More Than Good Enough: Inside Jussie Smollett’s Inspiring Road to Empire


Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Jussie Smollettalmost packed it in at 13.

The actor, who had a memorable breakout role in 1992’s The Mighty Ducks and two years later starred in the sitcom On Our Own (think Party of Five, but funny) with his five real-life siblings, traded in show business for a normal-kid life after the ABC show’s first and only season. As much as was possible in his family.

“You put on shows—we had a whole damn production, because we had all these kids,” Smollett, the third-eldest, remembered the acts he’d put together with his three brothers and two sisters (including Friday Night Lights and True Blood star Jurnee Smollett-Bell), talking to The New York Times in 2016.

“Creating was just something we just were expected to do,” he added. “And I don’t remember a time not wanting to do that.”

And when he wasn’t the one creating, one of his brothers or sisters was, resulting in a lot of back and forth between Los Angeles and New York and a lot of different schools. Their parents split up when Jussie was 15 and their mom took over the day-to-day raising of the kids.

Jurnee, Jussie, Jazz and Jake Smollett paid tribute to their peripatetic upbringing with their 2018 cookbook, The Family Table: Recipes and Moments From a Nomadic Life.

Jurnee Smollett, Jazz Smollett, Jocqui Smollett, Jojo Smollett, Jake Smollett, Jussie Smollett, On Our Own

ABC via Getty Images

“I wasn’t a child star,” he told Out in 2016. “I was just a working actor. And then I wasn’t a cutesy kid anymore, but I also wasn’t a leading man.”

Smollett, 36, doesn’t go into a lot of detail about what he did during the 14 years he didn’t notch any acting credits, other than to say he’s been recording music since he was 13 and performing it whenever and wherever he could. But since re-making a name for himself as a star of Fox’s Empire, he has made a lasting impression both onscreen and as himself, and—very significantly—he’s expanded the definition of whom he calls family.

As Smollett recovers from a racist, homophobic attack on Tuesday morning in Chicago, his cast mates have been quick to rally around him—as have numerous other actors, artists and public figures, including House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris, most of whom may have never worked with him but who appreciate what he’s done as an actor, singer and activist.

“Jussie’s the one that starts singing when everybody’s in a bad mood,” Terrence Howard said on Good Morning America Wednesday. “He’s the one that cheers everybody up. He’s the one that does all the Instagrams if he catches you sleeping….Today, no one was caught sleeping. No one even took time to close their eyes and nap. They were all in shock that our family—you know, the Fox family, the Empire family, the Lyon family—you know, were attacked by a bunch of hyenas today.”

Taraji P. Henson wrote on Instagram, “I wish what happened to my baby was just one big bad joke but it wasn’t and we all feel his pain right now. @jussiesmollett is pure love to the bone AND THAT IS WHY SO MANY ARE FEELING HIS PAIN BECAUSE IT IS OUR PAIN!!! I tell you one thing HATE WILL NOT WIN!!!! My baby is resilient and love still lives in him.”

“This was an attempted modern day lynching,” Kamala Harris, one of the early entrants into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted Tuesday. “No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.”

Smollett’s most recent tweet, from Monday, is a plug for his concert scheduled for this Saturday at the Troubador in West Hollywood—a date, his rep tells Page Six, he is still planning to make.

Having spent his solitary lunch hours at different high schools dreaming “of this—that I would be able to do all the things I wanted to do,” his determination is not surprising.

In a 2018 AP interview, Smollett recalled shooting The Mighty Ducks in freezing-cold Minnesota, “the one thing that sticks in my mind specifically is I remember going to Prince‘s nightclub that he had, and performing there when I was 9 years old.” The Purple One wasn’t in residence at the time, alas, but not a bad memory from his first feature film.

“And then honestly I remember over the last years how, whenever Mighty Ducks would show on the television,” he said, “I knew that…six weeks later I was about to get a $400 check, my residuals. And I’d be calling up SAG with my broke [self] being like, ‘Uh, run that check, run that check.’ Those are the days when I had $17 in my account and I had to find $3 to deposit, so I could take a $20 out.”

He’s come a bit of a way.

After dipping his toes back into the acting pool with a lead role in the 2012 indie drama The Skinny as well as guest spots on The Mindy Project and Revenge, he landed what’s turned out to be the part of a lifetime in Jamal Lyon, the middle son of Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson’s ruthless record execs Lucious and Cookie Lyon, on Empire—which turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 2015 and spawned a No. 1 soundtrack album.

By the end of the year, series creator Lee Daniels was directing Smollett in a Pepsi commercial for its #NextPepsiArtist campaign. 

