Date of Teleconference: March 17. 2015 – 12:30pm est.
Actors Jussie Smollett & Bryshere “Yazz” Gray – from the hit drama EMPIRE- took time out of their busy schedules to talk with me and a few journalists about their experiences on EMPIRE via a teleconference call the day before the season finale. Jussie and Jazz were at different locations, but their chemistry seeped through the phone lines like they were in the same room with each other. The few reporters were based in Atlanta, Hawaii, New York, Chicago and beyond. Below are a few quotes from our 30 minute phone conversation with Jussie and Yazz.
On their Chemistry Together :
Jussie: As far as the relationship and the chemistry between both Hakeem and Jamal and, obviously, essentially, myself and Yazz, the thing about Hakeem and Jamal is that they compete and there are other people that really have their hands in the pot of their brotherhood, but at the same time they always find themselves back to each other. They always find their way back to each other somehow.
I think that’s the beautiful thing about them is that families fight; families have issues. Not exactly as many issues as the Lyons family, but, families fight and they have issues and then they come back together at the end of the day and they’re a family. I think that it speaks volumes about brotherhood, the fact that Hakeem is so supportive of Jamal. Jamal is so supportive of Hakeem, but then it leads into our friendship and our brotherhood outside of the work.
I feel like I watch the show sometimes, like when Yazz was performing “Nothing but a Number,” my character was excited, but my character was excited because I was genuinely excited because that was the first time I heard the song and I loved it and he was killing it. There’s that brotherhood and camaraderie that we share. I think that’s what you see.
On their sexuality being addressed on & off the show:
Yazz: If you’re that insecure about yourself that you can’t love somebody for who they are, then you just need to just stay in the house and lock the door. I’m that type of person that doesn’t care who you are. I love everybody and I feel like that’s how the world should be.
Jussie: And this is why we love Yazz the greatest.
On the transitions that will take place on EMPIRE for Season 2:
Jussie: I feel like Season 1 was the set up and then Season 2 will be, okay, let’s go back and let’s clean up all of the Lyons’ stuff, if you will. I’m very happy. I’m very excited where Jamal, where his journey has taken him, from beginning to now, and where it’s going to end up going. I’m very excited.
Yazz: And we’re excited about Andre. Where he goes, he gets better and better. I feel like his story is real important and it grows and people can learn from his experiences.
Jussie: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you got to love Trai Byers period. Point blank period.
On their dream guests stars for Season 2:
Jussie: For me, it’s Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson and Brandy. I really want them just because I want to sing with them.
Yazz: Mariah Carey, he said Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson?
Jussie: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Brandy.
Yazz: Alright. For me it’s Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Rihanna.
Jussie: Oh, good one, Yazz.
On the reaction they’ve gotten from fans, friends and family since being on EMPIRE:
Jussie: Hey, big brother, you want to take that first?
Yazz: Yea, I mean, the fans are amazing. Me and Juss, when we were in Chicago and everything started building up, we used to go to the gym and stuff, like regular gym, and work out and people would go bananas. We can’t go grocery shopping no more. It’s just pandemonium, but it’s a dream come true. We’re working with the greatest, Oscar-nominated, actors and directors, so it’s great. I’m in a great place. Jussie’s in a great place and we’re blessed.
Jussie: Absolutely. For me, it’s been a really wonderful experience thus far. Everybody has been really supportive and loving. I just get the most beautiful letters from kids, both homosexual children and heterosexual children, telling me that somehow they relate to Jamal in so many ways. As an artist, we don’t always get these types of roles to come along, that really say something about what you care about, but when they do, you jump at the chance.
I feel like that’s what we all did. I feel like we all, in our own individual ways, fought so hard for these roles because of what it meant and what it said. It’s so entertaining and it’s so glamorous and fantastic, but it also is saying something about where our society is today and that means so much. When I get those letters, I’m a crying fool anyway, because I’m a Cancer, but it’s just really, really emotional and I love it. It’s been wonderful.
On working with Patti LaBelle:
Yazz: Yea. I thought Patti was going to bring me some chicken, man, but she didn’t. But I actually got the chance to talk to her behind stage before she performed with Jussie and she’s phenomenal. She’s a great person. It was an honor to meet Miss Patti LaBelle.
On the elements of life they’ve learned most while working on EMPIRE.
Yazz: Family. There were many elements, darling, but no, it’s family, family, family. You got to talk to your family. You got to stay grounded. You need to pray a lot. You need to eat healthy. There are a lot of things that tie into it but definitely staying prayed up, and keeping the family involved.
Jussie: Yea, yea. For me, it’s been like to piggyback on what Yazz was saying, it is, what we took away from it is I think that Yazz and I, separately, in our own ways, are so, so, so dedicated to our families and then what we came away with it, it was another – more additions to our family, if you will, with this cast and the crew. Such incredible people but, also, I feel like what I’ve seen is the stereotypes that society tries to push down our throats actually are not real. You know?
