‘Empire’ Creator Lee Daniels Says He’s ‘Embarrassed’ for Defending Jussie Smollett

When Empire actor Jussie Smollett said he’d been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack earlier this year, the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels was quick to voice his support.

“You didn’t deserve — nor anybody deserves — to have a noose put around your neck, to have bleach thrown on you,” the director said in a now-deleted Instagram post.

“Hold your head up, Jussie. I’m with you,” he added. “I’ll be there in a minute. It’s just another f***ing day in America.”  

But Daniels has changed his tune in the wake of subsequent revelations about the nature of the incident. Now, he says he’s “embarrassed” by his impassioned defense of the actor, who police say fabricated the attack because he wanted to get paid more for his work on Empire.

Daniels says his past experiences made him rush to Smollett’s defense

Jussie Smollett and Lee Daniels
Jussie Smollett and Lee Daniels | Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Daniels, who is gay, explained in an interview with Vulture that his past experiences of being bullied and beaten made him quick to rush to Smollett’s defense.

“I’m beyond embarrassed,” he said. “I think that when it happened, I had a flash of me running from bullies. I had a flash of my whole life, of my childhood, my youth, getting beaten.”

In the past, Daniels has spoken about how his father’s violent behavior affected him when he was growing up. One time, when he was eight years old, “I walked down the stairs with high heels on, and he put me in the trashcan,” Daniel said during a talk at Loyola Marymount University in 2017. Later, he later recreated that scene in Empire.

But he says there’s still some doubt in his mind

Daniels said that Smollett’s actions were totally unexpected and that he still can’t quite believe the man he’s described as being like a son to him would lie about being the victim of such a horrific attack. (Smollett maintains that he did not orchestrate the incident.)

“Of course, there’s some doubt,” Daniels said. “I’m telling you that because I love him so much. That’s the torture that I’m in right now, because it’s literally if it were to happen to your son and your child, how would you feel? You would feel, Please, God, please let there be that glimmer of hope that there is some truth in this story. That’s why it’s been so painful. It was a flood of pain.”

While The Butler director says he can’t be sure what really happened with Smollett, he’s had to distance himself from the actor.

“I had to detach myself and stop calling him, because it was taking away the time I have for my kids, the time I have for my partner,” he explained. “It was affecting my spirit and other shows, everything.”

Is Smollett to blame for Empire’s cancellation?

Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in an episode of Empire

Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in the Season 5 finale episode of Empire | FOX via Getty Images

After police raised doubt about the truth of Smollett’s story, he was written out of the final episodes of Empire Season 5. And though the show was renewed for a final season on Fox, Smollett won’t be returning as Jamal Lyon, the black sheep of the powerful Lyon family.

In his conversation with Vulture, Daniels admitted that the Smollett scandal “played a major part” in the network’s decision to end the drama, though he also noted that Fox had canceled all its other shows with black leads, including Lethal Weapon, Proven Innocent, and his own show Star.

However, the cancellation might not be the end of the Empire story. Daniels said he was planning a spinoff, though he couldn’t share many details. In the meantime, he’s hard at work on the show’s last season. And fans should be prepared for some stunning developments.

It’s a “fantastic, bombastic season,” he said, “which is going to shake you by your roots.”