Smollett was removed from the final two episodes of the current season in February following his arrest on charges of filing a false police report claiming he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.
After a three-month hiatus, “Empire” returns for a new batch of episodes on Wednesday night during a turbulent period for the cast and crew amid rumors of on-set meltdowns and a possible cancellation.
Executive producer and showrunner Brett Mahoney is now speaking out about the decision to temporarily cut Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, and why the last few weeks have been an “emotional rollercoaster.”
“It was a very difficult decision, but I think in terms of allowing the cast and the crew to really get the work done without a great deal of disruption in terms of the day-to-day and the stress of the day-to-day, and, in addition, allowing Jussie the time to really deal with what he’s been confronted with and allow him the time to focus and prepare his case, this seems like the logical decision to make,” Mahoney told Entertainment Weekly.
While the network and “Empire” powers-that-be initially defended Smollett after the alleged attack, executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo, Dennis Hammer and Mahoney eventually chose to rework the final episodes to “avoid further disruption on set.”
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. Jussie has been an important member of our ‘Empire’ family for the past five years and we care about him deeply. While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out,” the producers said in a statement at the time. “We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.”
The 36-year-old actor has since been indicted on 16 felony counts for allegedly staging an attack on himself and then providing false information to authorities.
While Smollett’s legal drama continues to play out off-screen, Mahoney says it’s “too early” to determine whether the star has a future on the series should it return for another season.
“It’s a matter of trusting the process and allowing the legal process to play out and see where it goes from there. And it’s too early to think about what we would have to do if we didn’t have Jussie,” he told EW. “We have such a strong ensemble and we have so many stories to tell for all of these fascinating characters that it’s bigger than one character, but it’s too early to think about the show without him.”
And as for reports that the series is on the verge of cancellation should Smollett be found guilty, Mahoney assured fans that the network is “really happy with what we’ve done creatively” this past season.
“I’m not surprised that we don’t necessarily have a pick up at this point as I think last season we waited until May,” he said. “All the indications I have are that we will be. And we do have so many of these stories to tell, so I can’t imagine we won’t be able to tell them.”