Empire is known for its on-screen drama (and musical numbers), but what goes on behind-the-scenes might be even more juicy than anything we see on screen — and that’s including some pretty intense sex scenes and actual murder. With Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack and subsequent arrest dominating the news surrounding the long-running show, most of us forget that Empire has always been plagued with controversy. It just arguably wasn’t anywhere near as insane as what was happening with the Lyon family.
The Fox series has seemingly run strong throughout its five seasons, as of this writing. In 2018, its premiere once again led primetime after previously seeing a 36% drop in its demographic for the previous season’s finale. Nonetheless, everything behind the cameras hasn’t always been milk and cookies (in fact, some actors might be tired of Cookie all together). From alleged meltdowns and numerous lawsuits to the bizarre ways actors cope with sex scenes, these dark secrets should have never left the Empire set.
Jussie Smollett may have staged his own hate crime
Jussie Smollett made headlines in January 2019 when he went for a 2 a.m. Subway sandwich run which ended in an alleged assault. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Empire star told Chicago police he was attacked by two men who “hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck,” and “yelled racial and homophobic slurs” along with President Donald Trump’s “MAGA” catchphrase. The incident, which served to further polarize America’s left and right, was being treated as a hate crime as celebrities and politicians rallied around in support of the star. Unfortunately, as time went on, the story began to unravel.
As police began to investigate Smollett’s attack, they identified two men, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, as persons of interest after they were captured on surveillance footage. One of the brothers was said to have served as an extra on Empire, and according to the Associated Press, the pair told police that the Empire actor paid them $3,500 to stage the attack. Smollett was then “charged with federal disorderly conduct for falsifying a police report,” which could land the actor in jail for up to three years if he’s convicted (per The Hollywood Reporter).
After Smollett’s charges came to light, the star was cut from the final two episodes of Empire. Though he maintains his innocence, as of this writing, Chicago police (via The Guardian) claimed the star staged the attack because he was unhappy with his salary.
Howard might not be as supportive of Smollett as you think
Terrence Howard initially seemed like he was standing by his scorned co-star, but there was reportedly some major tension behind the scenes following Smollett’s arrest. According to TMZ, Howard had an on-set “meltdown” after Smollett turned himself into the police. He reportedly “refused to come out of his trailer for most of the day.”
An anonymous source who spoke to TMZ claimed that Howard never believed Smollett’s story and regularly pestered the actor about the details until it was clear things weren’t adding up. When two persons of interest were detained, that was apparently a breaking point for the star, who allegedly yelled at Smollett to tell the truth. Howard was also curiously missing from the set when Smollett tearfully addressed the allegations and told his cast mates he was innocent.
Nonetheless, Howard did publicly show support for Smollett. In an Instagram post, the star wrote, “All your lil homies got you… We love the hell outta you,” but is he secretly seething behind the mask of social media?
Jussie Smollett’s controversy thrust him into the spotlight, but it turns out he might have actually been struggling with his fame from the jump. In a June 2018 Billboard feature, the Empire star spoke candidly about mental health. It was just six months before the actor was arrested for what might turn out to be the biggest celebrity hoax of 2019. He claimed he was nearing his breaking point.
“I know the way I stay mentally healthy is by admitting things. I admit that I’m jealous, I admit that I’m insecure, and that I’m not good at certain things. I’m getting better at it,” he said. “I wish I had something really deep to say, but I’m in my 30s, and I’m trying my best to learn that I can’t bend anymore. I’m about to break.”
According to THR, Smollett tweeted “depression is a real thing, y’all” in late January, which served to eerily foreshadow the news that would soon surround the star. Three days later, a threatening, racist, and white powder-filled letter that allegedly triggered Smollett’s downward spiral was delivered to him on-set. According to CBS Chicago, he may actually have crafted the note and sent it to himself — then staged his own attack when it didn’t get a “big enough” reaction, though those close him are struggling to reckon with the possibility.
Terrence Howard’s nasty history of domestic abuse
Right before season two of Empire aired in 2015, news of Terrence Howard’s nasty split from second wife Michelle Ghent painted a terrifying picture of domestic abuse. According to People, the pair was riddled with “accusations of ‘crazy behavior'” — including drug use and suicide threats — from both sides, and the text messages used as evidence were horrific.
“Every minute of every day I feel like putting an end to this miserable existence … every lie I’ve told to you are equal in my mind to putting bullets into a clip and firing them at my future,” Howard texted Ghent 2009 (via People). “I couldn’t do anything but sit there [looking] at a f—ing razor blade … I just wanted to die,” read an email from Howard.
Ghent used numerous text messages to describe Howard as “dangerously possessive.” In a phone call used as evidence, she called him “scary,” but Howard painted a different picture. He claimed his wife was “continually attacking” him and he was “afraid of her.”
