Is there any doubt the return of Empire is this fall’s most-anticipated TV event? After its January premiere, Fox’s soap about a family-owned rap/R&B record label became a ratings juggernaut (16.5 million viewers watched the season finale) with a real-world music-biz impact: its soundtrack topped the Billboard 200. The soulful heart of the series is Jussie Smollett as scion Jamal Lyon. After his character took over Empire Records in the March season finale, the actor-singer, 32, dishes on the drama that might go down when the second season begins Sept. 23.
After Empire became such a sensation, how was it coming back to shoot the second season?
It felt like when the King of Pop did Off the Wall and then he had to come back with something hard, so he came back with Thriller. We’re just praying that the second season is our Thriller, and so far, so good. Honestly, I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t any pressure.
At the end of last season, Jamal was dangling Judd Nelson’s Billy Baretti over a balcony. What can we expect from him next?
Watch out for Jamal: He’s like the gay 2Pac — he ain’t playing! People aren’t always going to agree with the choices that Jamal makes. He’s changing, and sometimes those changes are not going to be so great. But he’s very real to me because there’s so much of him that I see in myself. I’m going through so many journeys along with Jamal — as far as newfound fame, and making sure that you are staying true to who you were before you had all of this. But I also have a much healthier family life than Jamal does, so it’s a little bit easier for me.
Did you have any favorite guest stars from the first season and are there any that you can reveal from the upcoming one?
Getting to sing with Patti LaBelle was one of the highlights of my life, and I don’t see anything topping that. But this new season, so far my favorites are Marisa Tomei and Tyra Ferrell. And musically, so far I’ve duetted with Pitbull.
Who else is on your wish list of guest stars?
Any changes with the music this season?
The music is a little bit more aggressive, if you will. We have such dope people working with us right now: Ne-Yo, Swizz Beatz, Jim Beanz, Timbaland, J.R. Rotem. I have been writing more, and I did get some of my songs in there so far. [Empire creators/executive producers] Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have really welcomed my input with the music, which is great.
Now that you guys are killing it, what’s the vibe like on set?
We really are a family. That’s no bullshit. I love them. I hang with Terrence [Howard] and Yazz [who plays Hakeem] and Trai [Byers, who plays Andre]. We all kick it together. We threw Taraji [P. Henson] a birthday party at this hole-in-the-wall spot, and it was the best time ever. We were so damn ratchet!
How long do you see Empire running?
Oh my God, I have no idea, but wherever Empire takes me is all right with me. I’m riding with the Lyon family for right now.
Listen to music from the Empire soundtrack (and more from this issue) in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of Billboard.