Lucious Lyon, the violent, homophobic, murderous former drug dealer who runs the eponymous Empire in Fox’s new hip-hop melodrama (Wednesdays, 9/8c), is far from a good guy. But Terrence Howard is so good in the role, he manages to make the bad-boy rapper turned music mogul sympathetic. After all, he is dying, given three years to live after an ALS diagnosis.

So which of his three sons will inherit his business, the Wharton grad, the gay songwriter or the irresponsible but talented chip off the old block? Ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) wants a piece too, having served 17 years in prison as the fall gal for his drug deals. It’s juicy stuff, set to music by Timbaland, and it’s already been picked up for a second season.

For Howard, it’s a return to the atmosphere of his Oscar-nominated turn in Hustle & Flow, which cast him opposite Henson, and also a return to TV, where he began his career before racking up movie credits in everything from Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Presidents and The Best Man to Empire exec producer Lee Daniels’ The Butler. We caught up with him to talk moguls, music, movies and… push-ups.

“One day we all got together and did 10 push-ups. Now some of us are up to, like, 80 or 90. No matter if we work 14 hours, it gives us energy again, and we feel like a unit, and we go out, and we attack the next scene. It exhausts you but kind of invigorates you.”

Lucious financed his empire with drug money, kills his friend and treats his gay son, who he once literally tossed in the trash, terribly. Did you hesitate to play such a contemptible character?
Lucious being hard on Jamal—I hate the fact that I have to carry that mantle, because I have to play it to the full hilt and I was scared to death about that. But that trash can scene was a page taken from Lee Daniels’ life, and I’m glad I can show what homophobia does. With this show we’re asked not to only entertain people but to change the tone of what’s happening in the world. You can’t help but jump on board and say, ‘I’m in, win or fail.’

Did you model Lucious after anybody, any hip-hop moguls?
You gotta take in Jay Z. You gotta take in Puffy. You gotta take in L.A. [Reid], more than anything, you have to take in a little bit of Suge [Knight], but you gotta bring some royalty to him. I went to Longshanks from Braveheart, which gave him that sense of entitlement.

He’s also pretty stylish—something I have a hunch you relate to.
I think presentation is everything to Lucious, but for me, you only get one chance to make a first impression. I’ve never had an opportunity to be a rock star, but today I felt like, ‘My God, I get to be a rock star.’

You’re in another Fox series, Wayward Pines, that will air this summer. What drew you to that?
I was doing Wayward Pines when I was offered this. Wayward Pines I loved because I love Melissa Leo, and I love M. Night [Shyalaman]. I’ve always wanted to work with them. So the things that we were able to create together in that futuristic, strange world—to play this cop who’s good but seen in a bad way—that was wonderful.

Is it true that you drop and do push-ups on the set after every scene?
Every one, because I was fat and they were going to fire me. No. The crew, one day we all got together and did 10 push-ups. Now some of us are up to, like, 80 or 90. No matter if we work 14 hours, it gives us energy again, and we feel like a unit, and we go out, and we attack the next scene. It exhausts you but kind of invigorates you. Everybody gets involved in it.

empire-living-roomEmpire: Come for the style, stay for the drama!

What are you proudest of so far? What highlights stand out?
These last two weeks. For Empire to premiere at such a high place, but then to build on those numbers and to be a part of a phenomenon that I hear has never occurred before. All of us are so incredibly excited about what we are doing right now. This moment right here is one of the very best moments of my entire life. We found out about the renewal on the plane this morning, right when we were landing. We go back to Chicago tomorrow.

What do you do on your down time there?
Right now we’re writing music. Me and Jussie [Smollett], we spent the last two days in the studio creating some more songs.

You have a couple of movies coming out this year.
Cardboard Boxer—I play a vigilante. There’s a rich guy that’s coming down into the slums, and he’s getting homeless people to fight each other, and I’m breaking that stuff up.

I hear there’s a Best Man Wedding in the works.
We haven’t done that yet. We’re talking about it.

You have three kids and one on the way.
Yeah, sometime in May. I feel like I’m becoming a dad literally for the first time because I feel mature now. I know how to deal with the expectations that come with being a good father.

Are any of the older kids interested in acting?
My youngest daughter was but she’s not doing it anymore. I would be scared to death of them coming into this business because everyone comes in thinking, ‘I’m just going to have a little piece of it, and then I’m going to walk away,’ but you never really get to that carrot, and you find yourself in the middle of something that you didn’t know would be the rest of your life.