This wasn’t the first time Howard was accused of domestic abuse. In 2013, Howard’s ex girlfriend told the New York Daily News that the star “choked and punched” her. Howard also admitted to slapping his first wife in front of his children in 2001 (though the police report said it was two “closed fist” punches). As of this writing, Howard is engaged (for a second time) to his ex-wife Mira Pak.
Let’s talk about sex … scenes on Empire
Anyone who’s ever seen Empire can’t deny that the sex scenes are hot. Jussie Smollett even once described himself as a “dressed porn star,” but we’re not the only ones getting hot and bothered watching the cast go at it. According to Taraji P. Henson, who portrays Cookie Lyon in the series, Howard sometimes has an issue keeping his private area in check. In order to stave off the sexy vibes and keep his arousal to a minimum, the star utilized a series of steps including keeping his clothes on and threatening to beat up his member.
In an interview with Angie Martinez (via E! News), Henson reported that in worst case scenarios, the only way Howard can keep it cool is if she pretends to be a little girl. Pretty creepy, but they’re professionals, right?
“Every time he would get on top of me, I would be [in a little girl’s voice], ‘Daddy, why are you on top of me? Where’s mommy? Why is the door closed?’ He would be like, ‘Oh no!’ But it worked,” she said. “I would be like, ‘Why are you touching me, Daddy?’ And he was like, ‘Aw, no, that is twisted.’ But guess what? We got through the scene real quick.”
Apologies to everyone attempting to read this over lunch.
Some of Smollett’s sex scenes are with straight actors
As an openly gay person of color, Jussie Smollett landing the role of Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox series was groundbreaking. Unfortunately, the stars who played his love interests weren’t always part of the LGBTQ community. In 2019, can we please just hire gay men to play gay men?
Smollett shared the deets about getting down and dirty on-screen with Logo’s Newnownext. Apparently, he doesn’t look forward to filming the sex scenes, though he managed to foster a close friendship Rafael de la Fuente, who played his on-screen boyfriend, Michael. De la Fuente doesn’t seem to discuss his sexual orientation in the press, so we can’t judge there, but when it comes to Smollett’s other onscreen love interest, things get a little stranger. Smollett claimed that Eka Darville, who portrays Ryan Morgan, sometimes had his wife and baby on-set while filming (which seems kind of awkward if you’re trying to be sexy with someone else); however, Smollett did try his best to make sure that Darville was comfortable.
“In those moments you talk to your partner in the scene,” he told Newnownext. “You make sure that they’re comfortable. You make sure that you’re comfortable. I did go to Eka and I was like ‘Alright, bruh, how comfortable are you? Because for this [sex] scene I’m going to go b***s to the wall. But I just want to make sure that you are comfortable.”
A secret wedding for Grace Gealey and Trai Byers
Workplace love is always scandalous, whether you’re working in an office and living out a real-life version of Jim and Pam or you’re a Hollywood celeb getting steamy with a co-star. No one knows this better than Grace Gealey and Trai Byers, who play Anika Calhoun and Andre Lyon, respectively.
In a 2015 episode of FABLife (via People), the notoriously private Gealey admitted things smoldered on set, but only because it was the real deal. Anything else wouldn’t be worth the risk. Seriously, who wants to end up like Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, still locking lips on the set of Gossip Girl long after their romance fizzled out?
“I think that if you do get involved at your workplace, you have to know that this is something that you want to be invested in, and this is just not just something that is frivolous and fleeting,” she said.
According to the New York Daily News, the co-stars first met on the set of Empire and only dated a few months before Byers proposed. During Season 2, they tied the knot in a secret island ceremony, and TMZ reported their co-stars didn’t make the guest list (which means things must have been crazy awkward the next day at work).
The real reason Henson almost walked away from Cookie
Henson wouldn’t take a bite out of Cookie without Terrence Howard. The former Hustle & Flow stars have some deep ties, and Henson refused to take on her Empire role without him — she just had to make sure she actually won the audition first.
During a 2015 Winter TCA Press Tour (via E! News), Empire co-creator, executive producer and director Lee Daniels revealed that he was originally hoping to cast Wesley Snipes as hip hop mogul Lucious Lyons, but Henson had other plans. The actress, who hadn’t yet landed the role, was adamant about taking on the series with her former co-star.
“I was like, ‘You ain’t got the job yet.’ And then, I was like, ‘Danny [Strong, series co-creator], that’s Cookie,'” Daniels said. Henson reportedly told the director, “I think Cookie is amazing. I would love to play her. If you can get Terrence, I’m all about it. If not, good luck with the project!”
