Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon on Fox’s Empire.
Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon on EMPIRE
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the eighth episode of Empire’s first season, “The Lyon’s Roar.”]
Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), the middle son of hip-hop mogul Lucious (Terrence Howard) on Lee Daniels and Danny Strong‘s Empire, is now an out and proud gay man.
After declaring that he was going to come out in the pilot of the Fox family drama, Jamal tended to take one step forward and two steps back as he inched closer to making good on his promise. From Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) flashy news conference to a video interview with Sway, the timing and the circumstances were never quite right. Until his father’s annual white party, that was, where Jamal had opportunity to work his truth into his music. It was a natural way for Jamal to just be who he was and finally let everyone else in on who he was, as well.
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“We’ve seen such a great, extreme growth in Jamal, and we really have seen the journey of this young man really becoming a fully grown man. We see his journey already in the last eight weeks — the last eight episodes — of him starting to come into his own and starting to own that,” Smollett told The Hollywood Reporter.
“The Lyon’s Roar” featured a number of influences in Jamal’s life — both new (Eka Darville‘s Ryan) and old (Lucious) — telling him to live his truth, effectively encouraging him to come out publicly. The spotlight has been increasingly on Jamal as he has released new music and gained attention, let alone admiration and respect from those in the industry and those in his family, and now that spotlight will be shining on both his professional and personal lives.
THR talked with Smollett about Jamal’s coming out and what it sets up to come for the drama in the Lyons’ den.
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“The Lyon’s Roar” started with Jamal saying he was going to put off coming out now that the Lyon family has so much on their plates with Lucious’ illness, but he also very quickly changed his mind within the episode. What did you think of the ultimate timing and method of the decision?
It was that moment where he just didn’t care too much anymore. I think that for so long he had been told how he should come out, but it wasn’t his journey; it was how somebody else wanted him to come out, not how he needed to come out. With that said, I also think it was a very ballsy move, a very Lucious Lyon-like move, though obviously Lucious is not going to come out of the closet! (Laughs.) But you know what I’m saying: it was just a really gutsy, ballsy, “This is who I am” in front of the world move. And in that moment, I think that was a respect-builder and a game-changer, not just for Jamal but also for Lucious.
Jamal had that song with him, so how far in advance did he really plan this moment?
I think that Jamal is very smart, and he’s an artist, and as an artist you fiddle around with different ideas all of the time, so I think that the song was probably played around with, and he had a moment where he wanted to do it live, and then he was also changed by his father. “Are you sure you want to? Are you sure?” And that’s what it became. I don’t necessarily think it was calculated in the sense of, “Oh, I’m going to do this song at this party,” but I do think it was the right place at the right time, and it was very organic.
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Lucious has been more supportive, or at least respectful, of Jamal lately, and he did tell Jamal to tell his truth in his music. How much of Jamal’s decision was impacted by taking his father’s advice?
It’s a respect thing. If you’re going to challenge me to really be a Lyon, then let me show you how a Lyon roars, and that was such a moment because Lucious is telling [him to] speak the truth and speak the truth now, whether he meant to or not, in a way he gave him the nod that it was okay for Jamal to be who he was. Jamal was struggling — he was struggling with the truth of who he is — and I think that that was such a special moment, and I definitely think Jamal took the lead from Lucious, and he thought, “If I’m here to tell my truth, then I have to tell it fully.”
Yet, the second Jamal did that, Lucious got angry all over again and made a decision to cancel the legacy album, which seemingly will hurt Empire Entertainment’s business. What is their relationship like after the white party?
You’ll see the butting of the heads, but you’ll also see that with that said, there is also a certain level of “I don’t give a f–” that comes from Jamal. (Laughs.) There’s an “I don’t give a f–” attitude that Lucious has had, and now we see it in Jamal, too. [And] Lucious is left with no other option; whether he agrees or disagrees with Jamal’s decision, he has no other option except, man to man, to respect him as a man.
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Jamal has so much on his plate, does he have time for a new relationship, especially one with Ryan, which is bound to be extra complicated because he’s working for Lucious?
Ryan is coming into the situation knowing exactly what Jamal’s situation is. it’s like a clean slate, which is sad because he was so in love with Michael [Rafael de la Fuente], and Michael was so in love with him, but you know people grow. They grow in love, and they grow out of love, and it’s just where [Jamal] is right now in life. There’s a lot of things going on for Jamal, but one of those things is definitely companionship. I will say this: I believe that Ryan is exactly what Jamal needs in his life at that exact moment. [He’s] someone that just understands him and celebrates who he is, and life’s not that big of a deal for Ryan; he’s very free spirit, and he also has his own things going on. It’s a good situation, and for right now, it’s what Jamal needs in his life.
Empire rarely spends time outside of the family to get outsider perspective on the family, but at the end of “The Lyon’s Roar” there were snippets of media coverage about Jamal’s coming out seen. Will there be more of that, and more people’s opinions on what the Lyons are saying and doing, in the coming episodes?
Yeah, and the reason being is that Jamal’s life is shining brighter, so with that comes more scrutiny, with that comes more attention, and there’s definitely more talk because Jamal is becoming more successful [and] more famous. There definitely is a door that’s opening. The thing is, too, that for Lucious, he’s all about image, and what the public thinks of you, and there’s very much that business savvy, mogul, yet old-school mentality of what the public wants to see. And that’s the magic of Jamal: Jamal is able to see past what Lucious is able to see as a mogul and as a suit. As an artist, Jamal is able to look at it as an individual. Because he’s always been an outsider looking in, and because he’s an underdog, he’s able to see it more in a balanced way.
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And it’s partially generational, too, which is why it was so great to see everyone cheering at the end of “You’re So Beautiful.” Panning the crowd, everyone but Lucious seemed genuinely happy for and accepting of Jamal.
I think that is a true reflection of our society. From what I’ve seen in the past weeks of this show being on the air is that society maybe 15 years ago would never ever, ever support someone like Jamal, but these people are coming up, and they’re telling me — from all walks of life– how much they’re connected to Jamal.
They’re accepting him; they’re connecting with him; but will there be backlash, not from his coming out, but instead from the fact that in his younger days he sold the public a lie by marrying Olivia (Raven-Symone)?
I don’t think that matters, and if it does matter to people, I don’t think that it matters to Jamal. That was a choice that he made, but let the record show that there have been tons of gay men that have married women. He was very young then, and I don’t think that anybody is going to necessarily question that until Jamal sits down with Oprah.
Which is just how season two should open.
That would be pretty incredible, wouldn’t it? I’ll call Lee and tell him he should call Queen Oprah and have her come to the show! (Laughs.) But no, I think Jamal is just living his truth. He’s walking his truth right now, and he’s walking it the way he wants to walk it.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.
This article originally appeared on THR.com.