“There are three things that can happy where you know you’re on your way,” the actor and singer, who performed on several of the Empire tracks, told Bloomberg. “Having a No. 1 album, winning a Grammy and doing a Pepsi commercial.” (Empire: Original Soundtrack from Season 1 was nominated for a Grammy.)

“‘Ready to Go’ is Jussie’s graduation,” added Swizz Beatz, who produced “Ready to Go,” the song featured in the commercial. “Just when you thought it couldn’t get any bigger for him, he’s ready to go to the next level. There’s always another level to go to.”

As a graduation present, meanwhile, Swizz arranged for Harry Belafonte to come to the set, and Smollett was proud to have zero chill around the legendary entertainer and civil rights activist.

“I felt like I was meeting a pharaoh or a king,” Smollett recalled to Out in 2016. “[I]t was the first time I saw Jussie starstruck,” Daniels told the magazine. “It was funny to see him squirm.”

By the time of that commercial shoot in 2015, meanwhile, Smollett had also made a pivotal personal decision that he knew could still—even in the 21st century—adversely affect his career. But at the same time, he knew he didn’t want to proceed in the public eye as anything less than his full self.

Jussie Smollett, Jazz Smollett-Warwell, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Jake Smollett

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

“It was really important to me to make sure that it got across that there is no closet,” Smollett told Ellen DeGeneres in publicly addressing his sexuality during an interview she conducted backstage after their on-set chat for Ellen in March 2015. The episode aired shortly after Jamal Lyon came out on Empire

“There’s never been a closet that I’ve been in,” the actor, whose character in The Skinny was gay and who has a giant equal sign tattooed on his arm, continued. “I don’t own a closet, I got a dresser, but I don’t have a closet…I have a home and that is my responsibility to protect that home.”

Smollett continued, “So that’s why I choose not to talk about my personal life. But there is without a doubt, no closet that I’ve ever been in, and I just wanted to make that clear. But it was most important for me to make that clear to you on your show at this time in the world.  And that’s where I’m at.”

He concluded, “My mama knows, my mama likes me a lot. And yes, I take her to The Sound of Music sing-along every single year. So, any questions? But you know, honestly, we’re humans and we love and we do all that good stuff. So I’m honored for this opportunity and I’m honored to be here with you.”

Talking to Variety after the Ellen show aired, he reiterated that he had never been in the closet. 

“It was a bigger deal to everyone than it was for me,” Smollett said. “But at the same time I do understand why it is something to talk about.”

And as an out, gay, biracial actor and artist, Smollett was aware that people would want to hear more from him on the subject, that he’d be admired, looked up to, cheered and—by some, sadly—judged and criticized. But he has proved an eloquent voice on the subject, as well as a man who leads with action and not just words.

“I am simply here to help save the world,” his Twitter bio reads.

Jussie Smollett

Tiffany Rose/Getty Images for HollyRod Foundation

While he was a struggling recording artist, trying to earn enough money to pursue music full time, Smollett worked for five years at Artists for a New South Africa, coordinating donations for charity auctions.

“I have not been handed a silver spoon,” he told Out. “I have not been handed a thing in my life, except love. With that said, it’s been difficult for me for many of the same reasons as Jamal, but I have had to work really, really hard—not just for acceptance, but also for my bread and butter. And that’s why I don’t take any of it for granted.”

He eventually joined the board of Black AIDS Institute, whose founder, Phil Wilson, became a mentor to him after Jurnee got involved with the organization. And not long after Empire premiered, and despite some executives’ concerns, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at the March 2 Justice rally, which started with a 250-mile walk from New York to D.C. to protest police brutality and advocate for criminal justice reform.

And though he was reluctant to discuss being gay, knowing it could dominate the conversation about him for the foreseeable future, but, he told Out, “this is a conversation that deserves to be had, because we don’t all understand each other. You’re not going to tell me that loving someone is wrong.” 

“I don’t take this career for granted,” Smollett also said, “and I have been given a very special platform through Empire to speak on a weekly basis about love and truth and acceptance.”

He recently  teamed up with the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention program for LGBTQ youth, for its “How to Save a Life” campaign, to encourage people to volunteer their time as crisis counselors for the organization’s text and web chat services.

Being involved in so many causes never feels like work to him, but rather a natural extension of who he is and what he’s always felt compelled to do. (So much so, in 2015 at a conversation for AT&T’s Studio Live VIP campaign in Houston, he said he sometimes felt that he had to be famous “in order to do all the things I want to do…just so that somebody can listen.”)

