‘Empire’ Showrunner on Unexpected Guest Stars and That Shocking Kiss

Empire Alicia Keys Jamal
Courtesy of Fox

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you have not watched the Nov. 25 episode of “Empire,” titled “Sinned Against.”

“Empire,” known for welcoming a who’s who of famous guest stars, featured cameos from Alicia Keys and Rosie O’Donnell Wednesday night, along with series co-creator Lee Daniels, who stepped out from behind the camera for a small role. Vivica A. Fox, who plays Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) older sister, also returned for the star-studded episode.

Keys took on the role of Skye Summers, a famous pop singer who, despite her fame, is itching to get away from mainstream music and looking to create more meaningful tunes, leading her to team up with Jamal (Jussie Smollett) to record a track for Lucious Lyon’s (Terrence Howard) Empire.

By the end of the episode, after making sweet, sweet sounds together, Skye and Jamal — who very publicly came out at the end of last season, and recently broke up with his long-term boyfriend after catching him cheating — locked lips by the piano.

“The writers were already breaking a story in which — shock of shocks — Jamal hooks up with a girl, after all he’s been through,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety of the surprising storyline. “It’s a conversation that happens among gay people about sexual fluidity — about being devoutly gay, if you will, but there’s a spectrum. There are some folks who aren’t attracted to people of the opposite sex at all, but there are some gay folks who sometimes do find themselves unexpectedly and momentarily attracted. Especially when you’re involved in a creative endeavor, those sparks can flare up because when you do something creative with someone and it really catches fire, there’s just nothing sexier.”

Clearing up Jamal’s sexuality, Chaiken adds, “We’re very clear that Jamal is gay and Jamal is clear that he’s gay, but it just happened. Isn’t personal agency all about being able to act on something in the moment and owning yourself and not having to explain it or justify it?”

Below, Chaiken tells Variety about this week’s slew of guest stars, plus Anika’s pregnancy and Hakeem’s bad blood with Lucious.

Alicia Keys seems like the perfect type of artist to guest star on “Empire.” How did she get involved?

She’s a dream. At the beginning of the season before we went to work, Lee Daniels calls me and says, “Guess who I met and she wants to be on the show?” She seems like the perfect “Empire” guest and we talked about whether she would play herself or a character. Lee said “she wants to play a character, she wants to act, she’s really in it.”

The episode obviously ends with a big cliffhanger with Alicia’s character. Is she back for the midseason finale?

She’s back for one more episode. You’ll see in episode 10 that there’s yet another twist. The story that we’re telling, you’ll see in episode 10.

Why did you want Alicia to play the woman who Jamal kisses?

When we heard that Alicia wanted to be on the show, we thought that this would be a great opportunity because we knew that they would be on fire together when they perform and it feels like exactly what would happen.

Rosie O’Donnell is not the first person who comes to mind in the world of “Empire!” How did she get involved with the show?

I heard early on that Rosie is a big fan of the show and that if anything ever came up, she’d be thrilled to join, and we said “something is going to come up because it’s Rosie!” We wanted it to be unexpected. Lee [Daniels] said, “Rosie O’Donnell is coming in!” So they literally came up the elevator and we all talked and cooked up this story. We already knew that her character would be named Pepper and we knew a few other things.

How was Rosie on set?

Just simply delightful. She was just easy, happy to be there, really prepared, really lovely to everybody — to the cast and crew — and she felt so natural in the mix. She and Taraji loved one another. I loved watching her with Vivica and Taraji.

Will Rosie be back for more or is this just a one-episode deal?

We’d love to have her back. We love that we’re starting to get into Cookie’s backstory and meeting people that she was in prison with so maybe we will get to see her back. It certainly would be organic to our story, but it was one episode at this point.

Lee Daniels also showed up on-screen! He’s the co-creator and obviously can pull some strings, but how did his guest role come about?

The Pepsi story came first. The writers were telling this story before Pepsi ever came to us. We said if the network could find us a real brand to work with, that would be cool because it makes it more real, but if not, we’ll fictionalize because this is the story we’re telling. Then, coincidentally, Fox came to us with this great opportunity with Pepsi and this idea that we’re going to break new ground. It’s not really a commercial or a product placement. Technically it’s an integration and it’s of value to Fox and Pepsi, but it’s also the story we’re telling. It’s the world we’re in and it makes total sense to Empire.

