Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray Talk 'Empire'

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson

By Darlene C. Donloe

Everyone is talking about Empire! The water cooler must have been very popular today.  The excitement for this show is just as hot as ever.

The phenomenon that is Empire continues to set television records.  It’s the writing, the acting, the direction, the story, the characters, the freshness, the subject matter and the gritty feel that pulls it all together for Lee Daniels’ television juggernaut. 

The cast has received accolades for its portrayal of a dysfunctional, but well-to-do family.  The cast includes Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Bryshere 'Yazz' Gray, Trai Byers, Gabourey Sidibe, Grace Gealey, Malik Yoba and Kaitlin Doubleday.

Last night’s much ballyhooed finale on FOX solidified what can only be called an unforgettable and spectacular first season for the nighttime drama.

Critics can’t recall when a show, any show, from any decade, has grown in the ratings per episode.

Last night Empire rose to a 6.5 adults 18-49 rating from 8-10 p.m., with the 8-9 p.m. hour earning a 6.1 adults 18-49 rating and the 9-10 p.m. hour earning a 6.9.

Empire centers on hip-hop artist and CEO of Empire Entertainment, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a man and thug who has always ruled unchallenged.  He’s a family man who has three sons – all of whom are involved in the business. There is the youngest, Hakeem, a gifted musician, who is a bit of a hot head. The middle son is  Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a talented and shy but gay, who is a fabulous singer/songwriter. Next is the oldest, Andre (Trai Byers), who is the businessman of the group. Bringing up the rear is Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious’ ex-wife, who feels he owes her for taking the fall for the drug-running that financed his early career.

(l-r) Jussie Smollett, Terrence Howard, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers

I recently caught up with Jussie Smollett (JS) and Bryshere “Yazz” Gray (BG) to talk about the success of the show.

Q: How many times have you been asked about he sexuality question? Has it come up for you at all, because, obviously, it has for Jussie?

BG: From my perspective, you know, it’s 2015. Like if you haven’t – if you’re that insecure about yourself that you can’t love somebody for who they are, then you just need to just stay in the house and lock the door. I’m that type of person that doesn’t care who you are. I love everybody and I feel like that’s how the world should be.

Q: Are you happy and satisfied with where your character ends up?

JS: I am. I’m excited because there’s so much more to come. The dope thing about Season 1 is that there are still questions to be answered. I’m vey excited where Jamal, where his journey has taken him, from beginning to now and where it’s going to end up going.

BG: I mean, I am. I’m definitely happy about where my character is. And we’re excited about Andre. Where he goes, he gets better and better. I feel like his story is real important and it grows and people can learn from his experiences.

Q: Who is your dream guest star for Season 2?

JS: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Brandy. I really want them just because I want to sing with them.

BG: Alright. For me it’s Madonna, Queen Latifah and Rihanna.

Q: What kind of reaction have you gotten from friends, your family and fans, people you know online, about the show?

 BG: Yeah, I mean, the fans are amazing. Me and Juss, when we were in Chicago and everything started building up, we used to go to the gym and stuff, like a regular gym, and work out and people would go bananas. We can’t go grocery shopping no more. It’s just pandemonium, but it’s a dream come true. We’re working with the greatest Oscar-nominated, actors and directors, so it’s great. I’m in a great place. Jussie’s in a great place and we’re blessed.

JS: Absolutely. For me, it’s been a really wonderful experience thus far. Everybody has been really supportive and loving. I just et the most beautiful letters from kids, both homosexual children and heterosexual children, telling me that somehow they relate to Jamal in so many ways and I feel like that’s the – as an artist, we don’t always get these types of roles to come along, that really say something about what you care about, but when they do, you jump at the chance. I feel like that’s what we all did. I feel like we all, in our own individual ways, fought so hard for these roles because of what it meant and what it said. It’s so entertaining and it’s so glamorous and fantastic, but it also is saying something about where our society is today and that means so much. When I get those letters, I’m a crying fool anyway, because I’m a Cancer, but it’s just really, really emotional and I love it. It’s been wonderful.

Snoop Dogg

Q: Talk about what it was like to work with Snoop Dogg in the finale.

BG: It was great to work with Snoop. We had to prepare for our scene for like an hour in his trailer. It was good to vibe out with the legend Snoop Dogg and to get some jewels I can take into life and us and to apply them to my everyday life.

