‘Empire’s’ Jussie Smollett & Terrence Howard on Homophobic Explosion

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D-Major (Tobias Truvvilon) pretends Jamal (Jussie Smollett) came on to him as Lucious (Terrence Howard) watches. (Fox)
D-Major (Tobias Truvillion) pretends Jamal (Jussie Smollett) came on to him as Lucious (Terrence Howard) watches. (FOX)

While the bulk of the second season of FOX’s “Empire” had things going fairly smooth between Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), things definitely erupted towards the end of the season.

In fact, in the penultimate episode, things between the two men hit a fever pitch when the homophobia that we saw in the first season reared its ugly head once again. In fact, the final words Lucious says to Jamal before the young man walks away are: “And when you die of AIDS, I’m gonna celebrate.” Ouch!

At last Friday’s For Your Consideration event in Los Angeles, Howard told me some of the inspiration for spewing so much hatred at his on-screen son. “I had to put some of my own father’s words in there. I had to put some of my own base fears in that speech with him, something that is intolerable to my nature and da da da da da and for [Jamal] to throw up the stuff about my mother, it was like a mix of real life and real character and real growth and real fears and real overcoming those fears. There was truth in that thing that I never had the opportunity to face, so it was an honest moment for us and it was my proudest moment as an actor.”

The cast and crew of 'Empire' at the FYC event. (Fox)
The cast and crew of ‘Empire’ at the FYC event. (FOX)

Executive producer/showrunner Ilene Chaiken told me via a phone call earlier this week that she and EP Danny Strong agreed that the argument had to be huge given that at the end of that episode, Jamal would still take a bullet meant for his father. “Danny and I both said they’ve gotta have a horrible fight, a fight in which Lucious says some vile things, and it should go right to the core issue between them,” she explained. “Then Lee Daniels came into the conversation and said, ‘OK, we’re going to go there. This is what Lucious is going to say.’  We went there and it was hard. There were people on set, including my writer/producer on set who said ‘Please don’t. Please don’t let him say that thing about AIDS.’ But Terrence believed in it. It was real.”

Can the two Lyon men salvage their fractured relationship? Howard explained, “They have to. They have to. They love each other and in truth, Jamal is the closest one to him. That’s why Lucious is so afraid of Jamal’s choices in his life, because what does it say about him? Is it saying that there’s a gay person living inside of Lucious that’s trying to come out or he’s afraid it’s coming out? All those fears. That’s what normally keeps America or keeps men in the world frightened of other people’s choices, because what does it say about them if they made those choices?”

Based on what Howard said, check out this clip of the song “Like My Daddy,” which shows that maybe Jamal is aware of how much he can be like Lucious. 

With the new relationship with D-Major (Tobias Truvillion) hitting a snag because the music producer is living in the closet (a.k.a., the down-low or DL), Smollett is actually happy about Jamal having to deal with the issue. “I love the storyline, and I love the idea of what we’re talking about with this storyline,” he said on the red carpet. “I love that it’s complicated and it just further shows what ‘Empire’ is so good at showing, which is that people are not usually one clear black and white, you know what I’m saying? There are so many shades of gray and there are complexities to people that make them the way that they are, and it’s a part of their journey.”

While viewers have watched Jamal go through his own journey of “his truth” (as Jamal calls it in the show), Smollett explained that it’s not a bad thing that the two men are not at the same place in their lives. “D-Major might be in a different place as Jamal is in his journey, and that’s OK. He just needs to not bring [Jamal] down the hole of confusion with him. But I love the storyline and I love, as a black man, I love to be able to show two black men together. I love that. I absolutely love it, so I embrace it fully.”

Jussie Smollett at the FYC 'Empire' event. (Fox)
Jussie Smollett at the FYC ‘Empire’ event. (FOX)

Will we be seeing more of D-Major in this fall’s third season? “I hope the storyline lasts,” Smollett said with a smile. “I think that it’s a good one, and I think that we’ll possibly see all of the things that love can open up.”

Smollett, who also appeared earlier this year on his sister’s WGN series “Underground,” will be busy before “Empire” begins filming again later this summer.

“I’m recording my album and I’m also working on Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien Covenant,'” he said. “And then in June I’m going to do a little cameo in ‘The Thurgood Marshall Story’ as Langston Hughes so that’s an honor to play Langston Hughes. I’m really excited.”

Finally, with so much on his plate these days, I asked if he’s had time to enjoy everything that’s come his way since “Empire” exploded on the scene. “I cannot stop smiling,” he said, beaming. “I’m exhausted, but I keep saying it’s the most beautiful exhaustion of my life. Everybody’s like, ‘Will you take a break?’ But, listen, I worked a job for so many years, over five years, and I loved the work that I did, but it was not in the capacity that I wanted to do it so I got a week off vacation, so I’m going to do what I love to do.”

“Empire” returns for Season 3 later this year on FOX. 

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