Jussie Smollett is unusual by Hollywood standards. Despite being in the industry since he was 4 years old, he hasn’t become hardened. He’s star-struck just as easily as the fans who love him (working with Mariah Carey was a “pinch-me” moment for him this year) and, in person, is charming and relatable — he even snapped a few selfies with admirers during our cover shoot.
When he talks about his upbringing, it becomes easy to see where he gets his upbeat energy and perpetually positive attitude. Long before moving to Chicago to film “Empire” — which, in its third season, attracts more than 10 million viewers each week — Smollett and his three brothers (Jake, Jocqui, Jojo) and two sisters (Jazz and Jurnee) were raised by an African-American mother and a Jewish father in Los Angeles. His mom started the kids modeling and acting at a young age. “It was something for us to do, something to keep us out of trouble,” Smollett says. “We thought we were going to be the Huxtables.”
You’ll know some of their early work: Jurnee played Michelle Tanner’s friend Denise in “Full House,” and Jussie himself was in Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks.” Though today only three of the six are still in the industry, those early days (including a one-season show, “On Our Own,” that cast the whole clan) developed a bond between the siblings that has never faltered.
In fact, his landing the breakthrough role of Jamal Lyon on “Empire” in 2015 was, in part, a result of this familial support system. “It goes back to my siblings,” he says. “We have a group text that we talk on all throughout the day. My oldest sister Jazz sent a link to an announcement in Variety that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong were creating this musical for FOX, and I immediately called my manager.” His manager, of course, was already on it, and sent the script to Smollett. “I take pride in the fact that I’m humble and loyal,” Smollett says. “But I knew damn well when I read the script that this [role] was mine.”
So, like a true millennial (though, at 33, he’s just on the verge), he turned to social media. “I jumped on Instagram and [direct messaged] Lee Daniels,” Smollett says. “I said, ‘I know you get this a lot, but I’m a singer, I’m an actor, I’m a musician, I’m a dancer. I AM Jamal Lyon in more ways than one.’ … I wasn’t really expecting him to write me back; I was hoping that then when he saw my tape it would somehow set me [apart].”
The role — loosely based on Daniels’ own life as an artist whose father struggled to accept his sexuality — wasn’t intentionally written for Smollett, but it might as well have been. “We share very similar hearts,” Smollett says of his on-screen alias. “We share an understanding of the things that are important.”
Smollett’s heart — the one instilled in him by a mother who, in the case of an argument between her children, made them literally hug until it was resolved — is big. He uses Twitter and Instagram speak out on issues like racial injustice, gun violence and the rights of the LGBTQ community (though personally, he’s adamant about the fact that being gay doesn’t define him). He has devoted himself to causes like HIV/AIDS prevention and the Black Lives Matter movement. “I use [social media] as a platform for fighting the good fight,” he says. “I was doing it when I had 30,000 followers, [I’m doing it when I] have 3 million followers.”
And he’ll be doing it when he has 30 million, as his exponentially increasing fan base can’t be expected to slow down any time soon. Among the projects he currently has in the works: a role in the post-production Ridley Scott film “Alien: Covenant”; a guest part on the WGN America series “Underground” about the Underground Railroad, which stars his sister Jurnee; a debut album; appearances on “Smollett Eats,” the Food Network show helmed by his brother Jake, a chef; and a three-concert gig opening for Mariah Carey on tour in Hawaii over Thanksgiving weekend. “Every single day that I wake up, I pinch myself just a little bit more,” he says of the dream-come-true collaboration.
And you better believe his family will be cheering him on every step of the way.
Watch “Empire” on FOX Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
On living in Chicago: “I officially moved to Chicago — kind of officially — because I’m here nine months out of the year … To me, it’s the perfect hybrid of LA and New York. … I know this sounds ridiculous, but my favorite restaurant is Dublin’s [1050 N. State]. And Yassa [Sengalese restaurant, 3511 S. King, right] is a place [co-star] Gabby Sidibe took me and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
On being in the spotlight: “Being a role model is cool, but part [of it] is acknowledging that you’re not perfect, but you’re trying to do the very best. Every single day is a chance to grow and a chance to learn and sometimes you’re gonna mess up.”
On who he’d like to collaborate with next: “Janet Jackson. I’m just gonna go as far as I can trying to work with every diva that I love! I’ve gotten to sing with Estelle, Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey … so I just think Janet, once she has that baby, come on and let’s do a song!”
At the shoot
Jussie Smollett is a true performer; he got into the groove for our cover shoot at Splash’s offices at the Freedom Center (777 W. Chicago), and paused to take selfies with building employees and “Empire” super fans like Elizabeth Clark (at right).
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Stylist: Agga B. Raya
Grooming: Donte Mitchell, Ford Artists
Shoot producer: Katerina Bizios
> ON THE COVER:
Jacket: Alexander McQueen, $1,245 Jeans: Dsquared2, $655 Both available: Neiman Marcus, 737 N. Michigan; Neimanmarcus.com T-shirt: Theory, $105 Button-down: Paige, $179 Shoes: Adidas, $80 All available: Bloomingdale’s, 900 N. Michigan; Bloomingdales.com Watch: Rolex, price available upon request, Razny Jewelers, 109 E. Oak; Razny.com Shirt: Ted Baker, $119, Bloomingdale’s, 900 N. Michigan; Bloomingdales.com
Jacket: Givenchy, $2,150 Shirt: Alexander McQueen, $495 Both available: Neiman Marcus, 737 N. Michigan; Neimanmarcus.com Pants: Theory, $285 Shoes: Puma, $70 Both available: Bloomingdale’s, 900 N. Michigan; Bloomingdales.com Watch: Patek Philippe, price available upon request, Razny Jewelers, 109 E. Oak; Razny.com