[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of Empire, “Without a Country.”]
For the entire first season of Empire, Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) wanted nothing more than his father’s love and acceptance. Now, two episodes into the hip-hop smash’s sophomore season, that is one of the few things going right in Jamal’s life. As Lucious’ successor to head Empire, Jamal has distanced himself immensely from the rest of the Lyon family — most notably from his mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) — and he continues to struggle to find time for his burgeoning music career.
But how much of that will change now that Lucious (Terrence Howard) is free from jail and out on bail? And what does this mean for his and Jamal’s personal and professional relationship? The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Smollett about that, the infamous double slap and more.
What was it like filming that slap in the season premiere?
We did it like six different times. [Co-creator Lee Daniels] said to me over the phone before we even started season two, “There’s a moment at the end between Cookie and Jamal that’s legendary.”
I didn’t want it to be a stunt. [Taraji] said “Yeah, I’m not going to slap you hard,” and I said, “No, I want you to slap me as hard as you can.” “Well not as hard as I can.” “No, Taraji, as hard as you can.” And then she said, “Look, I’m from DC, don’t play with me,” and when she did it, she literally did it as hard as she could. And that was a very, very real moment. it’s heartbreaking to watch every time because it felt so real when we did it. After they said, “Cut,” we went off to our separate corners, we didn’t speak. And then right after, we’re right back to being us again. I love working with her. It made for a really, really great scene. But my face was hella swollen afterwards, that’s for damn sure.
What do you think is going through Jamal’s head at that moment when he’s crying by himself?
I would break down after that moment because he feels like he’s losing something, the most precious thing to him, which is his mother. The love between a mother and a son is something so special, let alone the type of relationship that Cookie and Jamal have had. She’s the only one that’s really ever been there for him and he’s the only one that’s really ever been there for her throughout all these years. He feels like there’s a shift where it wasn’t supposed to be team Cookie and Hakeem, and Andre. It was supposed to be Team Cookie and Jamal. When he feels that he’s betrayed, he acts out because and he’s feeling himself a little bit as head of the company. In a way, Cookie had to smack him, but the great thing about Cookie and Jamal is that, regardless of what they go through, they will always find their way back to each other. That’s just what they do.
What can you say about their relationship going forward?
It’s a pretty hard pill to swallow, but they’re going through a rough patch. This is a very different type of dynamic. This whole power struggle between the family, is not the norm. They’re all changing, and they’re all becoming better and worse people. What we see is that this is a family. This is also a company. That’s why it’s called Empire, and it’s very complicated, but it makes for great television.
How do you think being the head of Empire and these new responsibilities have changed Jamal this season?
I don’t think that Jamal was entirely ready to be head of Empire. The fact of the matter is that if you look at season one, it started to become that Empire represented all the sons. It wasn’t about a position, it was a position in your father’s eyes, and that’s what Empire represents. So they weren’t fighting even for the company, they were fighting for their father’s favoritism and approval and love. He wasn’t ready to run a damn company. The fool did not know that he was not going to be able to make music. He thought, ‘Oh, I’m running a music company. I’m going to create.’ He didn’t realize what it was going to be. And now, they’re such a proud people – the Lyon family. It’s all those things combined, but he didn’t know that it was going to be that way. It’s changing him, and an artist or a creator that cannot create their art makes for a very, very, very bitter human being.
What prevents him from handing off those responsibilities and focusing on the music?
For someone like Jamal, the approval and love of your father is like a drug and he is a drug addict. He is addicted to Lucious. He is addicted to the approval and the love and the acceptance of Lucious. So he’s probably the most vulnerable to stupid situations and bad situations because he’s following behind Luscious under the disguise of, ‘Oh, I’m a leader.’
How does that struggle to create change Jamal as an artist?
Now that Lucious is out on bail, Jamal now feels that there is room for him to have a little bit of freedom to get into the studio and that’s a great thing for him. We’ll start to see Jamal settling back into who he is because he’s going to be able to create.
Will we get to see Jamal and Lucious working together musically?
You’re going to love the song that Terrence and I did together. It doesn’t come out for a while. Luscious and I have done two songs this season. Terrence wrote and produced both of them. One of the best songs of last season was Terrance and my version of “Nothing to Lose,” the whole battle going back and forth in the season finale. I loved, loved working with him, and Lucious and Jamal will definitely work together.
What else can you say about their relationship going forward?
You’re going to see them go at each other, but you’re also going see that they’re a team. This is what I love about going into Lucious’s background to see him as a child and what he goes through with his mother, and understanding why he is the way he is. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason as to why he is the way he is. He’s not all bad. Granted, he shoots people in the eyes and he leaves them to rot in jail for 17 years, and he’s bad sometimes, but he’s not all bad. This is a family, they go back and forth, and this is a family in a very, very high stakes environment. The teams are not always as crystal clear as we think they’re going to be.
Jamal and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) had some nice scenes in this episode, but Hakeem ultimately decides to stay with Cookie. How does that affect their relationship?
It’s a little strange, but at the same time they are the same. They’re still brothers. What we’ll see going forward is the brothers finding a way to have these kingdoms battle while still somehow being connected.
How does Jamal view this new company Cookie and Hakeem are starting?
Jamal’s not concerned with Lyon Dynasty especially at first, but he also knows that the head of Lyon Dynasty is the best in the business and that’s Cookie.
Looking back to season one, what do you think has changed the most about Jamal?
He’s stressed but he’s dealing with his stress in a much different way this time. He’ s more aware of himself, but by being aware of himself, he is aware of his power, and he’s not necessarily using that in a correct way. Last season was about him figuring out who he should be, and this season is about him becoming who he’s going to be. Who knows what next season’s going to be. I mean he already hung somebody over a balcony last season, so we’ll see. Jamal’s heart will always be Jamal’s heart. … Jamal’s heart will always remain the same, and that he is equal parts Lucious and equal parts Cookie, the good and bad and the ugly.