In The Mix

All In

Jussie Smollett does it all.

Steve Chawkins
  • Cliff Watts/Trunk Archive

Lucky for Jussie Smollett, his mom Janet stoked her kids’ interest in show business, encouraging them to try acting, modeling and music.

So at 12 he was already in primetime, starring with his three brothers and two sisters in ABC’s On Our Own, a sitcom about orphaned sibs. As a teen, he’d already lived on both coasts, appeared in commercials, acted in a few films and continued to pour himself into his music.

These days the actor-singer-songwriter has found the kind of role that actors dream of: the talented and tormented Jamal, the gay middle son of music label founder Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) in Fox’s Empire. His father is a raging homophobe; in a flashback, he’s seen cramming the boy into a trashcan after finding him strutting around in his mother’s high heels.

Such scenes echo the painful childhood of Empire co-creator Lee Daniels, says Smollett, who came out as gay himself in 2015. “It was both a heavy task and an honorable one to tell [Lee’s] story, or at least a dramatized, glamorized version of it.”

He landed the Empire role after sending Daniels an out-of-the-blue message on Instagram: “Sir, I am Jamal Lyon in more ways than one.” Seven grueling auditions later, he had the job.

Since then, his empire has expanded to include a role on WGN America’s Underground, the Civil War–era series starring his sister Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Later this year, he’ll appear in the Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller Alien: Covenant. And music continues to be his passion; among other projects, he’ll do an album for Columbia Records.

Back on Empire, he’s looking forward to political twists stirring the plot next season.

“The show is rooted in pop culture,” he says. “If we were to not acknowledge racial profiling and Black Lives Matter and Islamaphobic rhetoric and Trump as president, we’d be silly and we’d be frauds.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017