Empire’s Jussie Smollett on his inspiration, working with Terrence Howard and the 'queen of all things great'

It can take a show years before it reaches a level worthy of a spoof on Saturday Night Live, but for the new musical drama Empire, it only took nine episodes. And star Jussie Smollett is just as surprised as any of us!

“Isn’t that crazy?” the astounded actor tells Hello! during a recent chat, “It’s unbelievable.” But the numbers don’t lie. Over 14 million viewers watched last week’s episode, setting up storylines that are sure to come to explosive ends in the two-hour season finale on March 18th (City).

The series, created by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), tells the story of the Lyon family and their struggles to succeed both personally and professionally within the volatile music industry. “They are a very functional, dysfunctional family,” says Jussie, who plays Jamal, the musically gifted middle child of the company’s patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) and his no-nonsense ex-wife Cookie (Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson).

The 31-year-old actor is no stranger to the music scene. He released his first EP in 2012 and is currently working on a follow-up album as a new artist on Columbia Records. Here the California-native dishes on inspirations, on-screen relationships and how Empire has changed his life.

Jamal is such an inspiring character, given his determination to follow his dreams and courage to be open about his sexuality. What or who inspires you?
Personally, my family inspires me. My niece inspires me because she’s so happy all the time (Laughs). Lee Daniels inspires me a great deal because he walks so firmly in his truth. I just respect him so much for all that he’s been through and yet he keeps on pushing. He’s the type of man that I look at and I’m like, “If I was Lee Daniels at 55 years old, I would be cool with life.” Musically, Michael Jackson inspires me still to this day. People that try to do something with themselves and try to do something with whatever God gave them to make the world just a little bit better, I like people like that.

He has such different relationships with each member of his family. Is there one dynamic that you enjoy the most?
I love anytime I get to work with my TV brothers. I feel like there is such a bond between us that’s pretty unbreakable. I also love my scenes with Taraji and Terrence because I get fed so much when I work with them because they are so unselfish. Also playing scenes with Taraji versus playing scenes with Terrence require completely different emotions. I feel so safe working with both of them.

Are you surprised by how huge a hit Empire is?
I wasn’t expecting it. I knew it was going to have acclaim because of Lee Daniels, but I didn’t know that it was going to be this crazy, almost phenomenon, that it has become. My life has rapidly changed in the last two months. I mean, you just work hard and you pray, but I didn’t know. Taraji said she knew but she is the queen of all things great and is psychic I think (Laughs).

Before the dramatic finale on March 18th, catch up on the first 10 episodes of Empire on March 14 and 15th (FX Canada).

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