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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the third episode of Fox’s Empire.]
At the end of the pilot episode of Fox’s breakout hit Empire, Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) declared that he was going to come out as a gay artist in the hip-hop and R&B community. Championed by his mother-turned-manager Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), a news conference was set up in the second episode so the middle Lyon son could do just that — but Jamal never showed. Instead, it appeared his father Lucious (Terrence Howard) got in his head by telling him that doing so would mean being financially cut off from the Lyon dynasty’s reserves.
Although Jamal’s journey to get to a place where he feels comfortable and ready to come out is set up to be an ongoing story in newly renewed drama’s first season, the character took a major step at the end of the third episode when he stormed out of that his father paid for.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Smollett to discuss Jamal’s actions and what they mean for the way he will approach his family, his music and his path to the Empire Entertainment throne.
Jamal threw the keys down in the heat of the moment when his father showed up at his door. How much of that rash decision will he come to regret in the coming episodes?
What I believe about Jamal is that sometimes rash decisions are the decisions you need to make in that moment. You didn’t have enough time to think about it, to convince yourself of otherwise. Sometimes we over think [and] we convince ourselves out of the truth — out of what actually is best for ourselves. What was best for Jamal at that time was to say, “Screw you” to Lucious. He needed that! What you’ll see is the progression of [Jamal] slowly starting to build an amount of respect from Lucious. He’s got to command that respect. He finally got to say, “I’m a man. I’m standing on my own, and I actually do not need you.” In the prior episode, Lucious told Jamal, “If you come out, I’m cutting you off.” But it’s like, “You know what? I may not necessarily come out right now, but if I do it’s because I want to; you no longer hold that control over me.”
Jamal did basically stand Cookie up when he decided not to come out when she set up that press conference, though.
I know this sounds crazy, but I believe he did the right thing by not showing up. That’s not Jamal. That’s not what Jamal needed; that’s what Cookie wanted. And although Cookie means the best for Jamal, and she wants absolutely what’s best, it doesn’t mean it’s actually necessarily what’s best. I think Jamal is an “all in due time”-type of person [and] it has to be on his time.
Is it more authentic for Jamal to speak his truth in that way through his music, rather than a big staged event?
Yeah, and I think that’s the universal thing between all the Lyons: what they cannot say, they can say it through music. They can’t necessarily speak to each other — Lucious and Jamal don’t necessarily understand each other [except] when it comes to music. The only way that these men speak in a harmonious way is through music. This is their world; this is their language. Terrence said this is their language and how they communicate, and what Lucious is going to see is that the son that he disapproves of the most is actually the son that’s most like him— the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So at the end of the third episode, Jamal is literally outside on the street with his bags packed. Who is he turning to for support in episode four?
Himself. Jamal is a Lyon [and] they know how to take care of themselves. Cookie’s obviously a huge support system for him [too], but when it comes down to it financially and all of that type of stuff, he’s taking care of himself. Jamal’s taking care of Jamal and Michael (Rafael de la Fuente).
And how is the relationship with Michael? He has been very supportive thus far but the line in the pilot where Lucious comments and assumes Jamal was still with another guy almost makes it seems like this is in its early stages.
Lucious was just being a little punk! (Laughs.) But this relationship, like every single relationship in Jamal’s life, the dynamic of it is going to change very soon. He’s growing and he’s becoming someone that he didn’t want to become, and he’s becoming someone that he kind of has to become in order to get to his final destination.
Showrunner Ilene Chaiken called the relationship between Lucious and Jamal a “twisted love.” Lucious has been abusive; he has been dismissive; he doesn’t approve or even want to understand Jamal. Yet, Jamal said he loves his father. How do you reconcile that in your mind when you’re inhabiting this character?
Deep down inside a child’s love toward their parent never goes away. There are things that he does not respect about his father, but there are things that he does respect about his father [as well]. There are things that he resents about his father, and there are things he revels in about his father. It’s a very complicated situation; it’s very gray. And it is this twisted love of an abusive relationship. Somehow [Jamal] keeps on getting sucked back because somehow he believes there’s this really good person that he maybe saw a peak of, and he wants to believe that that’s truly who [Lucious] is. That’s the No. 1 rule of an abusive relationship.
How seriously does Jamal take Cookie now that he’s spent a little more time with her?
I think he takes her very seriously. I think with his mom also being his manager, there are times when he gets annoyed with her (laughs), but he knows that Cookie knows her stuff. He’s straddling the fence of what he wants to do with his career in the first place, but once he really decides what he wants to do, he’s got to listen to Cookie because she’s always right!
The audience knows about Cookie’s deal with the FBI, and the family has murmured about how Cookie got out early and so suddenly. Is Jamal starting to suspect something is up there?
I think Jamal is taking Cookie one day at a time! Homegirl just got out of jail … he’s a little stressed. He’s adjusting. And he has seen his mom; she’s the only one who went to see her [in jail], so he loves his mom, and he knows that her love for him his pure, but does he question how she got out of jail? Toward the middle of the season you will see that. It’s an onion. Every episode is a different layer revealed.
Jamal has helped Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) so much with his music. At what point will Jamal say he has to focus on himself?
There will come a point where Jamal kind of goes into a cocoon and does what he has to do and gets that fire in his eye. It’s coming up in episode five and six. It really is the transition of Jamal and Hakeem’s relationship and where seams start coming loose. They will fight, and they will compete, but they will always find their way back to each other.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Do you want to see Jamal come out and eventually take over Empire Entertainment? Sound off in the comments below.
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