If you’re one of those people who only discovered out actor and singer Jussie Smollett through his portrayal of Jamal Lyon on the hit TV series Empire, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.
As a young actor in the 1990s, Smollett appeared in Disney’s The Mighty Ducks, as well as Rob Reiner’s North. He even performed alongside his real-life siblings in the ABC series On Our Own.
Fast forward to the 21st century and his performances include Magnus, the lead character in gay filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk’s The Skinny and an unforgettable cameo as Langston Hughes in Marshall.
Of course, it’s Empire— as well as an important coming out moment on Ellen— that have made Smollett a familiar name.
With the release of his debut album, Sum of My Music, Smollett is also poised to make his mark in the music industry. Wisconsin Gazette spoke with him recently.
WiG: You are just back in the States following a European tour. What was that experience like for you?
Jussie Smollett: It was wonderful! I always love traveling as much as I possibly can. But to be there and see all of the different faces — different races, different cultures, religions, sexualities, genders, ages — I loved it. Every show was sold out. Now that we’ve come back to the States and we’ve done our West Coast run, everything’s been sold out. We got to do Long Beach Pride, we played Oakland, we played the Roxy in L.A. It’s been really great. Everybody’s been wonderful.
Your debut album is titled Sum of My Music. How would you describe the sum — S-U-M — of your music?
It’s just love. My whole MO is love. To me, this project feels like love, it feels like freedom. … It’s love, it’s truth. That’s what it is.
We all love a sophisticated man in a tux, such as the one you are wearing on the album cover. Is there a statement you are trying to make?
Just the idea that I feel like for the last couple of years I’ve been being dressed up. For me, at least, it’s funny. I’ve been dressed up by other people, if you will, but still holding on to exactly who I am — wearing the shoes of someone else or singing the songs of someone else. To now be able to do my own thing is a blessing. I’m very grateful for the platform I’ve been given and that I work for, but it’s also nice to sing your own words.
In June, you are performing at PrideFest Milwaukee. What can your fans expect from your set?
Love! A lot of dancing. They’re definitely going to hear all of the songs I’ve been able to release for Empire. Also, most of my album. It’s all love and it’s all fun. When I hear people saying consistently from what they’re getting (from the music) is love and a lot of fun. Come prepared to leave any bullsh-- in the bag at home! It’s just a good time!
In 2012, you played Magnus in Patrik-Ian Polk’s movie The Skinny. Can you please say something about the significance of that movie for you?
That movie will always have a special place in my heart. I met some of my closest friends on that movie. Anthony Burrell is one of my choreographers. I just did Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman’s podcast. He’s one of my closest friends. Blake Young-Fountain is one of my best friends in the world. He and I played best friends in the movie. We ended up being roommates after The Skinny (laughs), two struggling actors together. Now he’s producing and starring in things and I’m doing the same thing. And Shanika (Warren-Markland) — every time I go to London I see her. I have friendships that will last a lifetime from that movie.
A few years after The Skinny, you portrayed poet Langston Hughes in the biopic Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman. As an actor and a gay man, what did it mean to you to have the opportunity to portray Hughes?
Langston Hughes is one of my childhood heroes. My middle name is Langston. To be able to portray him in that way is life-changing honestly. I know that it was one scene. I remember that I was doing a tribute to John Legend at the NAACP Image Awards and (director) Reggie Hudlin came up to me and said, “You look so much like him, would you like to play Langston Hughes in a cameo in my film Marshall? “I was like, “Absolutely!” The idea that we got to show something that I don’t think a lot of people knew — that Thurgood Marshall, a heterosexual black man, was extremely close friends with Langston Hughes, a homosexual black man. They were friends and it was back in a time when maybe that was considered unacceptable. They were absolutely friends. They were like brothers.
You have probably become best known for your portrayal of Jamal Lyon on Empire. What can you tell us about the experience of being on a hit TV show?
Obviously, it’s changed my life. Not just the obvious, being my career. It’s changed my life in so many more ways than one. I look at (gay filmmaker and Empire co-creator) Lee (Daniels) — it’s funny, I was just saying this morning that Lee truly is like a father to me. The relationships that I’ve built from the platform that Empire has given me. I’m forever going to be grateful for the opportunity to be able to help bring Jamal Lyon to life. He’s a character who will go down forever as something I am so proud to have the opportunity to do.
Empire has featured outstanding divas such as Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson. Is there someone on your personal wish list that you would like to have appear on the show?
I want to sing with Maxwell. I’m making albums now, so I’ll take it where I can get it (laughs). I want to perform with Janet Jackson. I’d love to sing with Usher because I grew up loving Usher. I also would love to sing with Tevin Campbell. I grew up idolizing his voice. Any one of those people. I’ve been so blessed to be able to sing with Patti Labelle and Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey and Estelle. So many incredible, strong female artists. I would like to sing with Maxwell. I’d like to do a duet with a male artist.