Was your character Vernon modeled after anyone?
“From an executive standpoint, there are a couple of cats. L.A Reid, for one, even though I ended up wearing more suits. But all those clothes actually come from places I shop at anyway. From a character’s standpoint, I grew up here in New York. I’ve seen Russell Simmons build Def Jam, I’ve seen Roc-A-Fella Records—there’s always a dude next to the dude, so it was an amalgamation of guys that I’ve known.”
That dude that you’re next to is obviously Lucious Lyon. You two have an interesting relationship—you always have his back, but you’re no yes-man. Is that a balance you try to strike?
“It’s funny because when I read stuff on the page sometimes it reads like Vernon is supposed to be the yes-man. Something as simple as asking, “Who else knows about this?” after he tells me Anika (Grace Gealey) knows about his sickness. It’s very different to ask the question like, “Yo, who else knows, who knows?!” Like I’m threatening to f— you up if you tell me the wrong answer. There’s a way to play the scenes that give you what you feel. I’m not a yes-man and I don’t look at it as Vernon works for Lucious, even if the writers are like, “he works for Lucious.” We work together. In real life, even if you hire me to work for you, I’m gonna work with you. I’m just not built to be that dude, that yes-man. So that’s more the actor than the writer.”
The biggest standout on Empire is probably Taraji P. Henson. What do you think about her performance as Cookie?
“She’s a fantastic actor that I enjoy watching. I love being a fan. I first met Taraji years ago in L.A. We had a mutual friend in D.C., where she’s from. People don’t really talk about her age, but Taraji is 44 years old. And there are very few actresses who actually peak at that age. It’s a testament to her talent, but more importantly, a testament to having the right role. I talk to her and she’s like, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.” And that’s one of the challenges for me, because some material is just not there for me. Which is why you get that n**** coming out in some scenes. Even if you don’t like it, I’m gonna play it naturally because I’m that dude.”
You were part of one of the more emotional scenes on the show—episode eight, when Jamal finally reveals his sexuality to the world. Talk about that scene and the significance it has, even outside of the context of Empire.
“I’ve always been an advocate for disenfranchised people. I’ve always had a lot of gay friends; transgender friends. Those issues are important to me because I came up in the theater community, went to school with two kids that were transgender—they both transitioned in high school. One came to a talent show as Boy George and apparently found some freedom in that and dressed like that every day after. Then one day you see him pushing a shopping cart to school with all of his belongings in it because his grandmother kicked him out. And Octavia St. Laurent, who was in the movie Paris Is Burning, was a good friend who died of AIDS complications. Those are the kids I went to school with. So I’m just happy for Jussie specifically, because Jussie is gay. Anything he wants to do I’m down to support. I personally love him as a human being and a great guy. So when I toast to him in the scene, it’s not just Jamal, it’s Jussie. It’s for all those kids that got kicked out the house. There’s some crazy number, like 80 percent of homeless teenagers—some ridiculous number—associated with the fact that the kid is gay.”
Read more of the interview at Essence.