The melody of Forest Whitaker

August 21, 2017

The Empire star cast

It is not easy singing opposite television’s most musical family, but that’s the task Forest Whitaker has taken on as a new member of the Empire cast.

Fans have known since July that the Oscar-winner would be joining season four of the Fox drama about family feuds inside a musical dynasty, but the company confirmed for the first time last week that he would be channeling his inner tenor.

The 56 year old Hollywood legend (Arrival, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) will appear in a multi-episode arc as Uncle Eddie, a music icon who gave main character Lucious his first radio airplay. 

“We knew that he was very musical and we asked him whether he wanted to sing on the show,” executive producer Ilene Chaiken told the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills. 

If any actor has the pedigree, it ought to be Whitaker, who has been belting out tunes since getting into California Polytechnic State University on a football scholarship and changing to music after injuring his back. 

He toured England with the Cal Poly Chamber Singers in 1980 and studied opera at the University of Southern California’s music conservatory.

Whitaker also held his own alongside established musical stars Mary J Blige, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson in Black Nativity (2013).

“We let him guide us. He was really excited about singing. He’s playing a musician, a producer, somebody who’s integrally involved in the music in the world of the show,” Ilene added.

Broadcast television’s number one program hit a high of almost 18mn viewers in its season one finale in 2015 but has been struggling to recapture its mojo, with audiences dropping to 10mn. 

Empire returns for a fourth season in September 27 with Lucious making his first public appearance after being injured in an explosion.

Wonderful chemistry

Several cast and crew joined Ilene and series creator Lee Daniels on stage at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills for a question and answer session.

Terrance Howard, who plays Lucious Lyon, praised Taraji P Henson as the dynasty’s matriarch Cookie, saying the pair enjoyed “wonderful chemistry”.

Taraji known for her powerful role in Hidden Figures, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was asked if she would consider a starring part in a comedy movie, and described the prospect as a “no brainer”.

“She looks like a leading lady but absolutely is a character actor, and also one of the funniest people alive,” said Jussie Smollett, who plays middle Lyon brother Jamal.

“We play mother and son, but it's more like sister and brother.” Smollett told reporters after the panel that season four would include an homage to pop icon Prince, as well as an episode for which he would be making his directorial debut.

Daniels also revealed details about his other music-set drama series, Star, which debuts its second season on the same night as the Empire premiere on September 27.

Star features Jude Demorest, Brittany O’Grady and Ryan Destiny as a girl group looking for their big break in Atlanta, Georgia. 

The two shows are due to cross over, with Queen Latifah from Star expected to swap places with Smollett for their respective upcoming premieres. 

“It wasn’t the intent initially because they were two separate shows. Fox suggested it, and I thought, why? Because I never saw (Star) as part of Empire, it was its own entity,” Daniels told reporters. 

Eventually though, he decided to “go with the flow,” he said.

“I always thought it was possible, so I don’t know what this guy is talking about. That was in my brain from day one,” said Queen Latifah, who plays Carlotta Brown in Star.