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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Empire’ Star Jussie Smollett Talks Powerful Experience of Joining Sister on ‘Underground’

by Stacy Lambe 9:25 AM PDT, March 30, 2016
Playing EXCLUSIVE: ‘Empire’ Star Jussie Smollett Talks Powerful Experience of Joining Sister on ‘Underground’

Over 20 years after siblings Jussie Smollett and Jurnee Smollett-Bell appeared together on the ABC series, On Our Own, the two are reuniting on Underground.

Jussie will rejoin his sister as Josey, a wild-eyed runaway, on WGN America’s powerful, new series about the Underground Railroad in Antebellum Georgia, on Wednesday -- the same night Empire returns to FOX.

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The character is a far cry from Jamal Lyon, a talented R&B singer struggling to earn his father’s approval and find his place in dad's music empire. But Jussie says that playing Josey -- a role that he filmed in between the first two seasons of Empire -- was crucial to Jamal’s development.

“It was important for me to do something to challenge myself as an actor -- and to know that I can do other things,” he tells ET. “It made me stronger for Jamal.”

Photo: ABC

While Jussie makes an unforgettable impression on Underground (no spoilers here!), he gives all the credit to his sister, who plays Rosalee, a sheltered slave on the Macon plantation.

“I’m so proud of her, I can’t say enough,” Jussie gushes over Jurnee. “I’m such a genuine fan of her work, the choices that she’s made all of these years.” Over the past five years, Jurnee has made a lasting impression with guest-starring roles onFriday Night Lights, Parenthood and True Blood.

In one particular moment in the premiere, Rosalee comes under punishment of a whip.

“It was so emotional for her -- the whipping scene -- and talking to her right after,” Jussie says. “It was really hard but she came through and the proof is in the pudding. The scene is one of the most impactful scenes I have ever seen.”

Photo: WGN America

The show itself comes as racial tensions in the U.S. are also being seen on TV. Both Underground and American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson touch on issues that have been a long part of the country’s history. And it’s also why Jurnee thinks now is the right time for her series to be on the air.

“Unfortunately, we can still relate to a lot of the issues today, which can be traced back to this time in 1857,” she explains. “It is important for us to know our history. It is important for us to heal the wounds from the past in order to move forward today. We have such a rich history. We come from revolutionaries and sometimes history books paint us as wrong and there is such a disconnection between history and today. We can learn so much from it.”

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While Jussie’s appearance on Underground is limited to this week (with a brief appearance at the end of the prior episode), fans can only hope Jurnee will make her way to Empire.

“I would love for her to come on,” Jussie says. Though, Jurnee puts all the pressure on the show’s creator. “Ask Lee [Daniels],” she says.

Empire returns to FOX at 9 p.m. ET and Jussie’s episode of Underground airs at 10 p.m. ET on WGN America.

--Additional reporting by Leanne Aguilera

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