The “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, who was charged on Wednesday with staging a racist and homophobic attack on himself in Chicago last month, has been under a bright spotlight in recent weeks — but perhaps not for reasons that a career actor and singer would prefer.
Mr. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, reported in January that he was the victim of an attack during which masked men poured chemicals on him and put a noose around his neck, prompting an outpouring of support from fans, activists and politicians. In a major twist, Mr. Smollett, who is in his mid-30s, was charged Wednesday with a felony count of disorderly conduct in connection with the episode.
Mr. Smollett is best known for his acting role in “Empire,” a hip-hop drama on Fox, in which he plays a son vying for the throne of his father’s music empire.
Growing up with five siblings pursuing careers in acting, modeling and music, Mr. Smollett first appeared on the big screen in 1992. He has landed supporting roles in several other films and television shows since, while also beginning a career as an R&B singer.
“Empire,” which finished its fifth season last year, follows a former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul, Lucious Lyon, whose three sons must compete to run his multimillion-dollar company. Mr. Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, is a gay singer-songwriter who starts the series estranged from his father because of his sexuality. Mr. Smollett sings in and has written for the soundtrack of the series.
As a child, Mr. Smollett landed a role in the family comedy film “The Mighty Ducks,” about a lawyer who must coach a youth hockey team after he was sentenced to community service. Two years later, Mr. Smollett starred with five of his brothers and sisters in an ABC sitcom called “On Our Own,” about siblings who are orphaned after their parents die in a car accident.
Mr. Smollett’s younger sister, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, has grown up to make her mark in the acting world as well. She is one of the leads in “Underground,” a WGN America show about a group of slaves who try to escape from their Georgia plantation. Mr. Smollett is a guest star on the show.
In 2017, Mr. Smollett appeared in the science-fiction thriller “Alien: Covenant.” That year, he also played Langston Hughes in the film “Marshall,” a biopic about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
Mr. Smollett and his siblings have been outspoken politically and devoted to causes like H.I.V./AIDS prevention and racial justice. Mr. Smollett sits on the board of four charity organizations, including the Trayvon Martin Foundation and the Black AIDS Institute, according to his website.
Mr. Smollett also has a singing career separate from “Empire.” In March, he released a 10-song R&B album. Days after he reported the attack, Mr. Smollett performed for a sold-out crowd in West Hollywood, Calif., telling his fans that he would not let his attackers win and that he “had to be here tonight.”
Mr. Smollett told the police in January that, while walking in downtown Chicago, he had been confronted by masked white men who directed homophobic and racial slurs at him and announced it was “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.
As Mr. Smollett has faced questions about whether his hate crime report was truthful, he has continued to insist that the incident occurred just as he reported it.
In a statement released by Fox on Wednesday, before the Chicago police labeled Mr. Smollett a suspect in the case, the network said his character was not being written out of “Empire” in response to the police’s announcement that the trajectory of the investigation had changed, contrary to reports from multiple news outlets. Fox later declined to comment after Mr. Smollett was charged.
On Wednesday night, following his indictment, his lawyers said in a statement, “Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked.”
Sopan Deb contributed reporting.
Follow Julia Jacobs on Twitter: @juliarebeccaj.