Jussie Smollett Talks Importance of ‘Empire’ HIV Storyline, Teases Kevin Frazier’s Upcoming Cameo (Exclusive)


The actor is proud of the Fox drama for finally telling this story, which he hopes will educate and inform audiences.

On Empire, Fox’s ongoing drama about a music industry family dynasty, there’s been no shortage of storylines that have challenged audiences’ perceptions of certain issues or taboo subjects. And season five is no different, introducing an HIV-positive character and love story that seeks to change the portrayal and understanding of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS while normalizing the realities of their lives.  

This season, audiences have not only been introduced to Kai, a journalist played by Toby Onwumere, but have seen his romance with Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) unfold on screen. In recent episodes, we’ve learned more about their courtship and Kai’s status, which he disclosed to Jamal and was later discovered by Jamal’s mother, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). 

Cookie “handled it crazy, she was just worried about Jamal,” Smollett tells ET, but adding that it’s OK to acknowledge people’s stigmas and ignorances. In the end, she doesn’t reject Jamal for his relationship with an HIV-positive man and comes to accept and embrace Kai. “That patience that Kai had with Cookie was so beautiful,” he adds. 

It’s a storyline that Smollett says he’s “been pushing and pitching for so long.” But now five seasons in, the actor has persevered, getting to see Jamal in a healthy, normal relationship -- and given Jai’s status -- one that will help change the television landscape. 

While it’s not the first show to introduce an HIV-positive character, Empire is one of the few -- notably How to Get Away With Murder, HBO’s Looking and Pose -- to let them explore romantic relationships on screen.  

“I was so deeply honored and grateful to be able to tell that storyline. This is my favorite storyline for Jamal ever,” Smollett says of his time on the show, which has experienced a rejuvenation by refocusing on the family after guest star-filled seasons. “We’ve had cool people on, but it’s about the family now and that’s why the show is winning again.”

While speaking with ET Live’s Melicia Johnson at Espolòn Tequila's Day of the Dead Party, Smollett also teased Entertainment Tonight co-host Kevin Frazier’s upcoming Empire cameo, which is scheduled to air in November. “He’s been a friend for a minute now,” the actor says, revealing that he’s enjoyed being interviewed by him over the years. 

Even though Frazier’s screen time on the show is brief, “he came in a good scene,” Smollett says, adding: “Kevin is a star. A star is born! Forget Gaga, it’s about Kevin now.”