As we started talking about how it worked, somebody said maybe Lee will direct the [real] commercial — that, of course, became reality. And then I said, “if Lee is going to direct the commercial, let’s have him direct in the show, as well,” because in that world, it would be Lee and of course he’d know Lucious Lyon. Because what we’re doing is so meta anyway — the multiple roles that Lee is playing both behind and in front the camera — and because the audience of “Empire” is a very avid audience, they already know who Lee is — he’s a celebrity to them, so of course it should be Lee!

Will Vivica A. Fox be back for more episodes?

It’s our intention to see her again. What we wanted to do with that story was talk about Cookie’s past without having to do flashbacks — not to say that we’ll never do flashbacks, but these relationships among siblings almost never change.

Lucious tries to get Hakeem to sign with Empire, and he turns him down. Is there any chance Hakeem goes back to Empire or is he sticking with Lyon Dynasty?

Stay tuned. What I think we’re seeing is that Hakeem has really been pushed around by his father one too many times and he’s determined to prove everything that he set out to prove. He started at the beginning of this season saying “I was underestimated and my father didn’t choose me and I’m going to show them that they chose the wrong guy.” I think that he is in it for the win.

Speaking of Hakeem, Anika tried to tell him again that she’s pregnant, but didn’t up revealing that to him — she now she’s getting a little more crazy. Just how crazy will she get?

I think that we’re watching a woman who is being pushed over the brink by the abuse that she’s suffered at the hands of many members of this family. She was mistreated by Lucious, mistreated by Cookie, she thought she had her whole life planned and then back comes Cookie and everything falls apart. And then her and Hakeem found each other for a moment and then he turned his back on her. It’s starting to take a toll and it’s making her just a little unbalanced — and I think that’s not going to stop anytime soon.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

What did you think of Jamal and Skye’s kiss? Weigh in below!

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  1. :-ooh! My goodness…i really can’t believe it…jussie that woman suitable 4 u,stop gay n look foward…:-)

  2. Wopwasbunn says:

    First of all a person “can’t turn gay”. Either you are or you aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that a gay person can’t have a momentary attraction for a person of the opposite sex, especially in the way this encounter happened. Two extremely talented artists, making beautiful music together. Music is powerful, and can be an aphrodisiac in many circumstances. Many couples set their love-making mood by using candle lights and wait for it….MUSIC. On the other hand, nothing could ever make me have an encounter with a woman, because I’m not gay. When I see a beautiful woman, I appreciate her beauty as I would a painting. I admire the beauty, but there’s no sexual attraction. However, I’m very much older. I can see how someone who’s very young, and free could just be attracted to each other for a moment. I’m not homophobic, and unlike some people, I know people are born to be who they are. Animals, fish, fowl and insects don’t have a problem with same sex relations. Neither should we. The mighty lion propagates with the lioness, but mates for life with another lion. Many species have same sex relations. Please don’t tell me, these species are smarter than the human species.

  3. Ziyolise says:

    If you’re gay go to hell, i felt the kiss it was magical…

  4. Ziyolise says:

    The kiss was great, acually the couple was great i like it. I was so disappointed when Jamal Went back to being gay & leaving Skye

  5. ibrahim abdulrazaq says:

    it’s adorable seeing dem both together wow I loved that scene

  6. zojo32 says:

    It was implied that Anika slept with that woman who invested in empire, however she has never had her sexuality defined like that of jamal and on this subject don’t forget that the same lesbian rich woman was seduced by L.Lyon in that failed 3 some so yeah this show is homophobic and it all comes down to the 3million viewers who are prodominately African American that they lost and 50 cent summed up in THAT tweet the reason why!! Oh and I’m black and 100% gay and it is not a choice! No one chooses to put themselves in harms way on a whim as this show would have us believe.

  7. Michelle says:

    I would LOVE to see a relationship between Sky and Jamal! They are both Gorgeous and adorable. You could feel the chemistry between the two of them even before the kiss. The kiss just was a great surprise. Wish we could see more of them together!

