Jussie Smollett needs change. He has parked his car at a Baton Rouge, La., shopping mall designed to look like a sleepy Southern village, complete with a three-tiered water fountain featuring peeing cherubs and, unfortunately, some parking meters. It turns out the parking meters are just for show. (Parking tickets, the waiter at the local faux—French bistro explains, can be paid at the movie theater.) But Smollett, 32, dutifully feeds quarters into the meter anyway. Like Jamal Lyons, the ruthless record producer's gay son who he plays on Fox's Empire (Season 2 begins Sept. 23), Smollett is a gentle soul who takes his responsibility as a role model, as one of the few out African-American actors on television, and as a meter feeder, seriously. Clad in a baseball cap, a black silky Life/After/Denim shirt, dark blue Baldwin jeans, and crisp white Calvin Klein high-tops, Smollett finally settles down. "I just bought us some time!" he says, grinning.
First of all, Baton Rouge. What a lovely town. But what on earth are you doing here?
My younger sister, Jurnee, is shooting a show about the Underground Railroad for WGN called, appropriately, Underground. They wanted me to play her older brother, which would have been legendary, but I couldn't because of Empire. So it's a smaller role, as an escaped slave looking for his wife and child. I get to hang out with Jurnee—and I think being able to play someone so different from Jamal on Empire is going to make me stronger.
Empire is a massive phenomenon, and Jamal, your character, has gained a lot of attention for being so nuanced and, frankly, affecting. When I mentioned at the rental car desk in New Orleans that I was having lunch with you, Shelley at Hertz begged to come along. "It's all about Jamal," she said. "I don't care if he's gay. Tell him that I love him."
Jamal is one of my favorite people in the world too. He's saving my life in many ways. I was at the international upfronts for Fox and I was about to sing one of the songs from the show, and I said, "Two years ago, y'all had this party, and I was one of the catering waiters. So be nice to your waiters." And it's true. My life has completely changed.
In the early-and mid-1990s, you were everywhere: commercials, sitcoms, The Mighty Ducks, North. What happened between then and being a waiter?
Real life happened. I stopped acting when I was around 12. I wasn't the cute little kid, and I wasn't a leading man yet.
So what did you do for those 20 years?
I worked every job imaginable. I was a bartender at The Lion King on Broadway. I worked at Macy's. I worked as a clown for children's parties.
Do you feel like being in the "real world" helped you when you came back to acting?
Of course it did. When I was 22, I was making mistakes. Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago, "How did you manage to be a child star and not get caught with your pants down?" And I said, "I just wasn't famous when I had my pants down!" Now, as a 32-year-old man, I might mess up, but I'm not going to do anything I can't come back from. I have a responsibility to humanity—to the 286,000 people who follow me on Twitter and the 17 million who watch Empire. I won't call it a burden, but it is my responsibility as a man, and I gladly accept it.
For Jussie Smollet's full feature, pick up the September issue of InStyle, now available on newsstands and for digital download.
Watch the Empire Season 2 trailer here: