Jussie Smollett Talks About Growing Up in a Biracial Home and Pranking His ‘Empire’ Costars

Smollett plays singer/musician Jamal Lyon on the hit show.

ByABC News
April 8, 2016, 11:17 AM

— -- There is lots of great music, loads of drama and plenty of surprises packed into each episode of Fox’s "Empire." And much of it is centered around break-out star Jussie Smollett who plays singer/musician Jamal Lyon, son of fictitious music moguls Cookie and Luscious Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard). It’s the role that has thrust Smollett into the spotlight - something he’s still wrapping his head around.

“I was sitting in a restaurant yesterday and I was just in a lunch meeting and then I look and there’s paparazzi out there taking pictures. And I’m like, 'That’s so weird. It’s not normal,'” Smollett told ABC News. “At first you’re looking around, and you’re like, 'Is One Direction here? Where’s Michael B. Jordan?' And then you realize that they’re there for you. And I’m like, ‘There’s gotta be something better to do than follow me around,’” joked Smollett.

Smollett's character is struggling to gain his father’s approval.

“And because he’s gay, Luscious, played by the great Terrance Howard, is not very supportive,” said Smollett. “He’s not happy. He’s not going on any marches with his son, let’s just say that. He ain’t gone be there."

A gay, black man living in the world of hip-hop is a role rarely seen on prime-time television. But Smollett said he feels no added pressure on how he portrays the character.

“But it is a responsibility. But I felt that responsibility before I was on 'Empire,'” Smollett, 32, told Peter Travers. “I feel like Jamal and myself, we don’t just represent one group of people but instead represent anybody that has been misunderstood in their life. Anybody that has been misunderstood regardless of race or gender or age or sexuality or religion. We’ve all felt that at least one or a million times in our life, that somebody is prejudging me. They have these preconceived notions about me when they know nothing about me. We’ve all felt that way. And I feel like that’s why Jamal resonates with people.”

PHOTO: Jussie Smollett and Peter Travers are seen here at the ABC Headquarters in New York, March 16, 2016.
Jussie Smollett and Peter Travers are seen here at the ABC Headquarters in New York, March 16, 2016.

Smollett’s confidence likely stems from his upbringing. He grew up in a tight-knit family with a diverse background -- his mother is African American and his father is Russian-Polish -- and he's one of six siblings.

“We’re a very close family, a functioning family, instead of dysfunctional - unlike the Lyons,” Smollett said. “No one’s ever loved me in spite of who I am. They’ve always loved me because of who I am.”

He continued: “I look back on that and I’m like wait, we had bagels with hot links, pork hot links! This is not kosher at all! Well, that’s what Blue-ish people do! Black and Jewish. That’s what we do."

Smollett’s lighthearted demeanor appears to transfer to the set of "Empire." His millions of Twitter and Instagram followers have had the opportunity to see first-hand that he’s quite the prankster. Co-star Taraji P. Henson is typically his victim.

“Taraji backhands me every single moment that she can get because I’m constantly messing with her. And the thing about playing pranks on her is that you have to know how to play pranks,” joked Smollett. “There are certain things you should know. Stick with me. The great thing is that you don’t want to play a prank on somebody that’s just a stick in the mud. You want to do it to someone who you know their reaction is going to be legendary. And Taraji P. Henson gives the most legendary reactions."