  8. Tara says:

    Loved it. On fire!!!!

  9. zojo32 says:

    The only reason they threw a straight stick at jamal is because of African Americans who watch the show being extremely homophobic especially when it comes to their own., clearly black lives do not matter if they not straight. I live in the uk and had mad love for this show but now I’m fuming that lgbt movement has been set back again by Hollywood . I’m never watching empire again and I’m getting a refund for the music I paid for from their gay hating show.. Funny how they ain’t got no straight characters turning gay!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • D says:

      Didn’t Anika sleep with that rich chick? I don’t think they did it to bash the lgbt community, I think they did it for the element of suspense. Now people want to see where this goes next week… not that it will go anywhere. It was just a curiosity kiss , he won’t stay with a woman. And another thing, why is it so ok for a woman to be sexually fluid, but not men? P.S. I’m black and straight ;-)

  10. S. Lax says:

    OMG Amazing chemistry between Jussie and Alicia. Bravo to the writers, the kiss was awesome.

  11. Ron says:

    I would much rather watch Jamal kissing Alicia then the other guys he was cast with. I felt it! It was magnetic!. See, I’m “old school” from the Motown Era and I very seriously miss that type music. Jamal and Alicia re-hashed that generation. Now, I will start watching Empire again. All that trashy stuff they aired with his gay boyfriends was awful to me. I would not watch Alicia Keys going down on Jamal either. As I was saying this kiss was something special. I almost can’t believe it was not that way with Jamal? Is there any chance he’s bi-sexual? I Felt Kiss All Over My Entire Body like I was in fire! Signed Female Old Schooler…

  12. Truth says:

    I actually stopped watching it because I felt like they were pushing the gay movement on everybody. So Imagine my surprise when I walk in the kitchen and see the tv on to empire and Jamal (my favorite character) is kissing Alicia Keys! For a straight person, who frankly believes that just because you don’t believe in someone’s lifestyle, doesn’t mean you can’t be respectful and loving to someone, was thrilled to see Jussie show interest in a woman. He’s gay in real life and a great singer, so how much acting is really needed to play that role? I’d love to see more of him with Alicia Keys.

    • Annie says:

      Jamal is your favorite character, yet during the first season his sexual orientation was the main storyline for both the season and the character. In comparison, he hasn’t had a storyline this season. Maybe that’s why you’ve been upset. That makes sense.

  13. Duder NME says:

    It’s not a matter of “sexual fluidity”, but of hero worship which developed into a girl crush. Not just any would do for Jamal; it had to be her alone.

    • Quan says:

      “Sexual fluidity” is a new term for sexually confused, or I’ll screw anything. Simple. It is nothing to be proud of.

      • tadtorque says:

        Errrm, This whole sexuality-in-a-box for EVERYONE is just propaganda to push agendas in a way that makes people comfortable… be they Gay or Straight. For me, life and lifestyles are about CHOICES. Maybe Jamal ultimately goes back to men or maybe he’s just falling for the “human being” he sees in Skye. He’s single so why not? That’s a good thing.

  14. gingerfires says:

    This show went crazy.

    When established straight characters suddenly go gay I find it ridiculous.

    When established gay characters suddenly go straight I find it disrespectful.

    Of course there are many levels to human sexuality, but literally Jamal and Skye sing two lines of a song and suddenly want to hump each other… Stupid.

    I just tune in to see Taraji. Now I feel like tuning in a little less.

    Skip the show one month and I might end up finding out Lucious is screwing Jamal!

    And Rhonda better not be faking her pregnancy. How can a married man not catch onto this, especially how they have sex??? You know that’s what they’re building up to.

    It’s getting so dumb.

  15. Chinyere says:

    I will always love Empire for its unpredictability. I didn’t see Skye and Jamal’s kiss coming. Oh no I didn’t. I almost fell of my chair. For me, that scene captured a most tender, memorable and incredible chemistry ever to be created on TV. You deserve a standing ovation Lee Daniels.

  16. Dusky soda says:

    Since Empire has decided to make Jamal straight , there is zero reason for me to watch this Fox show anymore!

