TheBacklot Interview: "Empire's" Rafael de la Fuente

Is the Jamal and Michael relationship in trouble on Fox's Empire?

Things certainly looked that way in last week's episode when Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) warned Michael (Rafael de la Feunte) that her son's rising stardom would drive a wedge between the couple. Michael soon realized he was already on the outside of Jamal's (Jussie Smollett) quickly expanding world in the music business.

Then, of course, there was the bombshell that Jamal could have fathered a child with a woman (played by Smollett's real life BFF, Raven-Symoné).

Dying to know what's going to happen next? So are we, which made it the perfect time to catch up with de la Feunte. And, because it would be stupid not to given how sexy de la Fuente is, we also brought along photographer Clinton Gaughran to get some exclusive photos.

What’s your background and when did you start performing?

Rafael de la Fuente: I am Venezuelan and was born in Caracas, Venezuela. I actually moved to the States when I was 19. I went to a college in Tampa, Florida and then moved to Miami. I started acting when I was about that age, when I was about 18, 19. My father’s a musician. I’m a singer as well but I got into acting by chance. A woman that was head of casting in a network back in Venezuela saw a picture of me at my father’s office and asked him if I was involved in the performing arts. He told her I was a singer and then she was like, “Tell him to come see me.” I went and saw her and she had me audition. I had done school plays and stuff but hadn't worked professionally. They ended up giving me a little guest star role and I fell in love with it. The rest is history.

Did you feel like you could do both singing and acting or are you going to focus your energies on acting?

I've always done both but things in my acting career have just happened…I don’t want to say easily because I’ve worked hard but things have just happened, so I’ve been more focused on that. That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions actually, to actually do more music this year. I fell in love with musical theater in college and was in some plays so I’ve been in musicals.

When you first auditioned for Michael, what were you told about the character? Did you know about the relationship with Jamal going in?

My agent was like, 'There’s this amazing pilot this year. It’s one of the strongest pilots this year and there’s a character that you could play. Read it, give me your thoughts and let me know.' Oh, and he told me Lee [Daniels] and Danny [Strong] were the creators and Lee was going to direct the pilot. I read it and I was like ‘I am all about this. This is amazing.’ This is the type of show and the type of role that you want to play, stuff that challenges you and stuff that is raw and that has meaning. I was super-excited to audition for it.

The very first scene we see you and Jussie in the pilot, you can see that these guys are a couple and you see a real, intimate connection. Was that something you guys had a lot of time to work on?

It was so weird because I got there and the next day I had to be on set shooting those scenes with Jussie. I didn’t have table reads. I met him in the makeup trailer before going to set. We went into Lee’s trailer and read the scenes and talked about it and talked about their history [and] their story. Jussie’s an amazing actor and an amazing partner and such an open and available person. He made me feel comfortable from the get-go. We had to do it and we did it and it worked. We got along right away though. We would joke about the fact that we had to make out in our first scene the first day that we had met. That broke the ice. The fact that it was so full-on from the get-go broke the ice right away because it was 'All right. We’re making out. Let’s do it and we did it.'


What did you know about your relationship up until this point?

They had been together for two years and they had been living together for about a year. They had a solid, stable relationship. They never say where they met or anything, but for our own backstory and stuff that we have as actors, each of us maybe wrote down a little journal for the character but it’s not specified in the story.

There are definitely tensions rising in their relationship, which we’ve seen in the recent episodes…

Well, it’s a two-year long relationship and they’re not in their honeymoon stage anymore. They disagree on certain things. In this last episode you saw some tension. I think Michael is concerned because he thinks that Jamal’s priorities are going to drastically change and he’s worried about that. Like kissing on the first day that we met, working on the other side of it, on the not so pretty side of the relationship, was not hard with Jussie because he’s just easy to work with. We would read the scenes the night before and come up with ideas. It just was so easy to work with him. With him and with Taraji and everyone. But there’s definitely some tension and some more to come.

How do you think Michael relates to the fact that Jamal has these issues with his father and the whole homophobia stuff?

Michael comes from a Hispanic background and-- like many communities-- homophobia is present in the Hispanic community. We never see or say it, but I think he definitely grew up with a lot of pressure from the Latin community and his family and stuff. That’s why he rebels against it and that’s why he doesn’t like Lucious. That’s why he thinks that Jamal should just be himself. He disagrees with the whole staying-in-the-closet thing. He has this activist soul.

