Exclusive Interview: Rafael de la Fuente (“Empire”)

Oct. 21st’s episode of Empire, “Be True,” featured Andre trying to get his soul right with his family, himself, and with God ultimately, but one of the other developments of the night was Michael getting with that artist guy and later discovered by Jamal, who was about to tell Michael he could come on tour with him!

I was excited to have the opportunity of talking with Rafael de la Fuente about Michael’s departure from fidelity and what his actions could mean for Jamal and Michael’s future together. We also talked about de la Fuente’s quick first trip to set, working with Jussie Smollett, and his favorite Cookie moment. 

With the episode [Wednesday], I have to ask—what happened to where Michael thought he should let the weird artist dude—[de la Fuente laughs]—give him a blow job?

Yeah, well, I think Michael was confused with the whole tour thing and he thought Jamal wanted an open relationship. You remember the scene with Jamal  is in the studio with Ne-Yo and Michael won’t stop texting him? [Jamal] says that Michael thinks he wants an open relationship or whatever, and I think he was a little pissed off at what he saw in Leviticus. He didn’t really understand.  It was all a misunderstanding. Plus, I think this time around, Michael loves Jamal so much that he feels a little vulnerable. He’s trying to not be that, you know what I mean?…I think that’s what happened. It’s just a big mistake.

How is this going to affect Jamal and Michael going forward?

Well, you’re just going to have to see! [laughs]. You’re going to have to see what happens.

With Michael and Jamal’s relationship, we saw Michael leave Jamal last season because Jamal was too into his career. How or why did Michael come back? Because I thought he was done.

They’re in love—they can’t deny that—but it’s a complicated situation with Jamal’s family and Jamal’s career and Michael not really being able to understand the demands of the entertainment industry. But he’s back—he came back to…the opening of the LGBT center that’s going to be happening and they just went back into it straight away. But you know, it’s one of those loves that you can’t really get over, you know what I mean? You keep going back.

What’s it like to play Michael? What’s it like to approach his character?

I didn’t really have much time to do a lot of work on the character of Michael because I literally booked the character and had to be on a plane three days after that. I didn’t really get a lot of time with the directors and writers. It was something that sort of happened on set with Lee and Jussie [Smollett]. We were really lucky because Jussie and I got along from the beginning. Because of how rushed everything was, I literally met him the day we had to that first scene where we kissed, and I literally hadn’t met the guy. So it was all very rushed. Of course, I was very familiar with Lee’s work and Danny’s work and I’d thoroughly read the script and wrote down in my character journal…a bunch of ideas I had and spoke with Lee as we were literally working the scene. It kind of slowly took shape[.]

It’s been great to play that character. It’s been challenging to be on a show like Empire because I’m surrounded by people who are so extremely talented and have huge careers and it’s been a huge learning experience and nurturing of my craft. But also, it’s a character that, even though Michael doesn’t have a lot of scenes, I think he’s been played with a lot of honesty and truth and I think the audience have really appreciated that. Both Jussie and I have gotten messages from kids who haven’t been able to come out to their parents and through the story and everything, they’ve been able to start the conversation, stuff like that. As an actor, that’s what you want. You want roles that are entertaining…and challenge you, but promote change in society and impact the world in a positive way, so it’s been great.

You talked a little bit about Jussie Smollett—what’s it like working with him and developing Michael and Jamal and their relationship?

Jussie’s a great guy. He’s an amazing artist and we just became really good friends from the beginning. It’s easy because he’s very generous. He’s always down to talk about the scenes, talk about the characters. He’s a great guy and it’s just awesome to work with him.

You were talking about the effect your character has had on viewers, affecting families in positive ways. Michael and Jamal and a host of other characters are a part of this huge wave of LGBT characters on television. What’s it like to be a part of that historic wave?

I think it’s amazing! I feel so honored and so proud. It’s about time, you know. It’s just a fair representation of everyday life. We’re not doing anything different from just the real world. It’s just like having more black actors on TV shows, more Latino characters on TV shows. The world is not just one type of people. It’s all different kinds of people with different gender identities and sexual orientations and races and cultures and to be a part of a show that’s continuing to open up the screen to diversity in every way is an honor.

Empire is possibly the biggest show on TV that has the largest amount of fan interaction on Twitter and other social media.  What’s it like to experience all of the fan interaction Empire has?

Well, it’s incredible. I mean, the show has been the most tweeted show in history or something like that. The first episode broke records. It was like a million tweets or something while the show was on. It’s amazing because you see that people are not only watching, but they want to interact. They want to comment on it. It shows that they’re not only watching, but they’re actively watching. They’re really interested in what’s happening. They’re not just putting the show on and having dinner or doing work or whatever; they’re literally watching the show and on their phones, tweeting. It’s great—it’s a good feeling.

And there’s so much creativity that goes with the people tweeting about the show. Some of the funniest memes I’ve seen are just from me scrolling through the twitter timeline and seeing people talk about what this character said or what this character did.

Yeah, it’s so funny. It’s hilarious. All we do on Thursday morning—the cast—all we do is text each other the funny little videos and stuff that people make, you know? Every episode…people are talking about the outrageous thing Cookie did or Cookie said or what happened last night. It’s non-stop. It’s great, it’s funny, it’s awesome.

Speaking of Cookie, since everyone has a favorite Cookie moment, do you have a favorite Cookie moment?

Oh God, there’s so many! I just love her. I have so many favorite Cookie moments. “Shut up, Dora,” would be one of them because that just became part of pop culture and people just stuck with it. Just so many, both dramatic and funny. [Taraji P. Henson’s] such a brilliant actress. She can [play] comedy and drama for the same scene. She just does it so flawlessly. I just love her. I’m a big fan of Taraji.

Do you have a message to all the Michael fans out there?

Stay tuned! And of course, I’m going to have to say thank you so much to everyone that appreciates the work I’ve been doing.

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Screencap of Rafael de la Fuente in Empire