Jussie Smollett has wanted to direct an episode of “Empire” since he started working on the Fox family musical drama as middle son Jamal. He began observing the episodic directors as they came in week to week and later spent time shadowing a few, which gave him the confidence to step behind the camera for music videos including “F.U.W.,” “Catch Your Eye” and “Hurt People.” And it was because of one such video that he finally got the chance to helm an episode of “Empire” in the fourth season.
“I sent it to everybody — Dana Walden, Gary Newman, Brian Grazer — and I sent it specifically to Lee [Daniels], Sanaa [Hamri], Danny [Strong] and Ilene [Chaiken],” Smollett tells Variety of his 2017 project “F.U.W.” “I dropped it as, ‘Look, my “Empire” family, look at this video I directed’ and everybody loved it, and then I used it as my reel.”
As kids, he and his siblings used to film home videos, but it has been over the past year that he feels he’s really challenged himself as a director.
“I’ve been in this business as an actor and a musician since I was four years old but I haven’t been in this business as a director [that long]. So it is about paying dues and making sure that people know you’re legit and really serious about what you’re doing,” Smollett says. “I always joked that I wanted to be the black, male Barbra Streisand — because she does it all and she does it well.”
Here, Smollett talks with Variety about his first time as a television director on the 16th episode of the fourth season entitled “Fair Terms,” the importance of shadowing other directors before he took his turn, and what seeds he needed to plant in this episode to set up the rest of the season’s storylines.
What was most important to you about bringing your own style to an episode that still had to fit into the usual format of “Empire,” tonally and visually?
Any job that you’re doing, unless you’re doing it all yourself, you’re going to have to compromise. But the compromise was, honestly, a lot less than I thought it was going to be, if I’m being honest. I’ve been on “Empire” for so long that I know the things I love seeing on “Empire” and I know the things that I would like to see on “Empire.” I know what’s expected of me with the formula that we run with, just as far as certain shots, but I was allowed to bring my own flavor — a kind of voyeuristic flavor. Maybe the camera isn’t moving so much, wide shots, I want to see a train going by and we’re waiting for a train to go by because I needed to have this train when Thirsty is throwing Shine’s body into the butcher truck. I wanted the shot over and above Andre and the reverend so it felt almost like the eye of God. There were certain things that I just wanted.
What directors do you feel have most influenced your own style?
I love George Cukor and I love Alfred Hitchcock and I love Spike Lee. There are certain directors that I love — I love certain styles that they do. I was inspired, and I was able to do that.
What directors do you feel you learned the most from personally?
John Singleton who was the first one that clocked and said, “You want to direct, don’t you?” And I said yeah, and he said, “Get your a– over here” and started showing me different things. I would watch Lee on set, I would watch Sanaa Hamri on set, I would watch Mario Van Peebles, and I would just see the different ways of their directing styles. It’s interesting to watch different directors, especially on television because you have a different director every episode so it’s interesting to see every eight days, a whole different style — but a whole different style having to adapt their style to network television. Before I really started directing “Empire,” I shadowed Craig Brewer for a little bit, but I was really shadowing Sanaa Hamri, Diane Houston and Millicent Shelton. So I had these three extremely powerful, strong female directors that were showing me the ropes, and they are about their business, and I feel like I learned from the best. I was like, “Yo fellas, back away, I don’t need to learn nothing from y’all!” Sanaa leads the back, but the three were just next level, just watching them — watching what came at them and how they handled everything — it was like a masterclass in television directing.
Since “Empire” is an ensemble show and not every character is heavily in every episode, was it important to you to have less to focus on on the acting side with your directorial debut?
I asked for an episode that was after the holiday break so that I could have proper time to not be on “Empire” and to really, really look at everything I had to do in prep. Not just for this episode but the episode prior, I was much lighter because I had to prep. They definitely made it as convenient and as stress-free as that type of situation can be.
Still the episode has a lot of important pieces, including Shine’s memorial and Cookie reconnecting with her mother after so many years. What was most important to you about balancing the tones of those scenes?
