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‘Empire’ Boss on Cookie’s New Man, Jamal’s Woes & Hakeem’s Dangerous Cliffhanger

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead if you have not watched “Empire” season two, episode five, which aired on Wednesday, Oct. 21.

Empire” was full of violent situations on Wednesday night’s episode, starting with Tiana (Serayah) getting ambushed by fake fans who tried to hurt and mug her, Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) Lyon Dynasty label getting raided by armed men and finally ending with Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) getting kidnapped.

It remains to be seen if Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Thirsty (Andre Royo) were behind the acts of crime, but many signs point to Empire’s main man being guilty. “Thirsty is acting on Lucious’ orders,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety.

Also brewing at Empire was Andre (Trai Byers) back in his father’s good graces, after he dug up Uncle Vernon (Malik Yoba) on last week’s episode. However, Andre — who got baptized during the episode — wasn’t feeling himself at Empire, and looked strongly to his faith for guidance.

“In the finale of last year, when Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) and Andre accidentally kill Vernon, that’s a turning point for Andre,” Chaiken explains of Andre’s faith. “That was a crisis for him and when we came back into Season 2, it was our thinking that Andre really dug into his spiritual belief in the wake of that event.”

Love was in the air on the new episode for Cookie, who finally met her match in concert promoter Laz Delgado (Adam Rodriguez), and for Hakeem, who shared more scenes with Laura (Jamila Velazquez), the Latina singer he spotted at the end of last week’s “Empire.”

Jamal, however, wasn’t so lucky in love. His longtime boyfriend Michael (Rafael de la Fuente) cheated on him with none other than the sleazy photographer who shot his Rolling Stone cover last week. “Jamal got his heart broken. He got his heart broken trying to do the right thing,” Chaiken says.

Here, Chaiken tells Variety more about Jamal’s cheating scandal, Lucious versus Cookie, Hakeem’s kidnapping fate and guest star Ne-Yo. Plus, will Oprah ever guest star on “Empire?”

Do Lucious and Thirsty have anything to do with Hakeem being kidnapped?
Well, I think you’ll have to wait until episode six to find out.

What can you tell us about the final scene?
It’s got a trade term — it’s called a snatch-and-grab. It happens in the music business, in all kinds of celebrity business, but particularly in the hip-hop business. It really is the story in episode six, but the issue of whether or not Lucious and Thirsty have something to do with it is key to the story.

We saw a lot more of Laura in this episode. Right now, Hakeem is kidnapped, but assuming he comes back, what can you say about relationship?
Laura is a very different girl for Hakeem. He says to her, “I never met a singer that didn’t roll that way,” and she says, “Well, I don’t.” I believe that Hakeem is kind of stunned and intrigued by that.

And Laura is around for many more episodes to come, so can we expect a larger storyline for her?
She will. Part of Hakeem’s arc of growth of becoming a man and a more mature, thoughtful person is getting involved with a girl who comes from a different worldview to his own, who has her own values that he’s either going to respect or not, and I’m inclined to think that Hakeem might consider respecting her values and approaching relationships differently.

Back to Thirsty, to be clear, does Lucious know everything that he’s doing against Lyon Dynasty?
Rather like “The Godfather,” Lucious makes clear what he wants to accomplish — he makes clear the results he needs. He doesn’t have to know what his minions are doing to get him those results. But they know that he intends for them to do whatever they need to do.

Were Thirsty and Lucious behind Tiana’s ambush?
Lucious may or may not be connected to what happened to Tiana because these are things that happened in hip-hop, and Lucious gets covered from a lot of that. Lucious isn’t necessarily telling Thirsty. Just as he didn’t in episode two to beat that guy up in the garage and “get my laptop back,” Thirsty just knew that’s what he had to do to get in Lucious’ good graces. This is who Thirsty is. Thirsty’s a fixer.

Whether or not Lucious is involved in all that’s going on at Lyon Dynasty, Cookie is not happy with him. Does Cookie and Lucious’ relationship stand any chance?
Cookie knows that Lucious has gone after her. He’s sent crooks into her office to try to steal her music. Lucious has escalated the tension, the war between them.

Cookie finally has a new love interest! They meet through work, as he’s a concert promoter. How quickly can we expect to see that working relationship escalate into something else?
You’re going to learn a little bit more about him in the next episode. I thought there was some crackling tension between them. Clearly she’s intrigued, and he’s intrigued. They’re flirting — straight up! I’ve never noticed Cookie sitting too long on that type of feelings. I think they’re two people who are quite likely to act on their attraction to each other.

In one of their first scenes together, he pulls out a gun to protect Cookie when Lyon Dynasty gets ambushed and she lets him. Cookie isn’t the type of woman who will let just any man protect her, is she?
No, she isn’t. Cookie can clearly take care of herself, as well as anybody could possibly take care of her, but I think that she likes a man who knows his way around. She’s not drawn to weak men by any means.

On the topic of love: poor Jamal! The implied scene where Michael cheats on him was shocking and racy, but just so heartbreaking. Where did that idea come from, to put a rift in their relationship?
As we talked about that story, we conceived that story a little behind the scenes — we met with all the actors over the course of the season and when Jussie Smolett came into the room, we wound up talking a lot about having a relationship when your fame is going through the roof. We thought that was an interesting story. We thought, is it going to go to Jamal’s head? And then we realized it was actually a much more interesting story to see Jamal’s boyfriend cheat on him. Jamal is a man who can pretty much have anyone he wants, and the one person that he really cares for hurts him because he’s so threatened by Jamal’s fame.

Ne-Yo writes music for “Empire” behind the scenes, but he guest starred on this episode, giving advice to Jamal. How did his role come about?
We first got involved with Ne-Yo as a songwriter. He’s writing fabulous songs for “Empire” this season. But of course, when we first started talking musically, that immediately became part of the conversation because he’s a star and charismatic and adorable and we said, “We’d love to have you on the show,” and he said, “Yeah.” We did talk about whether Ne-Yo should play himself or a character, and we eventually decided that this was one of those great opportunities to get somebody to come on as himself to kind of connect us to the real world.

He and Jamal talk about going on tour together, so will we see any more of Ne-Yo this season?
Jamal’s tour won’t happen in this season. We won’t be going on the road with Jamal and Ne-Yo this year. We’d love to have Ne-Yo back and we tried to get him back already for episode 10, but he’s very busy. He’s still writing music for the show, but we couldn’t get him back on camera as quickly as we wanted him to.

Speaking of music, there was a lot of mainstream music in the episode (“Can’t Feel My Face”) in addition to original songs. Was that a conscious decision?
We’ve used current hits as background music before, as source music. We try to license songs that belong in the show and that feel like they’re in the world of the show. Sometimes we use them as score, sometimes as source.

Andre is back in Lucious’ good graces and back at Empire, but he’s clearly having some internal battles about it. What’s going on with Andre?
Andre is definitely in conflict at Empire. He so desperately wanted to be back, but yet, it challenges everything about his newfound faith. His newfound faith is helping to center him and deal with all the sins from his past. He’s a man in painful conflict.

Earlier this month at Variety‘s Power of Women event, Oprah talked about “Empire” and how it’s changed TV. Lee Daniels has alluded to her guest starring in the past. Any chance of that?
There haven’t been any new efforts. Maybe we’ll revisit Oprah in season three. We will try and never stop trying to have Oprah. It would be amazing to make it happen.

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