That’s what we’re seeing is we’re seeing the very people that society wants us to believe would not accept someone like a Jamal, those are the very people that are coming up to me being like, brother, I love you. I respect you. Keep doing what you’re doing. So for that, it’s really – I don’t know if it’s opened my eyes because I feel like my eyes saw that already, but I feel like what it did is that it killed that cycle that started to feed itself of, that there are really, really genuine and good, honest, respectful, and loving people in the world. So, I really love it. That’s why I love the viewers so much, because that’s what they show every single day.
On what they want their audience to take away from the show:
Jussie: Love. Just love.
Yazz: Family. It’s love and family conflict in situations. It’s a family show, so you get to experience family situations that you can learn from in your household. Stuff that Hakeem does, idiotic stuff he does, you would teach your son, like, that’s going to happen to you if you keep going that route. It’s great. The fans keep watching each week and it’s loving. It’s loving.
Yazz: Nobody’s perfect and you’ll get that on the season finale. Everybody is an enemy. Everybody is a villain. Nobody is safe in Empire..
On the show being filmed in Chicago:
Yaz: Lee [Daniels] told me, he said, Chicago is best for you, Yazz. It’s best for the cast, Yazz, because we want to be focused. It’s just going to be better, better than doing LA and recording in Philly. It’s just going to be easier for scheduling.
On charity work and giving back:
Jussie: I work with tons of charities and we’ve been doing some stuff in Chicago, but we haven’t had time in Chicago. But I feel like with Season 2, we’ll have a lot more time to get into the community and really stomp for our fellow man and woman.
Yazz: Well, you know we’re both activists, darling.
Jussie: You have to realize that I’m 31 years old, so this isn’t – life isn’t new for me. It’s very much so been something that I’m being an activist, a human rights activist, has been something that I’m passionate about since day one. One of my godmothers is Angela Davis. My mom didn’t even really give us a choice growing up. Look, we had a choice what sports we played. We had a choice in what music we listened to. We had a choice in the careers that we chose. We did not have a choice in being activists because that was the one thing that she said, if you do nothing in your life, you’ve got to give back. So, what you do is you’ve got to collect your own stuff so that you can properly give back.
But it’s just who we are. It’s literally like, it’s the thing that feeds me the most. If I didn’t do it, then I would feel empty. But I talk to the young youth in the city, I talk to young LGBT youth. I talk to young women with babies that have been raped or have suffered through domestic violence and have gotten out of it. That’s what I do, you know what I’m saying? So, as far as, has it changed me? No. It’s just further cemented who I am in my own life and the work that I know that I’m here, put on this earth, to do.
Yazz: And to piggyback a little bit off what he said, I had a close friend get killed from violence in the streets and, from 16 years old, I went out talking to the kids, because that really touched me internally, that somebody that got killed was that close to me. I went out, at 16 years old, me and my mom would pack up a Camry and drive to Michigan, use our own money, and we weren’t really that fortunate, and we would go out to these schools and I would perform.
I would talk to the kids and give them a little bit of inspiration because I was really hurt from that situation and from there, I kind of built a fan base through talking to the kids and letting them know, this is possible. You’ve just got to follow your dreams. If I’m here on stage from Philadelphia, you can be just like me. I did that since I was 16 years old and from there – I got Empire.
Jussie: Yazz has been working with the inner city school. I’m sitting here right now with his mom – chillin in my hotel room. That’s how close we all really are. Yazz isn’t here, but Yazz’s mama is here with me chilling. That’s the thing, like we’ve been talking and she was telling me about how they would go to the schools and everything like that.
That’s the thing, like Yazz said, he didn’t have a lot, but you know what, Karma works so well. You know what I’m saying? For the good and the bad. I think that’s what we are here to do.
On their toughest scene on EMPIRE.
Jussie: For me, what was the toughest scene? Honestly, you know what? Odd enough, the toughest scene for me was a scene that I was not in. It was – I was on set. Genis Wooten, who plays baby Jamal, is my godson, so I was there on set with his mom, Jennia, and with Lee when they shot the trash can scene. Because I just wanted to make sure that he was okay and he’s so unaffected by it all. He understands all of it, but he’s so unaffected. But to be there, in that moment, and see all of us, adults, we were so affected by it that this baby was so unaffected by it. Just to watch Lee go through it, and knowing that that really happened to him in real life, that was probably the toughest scene that we shot, for me. But, again, that was also a scene that I wasn’t even in, but I feel like it’s because of me seeing that scene that’s why I was able to understand the scene where I perform “Good Enough.”
Yazz: For me, it would have to be the elevator scene. Each take – I’m going to be honest, each take, I felt like I was going to pass out. I’m looking at Andre. I’m looking at Juss and it’s like, wow, like the energy in the room was so like through the roof. My hands were shaking and it was just crazy. That was like the most nerve-wracking scene for me.