    • Baraka Smith says:

      There is no proof that he is now straight. They say it in the article that in creative situations sparks fly. Also they talked about the idea of being only gay verses being fluidly sexual. Many people who live there live change in many ways, and a character changing in his sexuality, even for a little bit, is normal and just shows actual character development. We don’t know if that kiss solidified Jamal as straight, I doubt it.

  17. Anne says:

    This was an odd episode to air before the winter finale. Nothing, not even the kiss, left me with a “I can’t wait to see what happens next week,” feeling. This has been an issue that the show has had all season. Main characters barely have storylines, and what happens in one episode barely has any impact on what happens in the next one. This is a soap, not a procedural drama, so why is there so much exposition, and very little movement in any storylines?

    The kiss was a weak cliffhanger, and I doubt that it will develop into a meaningful storyline.

  18. Yashica Bonner says:

    I saw more than a 💋 between Jamal (Jussie Smollet) & Sky (Alicia Keys) at the interview when she said let’s get out of here. I actually thought they were going to sleep together and open another can of worms for Jamal wherein all the boys would be telling Luscious (Terence Howard) & Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) they have babies on the way. That would be a finale! Even if we don’t see Sky & Jamal making out it would be TELLING JUST HOW CONNECTED THE BROTHERS ARE.

  19. tdia says:

    Well if you’re gay and you’re going to fall off the man wagon temporarily, then Alicia Keys would be the one to make you more fluid! With all the couplings they’ve shown so far, next it’ll be a threesome of Skye, Jamal and another guy.

  20. Shawkina says:

    Blissfully beautiful and shocking all at once…yes

  21. Moose says:

    This show is getting truly ridiculous. I guess to make up for losing millions of viewers with too much gay, now the gay is straight. Oh, boy.

    • Turn Up says:

      It is possible for the gay guy to be physically and sexually attracted to girls. There are some people who are actually attracted to both sexes girls and guys.

      • Danni says:

        That would be what Bisexual is, not gay. And someone doesn’t come out anything gay, trans, ANYTHING, without questioning themselves a thousand times over. It is disrespectful as all hell to make an established gay character just suddenly doubt his sexuality even though he was perfectly comfortable in his skin until now. I am bi and I can tell you that I made DAMN sure I wasn’t straight or a lesbian before I told my bigoted father and my mother, who doesn’t BELIEVE in bisexuality.

  22. I’m a hope-to-die fan. I have the CD and DVD set and I’m watching every it’s on the air.

  23. Michelle Bono says:

    Hi first I want to say thank u to Jussie and Alicia that song really hit home for me. The kiss was amazing it gave me confidence. To see a gay artist come up and be excepted is remarkable. Poor Jamal was going through a lot with his family and his breakup. The kiss was amazing. #thatkisswaspowerful

  24. carbar says:

    Kiss was a surprise, but Jamal was w/ a woman before in season 1 even if forced. It’ll be temporary because he’s crushing on Skye as an OG Super fan. LOL. Anika’s not pregnant based on her kit, And did Carol snitched that sent Cookie to jail is what I think sister, Candace referenced. Rosie did a good job, too

  25. Macaroni Tony says:

    mona, you so funny. jamal giving up guys. keep dreaming. :) In case you didn’t know, the actor who plays jamal is gay in real life.

  26. mona says:

    I loved the kiss between jamal and skye it waa a suprise which jamal give up guys all together n turn his life around never to go back

    • Quince says:

      Perhaps he saw the error of his ways. hopefully.

      • Quan says:

        Homophobic hater means absolutely nothing. Overused, stupid statement. In your world, anyone who doesn’t want to see two dudes kissing is a hater. That makes about 97 percent of the world haters in your view, which is unrealistic, insincere, and has turned the phrase into meaningless words.

      • Truth says:

        That’ll never happen. The platform Lee Daniels and this world gives will keep people in. Though it would have been good to see him play a straight role, since it is called acting.

      • Allthatjazz says:

        The error of his ways??? Wtf is that supposed to mean? To each it’s own. God made us all different for a reason and if that’s what he likes then I love it. People should be happy no matter if it’s the same sex or not. Everyone needs to get used to it because LGTB is going nowhere.

      • Dusky soda says:

        Homophobic hater much?

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