LOS ANGELES | Growing up in a show-biz family, Jussie Smollett wasn’t sure entertaining was his life’s work.
“At 12, I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” he recalls now, 20 years later. “And my mom said, ‘Cool’ and never pushed me into it. Her thing was, whatever you decide to do, you have to do it fully. There’s no backtracking.”
At 23, Smollett says, he stepped back in, realizing he was either going to be an entertainer or president of the United States “and since I’m not old enough to do that, this is it.”
“This,” though, is pretty big, considering he’s one of the stars of “Empire,” the ratings-grabbing drama on Fox. Cast as one of the sons of a music mogul, Smollett gets a chance to sing, dance and act in the series. His character, Jamal, is considered the most likely for superstardom, particularly since he’s managed by his mother (played by Taraji P. Henson). “What Michael Jackson was for the transformation of pop music, that’s where Jamal is going,” Smollett says. “He’s going to be bigger than life.”
Henson’s Cookie is the ultimate stage mom – the bulldozing, “won’t take no” force who doesn’t give up.
In real life, Smollett says, his own mother, Janet, was hardly as headstrong. “My mom was more supportive. She always wanted this to be a fun thing. It was never something to make money.”
Still, he adds, “she was a combination of Cookie Lyon and Maria Von Trapp.”
With his five siblings, Smollett starred in “On Our Own,” an ABC sitcom about seven brothers and sisters being raised by their eldest brother. The series lasted one season, launching several of the Smolletts’ careers. Jurnee, for example, went on to acclaimed roles in films like “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Great Debaters.” She was a regular, as well, in “Friday Night Lights,” “The Defenders” and “Parenthood.” Jake was in the cast of “The Middleman.”
Jussie, though, has also had a singing career, releasing an EP in 2012 and scoring hits from the “Empire” soundtrack.
Sensing that music was going to be a big part of the show, “Empire” producers hired some of the biggest names in the business to cut singles for Smollett and others.
“Four weeks prior (to starting with the show), I was recording my little indie album in a home studio off of Fairfax,” Smollett says. “Four weeks later, big daddy got me up in the studio with Yazz.”
The result is, literally, an empire, one that could push its actors’ careers in many directions.
Even before the series premiered, Smollett got reaction from viewers who had seen the promos. “I was buying some chewable vitamins in Chicago and I literally got mobbed by 15 girls. I realized then, ‘This is real.’”
Now, beginning its second season, “Empire” is poised for Emmy attention, record releases and a number of spin-off concepts.
Even better, Smollett says, he and the cast are feeling a strong connection. “It’s not hard to play,” he says. “We already bonded.”
A year ago, he wrote co-star Gabourey Sidibe a Facebook note: “I honestly think you’re dope and I just want to get drunk with you.” She responded. "We didn’t talk for a year and then we ended up working together. Now, she’s one of my closest friends.”
The world of “Empire,” he adds, could connect more than celebrities. Because of its success, other racially diverse shows could appear.
“What it shows is that people want to see people that look like them on television,” Smollett says. “They also want to see people that do not look like them on television. We want to see a representation of our world…and our world is not one color.”