Lee Daniels, who co-created the Fox drama Empire, says he was “beyond embarrassed” by his initial public support for Jussie Smollett but still isn't 100% convinced the actor faked a hate crime on himself.
The longtime writer, producer, and director told New York Magazine’s entertainment vertical, Vulture, that when he first heard Smollett's story of being beaten in the middle of the night in Chicago by anti-gay racists, he was inclined to believe him.
“I’m beyond embarrassed," he said of his initial reaction. "I think that when it happened, I had a flash of me running from bullies. I had a flash of my whole life, of my childhood, my youth, getting beaten.”
The Oscar-nominated director posted a video to Instagram in January offering his support to Smollett, who told police that his attackers left a noose around his neck, poured a liquid substance on him, and yelled, “This is MAGA country.”
Prosecutors later charged Smollett with filing a false police report, then suddenly decided in March to drop the charges altogether. Smollett has maintained his innocence, but Chicago officials are suing him to recover costs.
Daniels has been clear that Smollett will not be returning to Empire, but told Vulture he still has "some doubt" that Smollett made up the story.
"Of course there’s some doubt. I’m telling you that because I love him so much," he said. "That’s the torture that I’m in right now, because it’s literally, if it were to happen to your son and your child, how would you feel?
“We weren’t there. I can’t judge him,” Daniels added, admitting he had to “detach” himself from calling Smollett because it was taking away from time spent with his children, partner, and creative endeavors.
“It was affecting my spirit and other shows, everything.”
Daniels said that while he never would have suspected that Smollett would be capable of such a scheme, he personally had experienced a "flood of pain" as a result of the saga.