Daniels had worked with Howard in the past, but didn’t think the star would actually sign on for a TV project. Howard even admitted he was “scared to death” after reading the script (to be fair, it was for the episode where Lucious shoves his 5-year-old into a garbage can for wearing high heels). Ultimately, the star took the role because of his experience with Henson on Hustle & Flow. She’s waiting on her manager’s commission right about now.
Naomi Campbell didn’t want the part
Naomi Campbell is just about as famous as a model can be. According to Vogue, the superstar became one of the first British women of color to star in a Burberry campaign. After more than 30 years in the industry, she’s slowly strutted away from the runway and transitioned into a life on the small screen. These days, she’s more apt to throw some killer lines at her co-stars than a cellphone, but she almost turned down her Empire role, which seemingly kick-started her larger return to TV.
“I’ve known Lee for a long time but when he asked me to play the role, I wasn’t sure,” she told Vogue. “I’d kind of given up on acting.”
Campbell, who starred as the tough-as-nails fashionista Camilla Marks, hadn’t acted since a 2011 Duran Duran music video. She ended up turning to her pal Diane von Furstenberg to help make the final call, and the patron saint of wrap dresses told her to give acting one more shot. Not only did she nail the part of Hakeem Lyon’s older girlfriend, but she picked out her entire season one wardrobe herself.
Is Nia Long a nightmare?
Children of the ’90s might remember Nia Long from Boyz n the Hood and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but the star took Empire by storm in 2017. She might have even left some actual wreckage behind when she finished her eight episode run with the show and moved onto NCIS: Los Angeles.
According to TMZ, Long was a “nightmare” on Empire’s set. The star was allegedly so “disrespectful and unprofessional” that the hair and makeup team filed an official complaint. She was reportedly “habitually late” leaving co-stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson waiting on set for a half an hour (if she even showed up at all), and producers allegedly had to provide stand-ins just so the Hustle & Flow co-stars could rehearse.
Beyond that, Long reportedly had major beef with Henson. TMZ claimed the pair were “at each other’s throats” to the point that they almost had to shoot their scenes separately. At one point, they allegedly “stopped speaking to each other,” which made it “impossible” to film together. Long also reportedly threatened to sue the series over an improper goodbye. Of course, her rep denied all the claims. Long later told TMZ that she thinks Henson is an “amazing actress” and there’s no truth to the lawsuit at all.
Cookie might be contemplating her exit
It’s unclear what Empire will look like without Jussie Smollett, but Taraji P. Henson might end up being the next star to go, and what kind of show would it be without Cookie? In an interview with Variety, the star admitted that playing her character was positively exhausting and she’s eventually going to lose her passion.
“I could not do this forever. No. Cookie wears me out!” she said. “She drains me. She is emotionally all over the place. Those writers, they just keep pushing my emotions with every episode. By the 18th episode [of each season], I’m dead. I got to get far away. I don’t wear animal print. I cut my hair into a bob. I don’t wear a weave because I’ve got to get as far away from Cookie as possible.”
Henson also wanted to take a page out of Sex and the City or Seinfeld’s book: end the show before the network ends you. It’s always a bummer when a show outlives its positive ratings and winds up on the chopping block. Instead, she told Variety that she hoped “to go out on a high. You want to be remembered as the number one show on the network.” Unfortunately, it’s looking like the show might be forever tied to Smollett’s scandal, which means it could be time for the star to bow out.
Long live the lawsuits
With success comes lawsuits, and Empire has been plagued with them. Most notably, the Fox series was accused of stealing the life story of Detroit resident Sophia Eggleston and self-described “known ghetto player,” Ron Newt.
According to Page Six, Eggleston sued Fox for $300 million because she believed Cookie was based on her life. Much like the Empire mainstay, Eggleston claimed to be a fur coat-loving drug kingpin who has “a gay family member.” She reportedly spent time behind bars for manslaughter after ordering a hit (the opposite of Cookie who placed a hit after her time in prison). Worse yet (beyond contract murder, obviously), the woman claimed to have met with a screenwriter who shopped her memoir to Daniels prior to the show. Eggleston’s claim was convincing enough that a judge refused to throw it out in 2016, however the case was ultimately dismissed in Fox’s favor in 2017.
Newt also alleged that Empire was inspired by his life as a “gangster, pimp and drug dealer,” according to TMZ. The filmmaker claimed to have given Howard a copy of his screenplay All That Glitters, his memoir Bigger Than Big, and a DVD documentary about his life, according to Deadline. Newt claimed Howard “wanted to play him in the film,” but of course, ended up on Empire. To be fair, Newt also claimed to have signed deals with MCA, Michael Jackson’s family and Death Row Records. A judge threw out the lawsuit in 2016.
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