Back in the day, television shows were big on using the old-fashioned cliffhanger in the season finale, leaving audiences desperately wondering what next year’s premiere would bring to their favorite characters and plotlines. Empire is one of only a handful of shows that maintains that tradition. In May, it offered up one whopper of a summer send-off for Season 3 and a big shocker in the first episode of Season 4, which started on FOX last September.
To explain the upcoming season, you first need to understand what happened in the final minutes of last year’s installment, when Cookie and Lucious decided to make a go of their relationship and travel together, handing over the reigns of Empire to Andre (Trai Byers). They didn’t know (and still don’t!) that Andre had been plotting to blow up their car in Vegas. Despite a last-minute change of heart, the bomb was detonated, leaving Cooking unscathed but Lucious in the hospital with amnesia and a seemingly twisted caretaker and healer played by none other than Demi Moore. Was the memory loss real? Would it last? Why was Demi Moore there and was she good or evil? (Well, that last question probably didn’t inspire too much wondering.)
Cut to September’s premiere and months of rehabilitation. Lucious still can’t remember anything about his old life. For now, the amnesia is real. In a but-wait-there’s-more moment, audiences learned that Lucious lost part of one leg in the attack.
They also discovered that New Lucious isn’t anything like the old one, emotionally speaking. The transformaion has allowed award-winning actor Terrence Howard to plumb new depths in his portrayal of the sometimes violent and all times calculating Lucious.
“Traumatic brain injury is very real, and as much as Lucious would like to return to life before the explosion, he is forced to contend with a new normal,” says Howard. “In many ways, I am forced to inhabit a new character.”
A new character indeed. New Lucious seems enlightened, humbled and more gentle as he tries to learn more about his past and the secrets and scars that make up the decades of his life that he cannot remember.
“It’s very exciting to watch characters grow in television roles, and mine is one of the most inspiring rides I’ve ever been on,” Howard enthuses. “I love being able to navigate between the humanity and the darkness.”
That emotional upgrade was plainly seen in the first episode in the relationship between Lucious and his son Jamal, played by Jussie Smollett. Lucious’ acceptance of Jamal’s sexuality has been strained at best. At the dinner table in the season opener, however, audiences saw a kinder, better Lucious. It’s a legitimate evolution, notes Smollett.
“We’ve seen this shift from Lucious towards Jamal before. The difference here is that there’s no ulterior motive coming from him. Before, there was always some sort of manipulation associated with it,” Smollett explains. “This time around, because he doesn’t remember who he is, he really has nothing attached to it. It truly is the first time we’re seeing Lucious 100 percent certain that he is genuine in the words that he’s saying.”
Smollett’s portrayal of Jamal has been praised by critics, but response from his fans has been the true reward for this actor and indie musician.
“The outpouring of love from the fans has been overwhelming. Of course, it’s been from babies and children and adults from the LGBQT community, but also you’d be surprised by the number of people who come up to me and talk about how Jamal has made them feel less alone. Jamal has resonated with everybody,” says Smollett. “Of course, we love music, but we also love the underdog. We all can identify with that at some point. There’s not one human being in this world who has not felt misjudged or has not felt like someone has a preconceived notion of who they are without any real idea of who they are. And we all feel like the underdog. Jamal is just a man trying to make it work.”
Whether or not that dynamic shifts and the old Lucious reverts to the unaccepting father he once was, the level of intensity between the two characters will continue. Off screen, it’s nothing but respect.
“We’re dear friends and we keep it honest, respectful, supportive, loving and fun,” comments Howard. “It’s an honor to work with such a remarkable young talent.”
No discussion of Empire would be complete without mention of the queen of zingers, Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P. Henson. This season in particular, we find Taraji gets what she deserves: power, recognition, the top job and more. But will she lose Lucious in the process?
It’s not just Cookie who has serious clout to make things happen. Taraji herself is the reason Howard took the role of Lucious Lyon. When Howard, famous for intense portayals on the big screen (Crash, Winnie and Ray, to name a few), first read the pilot, he wasn’t convinced this was the role for him. But after a successful pairing with Taraji in Hustle & Flow (for which Howard received an Academy Award nomination), she gave him the nudge that made it happen.
“I had to be talked into it by Taraji,” remmebers Howard. “She was right: with this cast and this pedigree and Lee Daniels and the support of FOX, she saw an inevitability I didn’t. I’m glad I listened to her.”
Smollett, humble and grateful to the masterminds behind Empire, confesses he is thrilled a role like this came his way, one that allows him to draw on both his acting chops and his music as an indie artist, plus a bit of himself, to help shape Jamal. “It’s been just a blessing,” he says.
So, what’s in store for Empire? Of course, Howard and Smollett won’t give anything juicy away. We did learn that Smollett has a busy 2018 teed up. He has an album out in March, a family recipe cookbook called The Family Table hitting shelves in May and in January will be directing an episode of the show.
Additionally, directing is something he’s always wanted to do.
“I want to direct because I am trying to be the black, male Barbra Streisand,” he says only partly in jest. “I want to be able to do everything and I want to do everything well.”
He’s been driven by that vision for a long time.
“I’ve been shadowing people from season one. The first person who caught that was John Singleton. I was sitting behind him, studying. He turned around and said, ‘You want to direct, don’t you?’ and I said, ‘So badly.’”
Since then, Smollett has made a point to study and solicit advice from everyone, including Sanaa Harris (executive producer and director) as he prepares for this new experience on the show.
Howard won’t reveal any show details but he guarantees more quality writing. He points out that he likes being in the dark about what the show has in store in the coming months because he enjoys taking a ride along with the rest of us, anxiously waiting to see what the writing team delivers week after week.
“It starts with the writing and infuses into the acting,” Howard notes. “You need to create compelling characters that fans need to engage with. It sounds simple, but of course, it’s shockingly difficult. When it all comes together, there is a bit of magic and serendipity involved.”
Demi Moore’s character will likely grow more complex, maybe Cookie will become more frustrated with Lucious’ loss of memory, and as Howard tells us, it’s a whole new Empire for the Lyon family.
“You’ll see the characters you love and those you love to hate,” he says, “but since the accident the whole game has been upset and the past is gone and a new normal is taking shape.”