“Empire” is at a new time on Wednesdays, on FOX.
This season, Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actor, director, and producer Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, Arrival, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) will guest-star in a multi-episode arc on Empire, beginning this fall on FOX. Whitaker will play “Uncle Eddie,” a charismatic music icon and bonafide hitmaker, who gave an unknown Lucious (Terrence Howard) his first radio airplay. Decades later, Eddie steps up for Lucious at a critical moment during his rehabilitation, and a grateful Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) invites him to produce a song in celebration of Empire Entertainment’s 20th anniversary.
We caught up they Lyon brothers, played on the show by Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, and Bryshere Y. Gray, to talk Season 4, music, and the boss Taraji P. Henson.
The Knockturnal: When you guys receive scripts for the show what are you most excited for?
Jussie Smollett: I’m always looking for, and maybe this is cliché, but growth in our identities. We’re dealing with Lucious coming out of an explosion caused by whoever did it. He can’t remember, he has amnesia, and as we move forward we have to shift to that; we have to adjust to that in order to make way for him to try and find his way back in a peaceful way. We’re all dealing with our own situations individually, which calls for, as far as the scripts are concerned, specific detail to the growth with the circumstances. So for me, I’m always looking at what do we have and how are we overcoming it in a new, fresh way that we haven’t done before.
Bryshere Y. Gray: For me, my character’s just grown on me. He has Bella, little baby Bella. He had a baby with his father’s fiancé. There’s so much going on, he’s working with the lovely Diana Dubois, who is the lovely Phylicia Rashad, that I’m working with, so I’m excited with this storyline. The music, working with better producers, like Rodney Jerkins. So, I’m excited about that too. For me, playing a young character on this show is a major responsibility, I just take it that way. It’s so serious but my character … he’s changed and he’s trying to bring joy to the show not make it more heavy.
Jussie: It really does have to be on the page. There’s so many shows and so many films that miss that and sometimes … Look, man, people will say what they want to say about us at the end of the day. Again, what’s on the page is on the stage. You try to elevate it as best you can.
Trai: That’s the thing also, is that we are artists. By all means of the word, I don’t care how big Empire is. I don’t care how commercial it is. The thing is that … the great thing, and maybe the not so great thing to other situations, is that we are true artists and sometimes you’ve gotta throw stuff up against the wall, and sometimes it sticks, and sometimes it doesn’t but that’s the thing about artists … For instance, not everybody’s gonna like every single song that you put out. Not everybody’s gonna like every movie that you put out. Not everybody’s gonna like every episode that you do, but you’re an artist and you’re doing what you are there to do.
Jussie: That’s the beauty of art. You’re not supposed to like everything, that’s why we have so many different projects.
Bryshere: Well, I’ll go in the studio sometimes and I’ll just get a text, “Yazz we need you in the studio for 8 for Rodney”, and that’s the process. I think all of us together, from the music, from the acting, and then I may have to do a scene with Trai who’s like, super serious one day and I gotta go record a song called “Special” to the ladies. You gotta have that major balance.
Jussie: He just wanted to let y’all ladies know.
The Knockturnal: Speaking of these impressions that I’m seeing right now, obviously y’all spend a lot of time with each other on set, I see you a lot on Taraji’s snapchat, y’all are hilarious. Can you guys give me one impression of one of your favorite people on set that’s not you?
Trai Byers: She’s constantly joking. When she says that she’s always joking, but she’ll step on set, we will not have shot anything, we’ll shoot one scene, we’ll shoot one take and she’ll be like “That’s it? That’s good? We rapped?”
The Knockturnal: Can you talk a little bit about how involved your approach to the music world is in terms of both as listeners and as artists?
Bryshere: It’s getting better because we worked a little with better producers like Rodney. He’s, like, experienced, he’s in the game for a while. So, I think he’s bringing something different to the table. We worked with Timbaland too, and he helped us a lot with “Power” and “No Apologies” and “You’re So Beautiful” and all our hits basically, but Rodney is it.
The Knockturnal: So you guys are talking about songs and the musical selections. Of all the songs performed throughout the series, what would be the theme song for your life, for your character’s life.
Jussie: For me it’s “Need Freedom.” For Jamal, it would be “Good Enough” because from the beginning that’s where we kinda met and that’s where he was. That’s the very first song that you ever saw Jamal do, that’s also the very first song that I ever recorded for this entire series. Yeah, for me personally it’s “Need Freedom.”
Bryshere: For me, “No Competition” and “Drip Drop.”
Jussie: “Drip Drop” is your real life?
Bryshere: “Drip Drop” is the character.
Trai: For Andre, I think it’s always been, I love this song and it resonated with me with the character, “Remember The Music.” For Trai its somewhere else, somewhere in the fifties.