He also told Out, “I have so much love inside that it pains me sometimes. You end up finding yourself all-consumed by the issues of the world, and that’s something I don’t want to change about myself. So until the love of my life shows up, until I find my boo, I’m just going to be out, up in this piece, a lone ranger.”

Though boo-less at the time in 2016, the still very private star told Page Six last May, “I’m in a relationship and I’m happy.”

Marshall, Jussie Smollett

OPEN ROAD FILMS

In early 2018, he acknowledged that his life since Empire began had been an unprecedented whirlwind of success and scrutiny, highs and lows. On the one hand, the door is open wider than ever, and he’s been in the sci-fi blockbuster Alien: Covenant, played Langston Hughes (“one of my childhood heroes,” he told the Wisconsin Gazette) in Marshall and toured in Europe and the U.S., with a portion of the proceeds going to Black AIDS Institute and Flint Kids. 

After initially signing with Sony-owned Columbia, he ended up starting his own label, Music of Sound, and released his debut album, Sum of My Music, last year.

“There’s no huge company behind me,” he told the AP. “Every single cent that’s going into this is mine.”

And, having directed a few of his own music videos, Smollett made his Empire directing debut in season four. He really wanted to prove himself.

“I’ve been in this business as an actor and a musician since I was 4 years old but I haven’t been in this business as a director,” he told Yahoo News last spring. “So it is about paying dues and making sure that people know you’re legit and really serious about what you’re doing. I always joked that I wanted to be the black, male Barbra Streisand—because she does it all and she does it well.”

Asked what it was like directing guest star Alfre Woodard, a longtime friend and mentor, Smollett said, “No matter how comfortable I am or I was behind the camera and no matter how comfortable I am as a director, this was my first time introducing people that I love and respect to myself as a director. It certainly wasn’t easy—it certainly wasn’t comfortable—but my anxiety was put at ease because I knew they would tell me if I was messing up. They’re my friends, they’re my family, and Alfre has literally known me since I was 15 years old so she knows my dreams.

“I’ve said this before, but she was with me on the morning I went on my first audition for Empire—she sat with me and she prayed with me and we had breakfast. And then four years to the day I booked Empire, I’m directing her on Empire!” 

And, of course, there’s the other side of the shiny coin.

“I want to say that I believe in myself a little bit more,” Smollett told the AP. “I think that after the first season, if I’m being honest, my self-esteem kind of did a dive…I had been myself my whole life but I wasn’t used to the scrutiny that came with fame and that came with being a part of a phenomenon like Empire, but also being a part of a phenomenon that is Jamal Lyon.

“He’s a groundbreaking character and I was kind of thrust out there,” he continued. “And everybody just wanted to talk about my life, and everybody wanted to know what I was doing. And everybody had these expectations of what I should be, how I should be, who I should be seen with, what I should be doing, who was I dating, who was I [sleeping with]. And I just wasn’t used to that…I know that I believe in myself much more now. I’m much more certain of what I want, and how I want it.”

In 2016, talking to Out, Smollett shook his head at the very idea of not speaking his truth or sticking up for what he believes in.

“There is so much work to be done,” he said. “Like, oh my God, we are f–ked up. Next-level f–ked up. And I don’t know what the f–k we are going to do, but we got to do something, and we’ve got to do it fast. We’ve got to change the world, y’all.”

Much more will be said, written and tweeted about what happened to Jussie Smollett this week, and sooner rather than later he’ll speak about it himself. The Chicago Police Department, which has opened a hate crime investigation, confirmed that Smollett told officers that one of his two attackers yelled “This is MAGA country” at him. They’re said to have hit him in the face with fists and yelled racist and homophobic slurs. They also slipped a rope around his neck and threw an undisclosed liquid chemical in his face.

“I heard that clearly. I heard the scuffle, and I heard the racial slur,” Smollett’s manager, Brandon Z. Moore, who says he was on the phone with the actor when the attack occurred, told Variety.

So, Smollett was right in 2016 about there being so much work still to be done—and he continues to be right.

Though the goal of such hateful, senseless, ignorant attacks is to instill fear, they ultimately end up only making those on the right side of history stronger. And judging by everything he’s been through, everything he’s seen and everything he has stood for, before he was famous and since, Smollett cannot be scared into backing down from what he knows is a fight that society has no choice but to win.

As he also optimistically told Out, “I don’t believe that we were created to hate. I believe that we were created only to love. Love is the root of the happiest of times and of wars. Love, or lack of love—but love is the root of everything.” 

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