Q: Yazz (BG) Did you get to hang out at all with Patti (LaBelle) during her portion?

BG: Yeah. I thought Patti was going to bring me some chicken, man, but she didn’t. But I actually got the chance to talk to her behind stage before she performed with Jussie and she’s phenomenal. She’s a great person. It was an honor to meet Miss Patti LaBelle.

Q: What is the timing on both of your albums and any chance that the two of you might go out on a tour together?

JS: As far as the albums, we are in the thick of promoting the album – that is the most important right now – and that is the Empire soundtrack. It’s available for download and purchase. But, the album will have to be sometime next year because we do this promotional tour and then we go straight to – and I’m going to be writing and recording, just, but we go straight to filming Season 2 come early summer, so there’s not necessarily a lot of time. We’ll be in the thick of recording new music for Season 2.  As far as a tour, that’ll probably also have to be next year as far as that goes but there will be little spot dates here and there that everybody can fit in. It’s just our schedules are madness right now.

BG: Our schedule is crazy. To be honest, I’m not focused on dropping an album. I’m not focused on that right now. If it’s in demand, it will happen.

Q: On shows like this you only get a little snippet of a song. You hardly ever get to hear the whole song. Is that a cause of frustration for you?

BG: They give you enough. They keep your mouth watering. They give you enough. What do you think Juss?

JS: You have to realize, too, that the song is played, it’s the television version of the song and then that’s why they’re available for download the day before the episode airs. Yes, I’d be lying if I wasn’t like, oh my God, I really wanted that part to be in there but, at the same time, it makes sense. It’s television and then that’s what the download is for, so you can hear the whole song in its entirety.

Q: What’s the biggest thing that each of you have taken away from this experience?

BG: Family. There were many elements, darling, but no it’s family, family, family. You got to talk to your family. You got to stay grounded. You need to pray a lot. You need to each healthy. There are a lot of things that tie into it but definitely staying prayed up and keeping family involved.

JS: There were many elements. For me, it’s been like to piggyback on what Yazz was saying, it is, what we took away form it is I think that Yazz and I, separately, in our own ways are so, so dedicated to our families and then what we came away with it, it was another – more additions to our family, if you will, with this cast and the crew. Such incredible people but, also, I feel like what I’ve seen is the stereotypes that society tries to push down our throats actually are not real. What we’re seeing is we’re seeing the very people that society wants us to believe would not accept someone like Jamal, those are the very people that are coming up to me being like, brother, I love you. I respect you. Keep doing what you’re doing. So for that, it’s really – I don’t know if it’s opened my eyes because I feel like my eyes saw that already, but I feel like what it did is that it killed the cycle that started to feed itself of, that there are really, really genuine and good, honest, respectful and loving people in the world. So, I really love it. That’s why I love the viewers so much because that’s what they show every single day.

Q: What is your most turned up moment so far in the show?

JS: Jamal has had a turn-up moment like every other episode from leaving his apartment and saying I’m going after Empire and I’m going to take it, to being held up in the studio to switching Daddy’s lines to man loves a man and coming out to having a baby. Lord, come on now. But Jamal is a complete hybrid of Lucious and Cookie together. You know what I’m saying.

Q: What is the toughest scene you had this season?

JS: Odd enough, the toughest scene or me was a scene that I was not in. It was – I was on set. Genis Wooten, who plays baby Jamal, is my godson so I was there on the set with his mom, Jennia, and with Lee when hey shot the trash can scene. I just wanted to make sure that he was okay and he’s so unaffected by it all. He understands all of it, but he’s so unaffected. But to be there, in that moment, and see all of us, adults, we were so affected by it that this baby was so unaffected by it. Just to watch Lee go through it, and knowing that that really happened to him in real life, that was probably the toughest scene that we shot, for me. But, again, that was also a scene that I wasn’t even in, but I feel like it’s because of me seeing that scene that’s why I was able to understand the scene where I perform “Good Enough.”

BG: It would have to be the elevator scene. Each take – I’m going to be honest, each take, I felt like I was going to pass out. I’m looking at Andre. I’m looking at Juss and it’s like, wow, like the energy in the room was so like through the roof. My hands were shaking and it was just crazy. That was like the most nerve-wrecking scene for me.

Empire, which now ranks as the top-rated network series among those 18-49, returns to FOX this Fall.

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