Season 5 of Empire finds the Lyon empire in a dark place. The family business was stolen, money has dried up and Cookie and Lucious are scrambling to figure out how to get back on top. However, one of the brightest spots is Jamal’s new love affair with Kai. We knew it was meant to be after Kai managed to escape a hostile situation in Nigeria, and even before that, he saved Jamal from being drugged and assaulted.
Jamal and Kai’s chemistry is undeniable and the actor who plays the latter, Toby Onwumere, is excited to take on such an important storyline. Audiences were first introduced to Onwumere as Capheus on Netflix’s Sense8, but with Empire, his second major role thus far, he’s helping to shift the narrative about how characters with HIV are portrayed.
Hello Beautiful caught up with the USC grad about how he landed his latest role and the impact he hopes to have on the culture. —Starrene Rhett Rocque
What do you look for in the roles you go up for and how did Kai match up to that?
Considering that this is my second real role, I guess in general I like to look for some type of variety from the last one.
Right. Because you’re in Sense8 and that’s completely different.
Exactly. But I like both in like the storytelling and the character, and how it’s done, and I appreciated the juxtaposition between Sense8 and Empire. You know, something kind of, super niche on Netflix and this one is like, Empire is empire, as the name suggests. It is an empire. So, yeah, I really like that, and as far as Kai goes, I kind of knew, I didn’t have the script, but I knew about the character, and I definitely knew kind of the subject matter that we were trying to delve into. And, the manner in which that happened, telling the story is important. One, to the LGBTQ community and to educating the general populous at large. I think that’s important.
The thing about Kai that I really like is you know with him and his HIV status—the character doesn’t feel sorry for himself and he’s not played in a terminal fashion. You see him hospital bed once as of now, but it’s not really due to the HIV, it’s more due to the injury he sustained when he was abroad, and he’s a character with integrity and with purpose and the HIV is not the totality of his life. And he still finds love. He finds love with one of the biggest pop stars in the world and they still have a very robust relationship despite the ailment.
What was the process of getting the role like, did you get to meet Lee Daniels then?
I didn’t meet Lee Daniels. It’s funny, I auditioned for it for maybe like two or three days. Then I [was] in New York about to go see some musicals and like kick it with some people I know, and I get a call from my agent, like, “You need to come home [to LA] because you have this chemistry read with Jussie.” So, I get my plane ticket back, and I think the next day I meet Brett Mahoney, some other producers, and then I meet Jussie. But, then I realized, the date that I was auditioning, Jussie was in the casting office with Leah Daniels Butler, and he passed by and I remember him saying, “Oh, I want to see who’s auditioning for this.” I remember that vividly. I always joke about it with him. I was like, “I saw you the first day”, and I looked at you like we’re about to do this together.”
And then we had the chemistry reading; it was fantastic and I go home and I’m talking with my roommate later that night, and my agent and manager called me that I got it.
That is awesome! You guys really do have amazing chemistry. Kai is actually my favorite boyfriend of Jamal.
Talk that talk, please!
Talk about their storyline and why it’s important.
Well, you know that we meet in London and then we come over here. And then I get to see firsthand the quote-unquote energy of the Lyon family and how it’s affecting Jamal. And the beautiful thing about our relationship is, by telling the story I think we break a lot of stereotypes about relationships in general. We’re showing two normal people, and we’re really big on the normalcy of their relationship. And then if you bring the HIV into it—in mainstream culture—I don’t know that you see a relationship like ours. Somebody whose HIV positive, but it’s not treated in this super medical way. And I know that Jussie is really big, very very big on that. To like change the narrative of what it is to have, it can be undetected and bringing up things like PrEP. I just think we are changing the narrative a bit.
Did you learn anything new because I think the PrEP thing is new information to a lot of people?
I had known about PrEP, because I have some friends, I have maybe like two or three degrees of separation from people that have HIV so I know about PrEP. I know about being undetectable, but there are still quite a bit of people who maybe have outdated information on HIV. They might think it’s more terminal than it really is.
That goes back to the 80’s propaganda of what HIV was and how it was a disease for the disenfranchised, and the LGBTQ community, but I do think that the scene with Cookie is such an amazing scene because it shows that nobody’s really immune to the lack of information. And there are people in your family who mean well, they mean the most positive, but due to the lack of information or the misinformation they kind of lead in the wrong way.
What’s been the feedback thus far with you doing this role? Especially because, you know how sometimes, people see you in a role, and they think that you are actually that person.
Oh, I get it so much, which is par for the course [and] that’s totally fine. My DM’s have been blowing up. Somebody even inquired if I really had HIV, which was interesting, but I think it’s all par for the course. The feedback has been, a sea of great stuff, it’s been fantastic, and that’s what I like. I’m actually interested somewhat in hearing it all.
How’s your family reacting?
My parents are in Nigeria right now, and my dad is a professor at this university in Imo State, and he is up to date. I was talking to him yesterday, and that’s so, pardon my language, that’s so fucking cool! He tells me, all the girls in his class watch the show religiously, and when they see the opening credits, they recognize the last name as the same name as their professor, and they’re like, “Wait, is that your son?” And my dad is like “Yeah, yeah, that’s my boy.” And they are like, “NO, I’m marrying him, I don’t know, what do I have to do, but we’re making it happen!”
It’s just cool having my dad recap the events to me, and he’s like, “Why you let him talk to you like that?” Having him invested in the story like that, and talking to me about it, it really is special because I feel like my parents in particular afforded me this life.
Empire can take you in twists and turns, so how can we brace ourselves to feel after tonight’s episode?
You should brace yourself emotionally and hold onto people dear to you. I’m so bad at this part because I feel like if I say anything I’ll give it away.
But we know it’s going to be a doozy, right?
Always, it’s empire.
We just want Jamal to have nice things, though.
We’re gonna take care of him.