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How Instagram and a Casting Couch Won Jussie Smollett His Empire Role

How Instagram and a Casting Couch Won Jussie Smollett His Empire Role


The gay actor discussed how he landed the role of Jamal Lyon during a panel discussion at Outfest Fusion.

Jussie Smollett revealed how he was cast in Empire -- and it involved social media and meeting Lee Daniels at his hotel room.

At a panel discussion hosted by Outfest Fusion, a Los Angeles film festival that focuses on LGBT people of color, the gay actor said Daniels, who is the co-creator and executive producer of the hit Fox drama Empire, invited him to his hotel room as part of the casting process.

Smollett had auditioned for Daniels beforehand, but the gay director said he wasn't entirely sold by the actor's performance. Smollett had a tendency to sing with his eyes closed, Daniels said, and as a result he "couldn't see his soul."

The character of Jamal, for which Smollett was auditioning, frequently performs heartfelt musical numbers on Empire. These performances often speak to his identity as a gay man as well as his relationship with his antigay father, Lucious Lyon, who is the head of a major hip-hop label.

"I'm convinced with your acting. I'm convinced with your voice. I'm not convinced with you as a performer, because you didn't perform," Daniels told Smollett at the time.

Daniels invited him to reaudition and sing "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke at his hotel room. Smollett accepted, despite warnings from his manager.

"My manager was like, 'You're not going on a Sunday to Lee Daniels's hotel.' And I was like, 'Uh, yes I am!'" he exclaimed.

However, Smollett was anxious about the potential awkwardness of the situation and began preparing himself for the worst during his drive to the hotel.

"I was ... practicing what I would say if he came on to me," Smollett said last Friday evening at the Grauman's Egyptian Theater, eliciting laughter from the audience by repeating what he said to himself at the time: "Sorry, Mr. Daniels, I ain't never been on a casting couch, but I really want the part!"

"But the worst thing is, I had to go to this nice hotel ... and I was holding my gym bag, so I looked like I was some escort or massage therapist," he continued. "I had to go and be like, 'Hi, um, I'm here to see Big Daddy.'"

Daniels's Instagram handle is "theoriginalbigdaddy." Smollett earlier revealed that he had messaged Daniels on the social media platform, which Daniels called a "smart" move during the audition process. Happily, the worse-case scenario didn't materialize, and Smollett got the part based on his acting and singing abilities.

During the panel discussion, moderator Raven-Symone, an out actress who plays Jamal's ex-wife on Empire, asked Smollett and Daniels for their coming-out stories.

"There was no closet for me to come out of," Daniels said, prompting Smollett to chime in, "Thank you!" Smollett came out publicly to Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show last week, saying at the time, "I told Ellen. Who else do I need to tell?"

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