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

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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