So, Cookie has warned Michael that Jamal won’t be as available and he’s seen some of that already. Now we’ve got this potential baby daddy shocker. Safe to say we’ll see those things confronted in the next episode?

I don’t think that Michael has a problem with Jamal not coming out, but Michael does have a problem with Jamal lying. There’s a difference. Your private life is your private life, and you decide when you’re in the public eye that some things you want to keep for yourself. That’s your prerogative and that’s understandable. I don’t think that is Michael’s problem. Michael’s problem is, ‘Why do you have to lie and say there’s no one special?’ You can say there’s no girl in my life, period. End it there. But no one special? That’s what Michael doesn’t like. That’s what I think, in my opinion, that’s what’s going to create some problems.

The baby daddy thing that was quite a bombshell at the end of last week.

Why didn’t I know about that? I think Michael’s going to be shocked because you’re living with someone for two years and then all of a sudden they have a kid? ‘By the way, I have a daughter.’

What does Michael think of Cookie at this point? Does he like what she’s doing with Jamal and his career?

He loves Cookie. Michael is all about Cookie. He’s incredibly entertained by her and loves her style and loves how she doesn’t take no BS from nobody. He really likes her and he doesn’t know that she doesn’t really think that Michael is the right partner for Jamal. He doesn’t know that because that’s a conversation that she has with him at Leviticus but the only thing that she’s telling Michael, which is completely valid, is that things are going to change. ‘You better be on your own lane and focus on your stuff for a little while,’ which is valid. She’s giving him some advice. But he likes her a lot.


You’ve been watching the show. What is your favorite part of the show from a viewer’s perspective?

Of course I love the music and I love the musical numbers and I think Jussie and Yazz are supremely talented. I mean, when that kid spits his rhymes I’m like ‘what the hell?’ He’s so good. He’s such a good performer. Jussie’s an amazing singer and performer, amazing. I mean, they really are like world class talent.

I love Cookie, I love her one-liners. I think she’s hilarious and I love the fact that Taraji is such an amazing actress that she can bring comedy and drama into one scene and make it work so flawlessly. You’re laughing but you’re also heartbroken in one scene. So she balances it out amazingly well. She’s a brilliant actress. Of course, Terrence Howard, being with him on set is literally a master class in acting. He’s amazing. Everyone else in the cast for that matter. I love the Ronda/Andre dynamic. That is one f’ed up couple.

Fame is a part of the show’s world, but now that it’s a hit you may also be feeling some of that with interviews and people wanting to know more about you. How have you managed that so far?

Fame isn’t really new to me because I have been working in the Hispanic industry for a long time. I did a show that was very, very successful in Latin America and a concert tour. I have dealt with fame and it’s not really my favorite. I’m interested in the craft and not so much in the glam, which when you’re in it isn’t really as glamorous as you would think it is. It’s fake and sometimes you don’t know why people are being nice to you and what their true intentions are and who’s your real friend or not? But then again, it gives you power and it gives you a voice. You know, something that you have to learn how to manage and balance and how to live with. Yeah, it’s not my favorite part of it.

There are so many gay characters on TV right now. Are you aware of the time when there weren’t as many gay characters on TV?

I think that it just needs to stop being ‘the gay character.’ It’s just an interesting character. I think that TV should be a reflection of reality, of everyday life and the truth of the matter is, there are blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, straights, gays, bisexuals and it shouldn’t be a big deal that there’s a gay character because there’s gay people in the world.

But I think it is important and I think it’s great that there are more and more gay characters on TV. I think it’s great that Empire is showing a non-stereotypical, normal gay person like Jamal and like Michael. I think it’s important to try to stay away from what we’ve already seen so many times, which is the gay character being the stereotype or the comedic relief, the buffoon or the joke. I mean that’s fine and whatever but we want to see real human beings, real people.

Where do you see yourself five, ten years from now? Do you want to still be doing TV? Film? Theater?

I want to do it all. I don’t really have a limit. I don’t think that way. I would love to do Broadway. I would love to do amazing films. I would love to be on amazing TV shows. I would love to be on season five of Empire! I’d love to produce my own stuff, I’d love to be making music. We’ll see.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Fox. 

A preview from tonight's episode....

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