract was a "360 deal.” That means it includes music elements similar to pacts for the stars of series like Glee. Under the deal, the studio controlled additional aspects of Smollett's musical career, and the actor-musician would earn additional cash based on iTunes sales from Empire music and from live concerts — should the revenue have come in north of what his original guarantee included.

If Smollett was trying to build his profile by staging the attack, as Chicago police claim, his musical career certainly could use a shot in the arm. Empire’s original soundtrack was a Billboard No. 1 album, but Smollett’s subsequent efforts outside of the show have shown the limits of his success. The 36-year-old’s debut solo album, Sum of My Music, has sold a scant 7,000 units in equivalent sales in the year since its 2018 release. (Nielsen Music cites just 2,000 units in straight sales, if streaming is ignored.)

His touring career has also been modest, certainly a byproduct of the rigors of starring in a network drama. Smollett has fewer than 40 performances on his listed tour history since Empire came on the air — the latest, the only to happen after the Chicago incident, was a $20-a-head concert at West Hollywood’s Troubadour. A small venue, the club can only hold a crowd of 400, at most, for a show.

Smollett’s deal technically requires that he would have needed studio approval to record a solo album or perform his Feb. 2 concert. 20th TV could have also asked for a piece of his performance fee from the gig — though it’s unclear how or if the studio has profited off of Smollett's non-Empire efforts.

And if Smollett just wanted more money out of Empire, it does not seem that he ever asked for it. Sources close to the series say that they had not heard from the actor or his team about a new contract. "I don't think it's true that he was unhappy with what he was being paid," says one close to Empire. "His representatives never once called and there was no effort to renegotiate. He's never expressed any dissatisfaction."

Meanwhile, Empire is considered highly likely to be renewed for a sixth season as it remains Fox's No. 2 scripted drama (behind only Ryan Murphy's 911). Still, that deal may have to be hammered out with Disney executives as 20th TV is poised to change hands as part of Fox's $71.3 billion asset sale.

A final decision on Smollett's fate on the series likely won't come any sooner than that. Sources say that Fox is considering keeping him out of the season finale, set to film over the coming weeks, while they wait and see how the off-camera drama plays out. Others are said to be pushing to allow Smollett to work on the finale, defending the actor as innocent until proven guilty. A third camp, meanwhile, questions if the series has enough footage of Smollett in the can to include him in the episode without bringing him back on set. (Update: On Friday, the show's executive producers announced that Smollett won't be appearing in the final two episodes of the season to avoid "disruption on set.")

Regardless of how it plays out on Empire, Smollett is not considered likely to see his Hollywood ties completely severed before he faces a jury — so long as he maintains his innocence. “No one in business with him is going to publicly distance themselves while he maintains he’s a victim,” says one agent. “You don’t want to be in a position where you look like you’re disloyal to clients.”