Empire’s second season ended Wednesday on an almost literal cliffhanger, and when the cast and crew gathered for the show’s For Your Consideration event on Saturday, they were ready to celebrate.
“I think the best thing about season two is that I think we all feel kind of freer,” said Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Becky, the assistant to music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). “We love the show as much as the audience loves the show, and so I think we know the characters, we know the story, we know the music. We just are in there and we’re staying true to it.”
Howard agreed, noting, “The first season, we were all trying to get along. The beginning part of season two, we all fall apart. By the middle of season two, we all realize how much we need each other, and all the factions come together: the producers, the writers, the directors, the actors. We are a family for life. And we are going to keep doing Empire until the wheels fall off.”
Executive producer Ilene Chaiken admitted that producers set the bar high for Empire’s second season, as they knew they had done “something special,” with the show’s freshman run, which was both critically lauded and one of the most-watched scripted programs of the 2014-15 television season.
“We needed to challenge ourselves to grow the show and make it better," she said. “The stories that we found ourselves telling by the latter half of the season feel so rich, so complex and sophisticated. We think that we set the bar, cleared it, and now we have to clear it again."
Chaiken also praised the cast’s character development in Empire’s second season, which executive producer and director Sanaa Hamri credited to the cast’s “familial” dynamic on set. They goof off behind the scenes -- Jussie Smollett, who plays middle Lyon son Jamal, started a running prank of videotaping castmates he caught sleeping on set during late night shoots -- and Howard and his on-screen ex-wife Taraji P. Henson seem to embody the love/hate dynamic that their characters play so well.
“If he comes for me in season three, I’ll try to kill him again,” Henson joked of her TV husband. “That’s that Cookie and Lucious kind of love.”
“They’re actually nicer as Cookie and Lucious,” Sidibe added with a laugh.
That dynamic translates into gold on Empire, particularly this year, as the exes circled each other and came close to reconciliation before things ended in heartbreak.
“What I love about this relationship is that I don’t even think they were necessarily looking for each other in the second season,” Henson admitted. “It’s just that undeniable love that they have that you cannot dismiss... This mutual connection that they have just won’t let them live apart from each other.”
Chaiken agreed that some of the “richest work” this season was the story of Cookie and Lucious “falling in love all over again.”
“Cookie learning who Lucious was, learning things that she didn’t know about him, and Lucious revealing himself and his past to her, that was such a rich story between the two of them,” the EP added.
“They have three kids together, they have years, they have history,” Henson agreed. “No matter who they date, no matter where they go, no matter who they marry, they will never find the love that they’ve been able to find [with each other]."
“That’s a once in a lifetime love,” she added. “Whether you’re able to keep it is the question.”
From the start of the show, the third part of Cookie and Lucious’ love triangle has been Grace Gealey’s Anika Calhoun, not-so-affectionately dubbed “Boo Boo Kitty,” by Cookie, who came to blows with her ex’s new love in season one before watching her get knocked up by youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and married to Lucious by the end of season two. Gealey says for her, the most important part of embodying such a vilified character is finding the good inside.
“If I read the script and I’m thinking ‘Oh God, she’s a mess,’ and I’m judging her, how can I play her truthfully?” she told the crowd. “So I have to look at the script and say ‘What would make a person feel like that is an OK decision to make?’”
To be fair, Anika has been the victim of more than a few unlucky plot turns and “moments of desperation.” In fact, the actress cited a recent interview given by Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr., who plays the reviled Aaron Burr in the acclaimed Broadway smash, when explaining how she sympathizes with her character.
“He said it so well. He said a lot of times, we like to judge this [character] who we just caught on the worst day of their lives making the worst decision,” she recalled. “We’re so quick to judge them... when no one would want to be judged [on that].”
“I think Anika just has a lot of [worst days],” Gealey added with a laugh.
Another dynamic relationship on the show is the one between Jamal and Lucious, which built to a tragic tipping point this season when the middle Lyon took a bullet for his father, a man who had recently said he would “celebrate” when his son died of AIDS. Smollett praised the show for exploring the moral gray area that pervade real-life relationships.
“We tend to want to believe that someone is all bad or that someone is all good. We tend to ignore that we’re all layered,” he said. “Relationships and love and understanding and family are complicated, as are people. [Jamal] taking the bullet for Lucious is a very natural reflex for someone that you really genuinely love and are about. You would lay your life down for them, and I think that’s what he was obviously willing to do without a second thought.”
Howard revealed that he and Smollett initially were skeptical of plans to drive a wedge in between their characters, who had just recently repaired their relationship after Lucious spent season one struggling to accept his son’s sexuality.
“We didn’t understand where they were going,” the actor explained. “We were resistant to it. But I’m so glad they pushed that envelope, because the moment between [Lucious and Jamal] in episode 2x17 was one of the most truest, honest relationship moments that a father and son can have, especially in this homophobic world that we live in.”
The Empire casting sheet includes Oscar nominees (Sidibe jokingly reminded the audience about her nod while discussing her character’s limited storylines), a Golden Globe winner in Henson, and several talented and established multi-hyphenates. But, there are also some truly green TV newcomers, like Gealey, Gray, and Ta’Rhonda Jones, who continues to steal scenes as Cookie’s eccentric assistant, Porsha, despite have no prior acting experience.
“She brings life to this character. She comes so humble but so raw with so much to add,” Henson said, marveling at Jones’ natural acting instincts. “We’re so lucky to have her. Literally, she just falls into place and she helps the scene live.”
Henson also lauded the performance of Serayah McNeill, who plays singer Tiana on the show. McNeill told the crowd that she was interested in her character becoming more focused on her own career in season two, and her co-stars praised her talents.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words -- I just watched her grow as a performer and it gave me goosebumps,” Henson gushed. “I’m in awe of her.”
As for more fan favorites who will return in season three, Chaiken confirmed that we haven’t seen the last of Leslie Uggams, who played Lucious’ mother, Leah Walker. For years, the music mogul had maintained that his bipolar mother had killed herself, but eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) tracked her down at a mental health facility in the second season, revealing that he had paid off staff members to keep her identity a secret.
“She plays serious cuckoo so well,” Henson gushed of Uggams, who also stole scenes this year as Blind Al in Deadpool. “You don’t know if she’s going to give you cake or stab you in the neck. That’s a hard line to walk, and she plays it so well.”