The tone of Cookie and her mom and her sisters, it feels a little warmer — and then the tone of the memorial and even the tone of even the House Empire feels very cold. We talked a lot about tone and a lot about temperature of what that would appear to be. I wanted to do a lot of almost current throwbacks to the first season. There’s a reason why when Cookie’s talking to her mom I chose to play “Good Enough.” That was obviously the very first song Jamal performed by himself in the show, and it was very much about Lucious but it was about this parent-child relationship — and as we see, Cookie and Jamal have almost been living in kind of a parallel universe with a lot of their experiences. So, it was just finding those little things that maybe no one else will pick up on, but I feel like it’s those little things that are cool and that the fans will love.
Was there an added challenge in the fact that the memorial was in a club setting, which is not traditionally somber?
My episode was a really big episode and it had so many moving parts and the hardest thing to hear about your episode is, “Yeah, that’s over budget.” And at a certain point I’m just like, “Do we have any money!?” Making the memorial feel more like a party, to me, that was something we had to shift. It just made sense to have it at Leviticus — that felt like something Lucious would do. He’d have a party for his people — kind of this grandstand memorial — when in actuality he’s the reason the man’s not here to begin with.
On the opposite side, scenes with Cookie and her mother are more intimate. What was important to you about capturing those moments?
Developing the relationship with Cookie and Renee — because we’re going to see so much more of that, especially leading into season 5. I was so specific about how I wanted the pictures in her house — they’re three daughters, three girls, three women that somehow represented the three girls that she had lost. If you look at that moment where they’re arguing in the mansion, it was so important to me to have that last shot of Alfre [Woodard] in front of that Kehinde Wiley portrait of the three women. That was kind of the running theme.
What other seeds were important to plan in this episode that would pay off in the subsequent ones?
The Eddie Barker storyline. In my episode it really goes to an even higher level of disdain and manipulation between the Lyons and the Barker clan, and that is really going to set the tone. The final scene between Eddie and Lucious really shows where it is going. You also see the family coming together — you see Jamal making amends with Andre…you see Cookie making amends with her mother and her sisters, you see Lucious making amends with Cookie — you see them being a force. The family is getting stronger as everyone around them is crumbling. That right there is a huge storyline to come.
You obviously have a close relationship with your “Empire” cast but you are also close with guest star Alfre Woodard. Did that put you more at ease when directing her scenes or add more pressure?
No matter how comfortable I am or I was behind the camera and no matter how comfortable I am as a director, this was my first time introducing people that I love and respect to myself as a director. It certainly wasn’t easy — it certainly wasn’t comfortable — but my anxiety was put at ease because I knew they would tell me if I was messing up. They’re my friends, they’re my family, and Alfre has literally known me since I was 15 years old so she knows my dreams. I’ve said this before, but she was with me on the morning I went on my first audition for ‘Empire’ — she sat with me and she prayed with me and we had breakfast. And then four years to the day I booked “Empire,” I’m directing her on “Empire!” It certainly wasn’t easy, but directing professionals is so amazing. People that show up — they know their stuff, they have a point of view of what they believe the characters would be. And that’s another thing, you don’t want to go into “Empire” saying “I want to do this, I want to do that” because at the end of the day no one — not the writer, not the director, not the producer — know Cookie Lyon or Lucious Lyon the way Taraji [P. Henson] or Terrence [Howard] know them [or] know Andre, Jamal, Hakeem the way Trai [Byers], myself and Yazz know them. So it’s just about tone and giving notes about the tone of scene. I was giving notes like, “Say it like this. Oh hell no, no way!”
Now that you’ve had this experience, how do you feel about directing the show again, maybe even for an episode that has a more emotional arc for you as Jamal?
To be completely honest I was always annoyed when I had to act in a scene. I was so in the moment of being a director! During the episode, if I had the choice of just directing it and being like, “Jamal went on a vacation — he’s in the island right now, chilling” I would have been happy, but it wasn’t going to happen. I think that if I had a super dramatic scene to do, that would be interesting. I don’t know how exactly that would go — I’m not saying it wouldn’t go well, but it would be interesting to see how I do it. I’ve talked to the producers and told them that I definitely want to direct more for season 5, for sure. I don’t think I would want to do more than, like, two because directing is not to be played with.
Watch Smollett directing “Empire” below:
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
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