Empire actor Jussie Smollett has pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of lying to the police about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago.

Lawyer Tina Glandian entered the plea on behalf of the 36-year-old actor during a hearing in Cook County Circuit Court after Judge Steven Watkins was assigned to oversee the case, including the trial.

Watkins granted Smollett's request to be allowed to meet with lawyers in New York and California, but said the actor must give the court at least 48 hours' prior notice. He scheduled the next hearing for April 17.

Smollett is charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct.

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Prosecutors allege that Smollett, who is black and gay and plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit TV show, hired two friends to help him stage the attack on him in downtown Chicago early on the morning of January 29.

Allegedly Smollett was unhappy about his salary and wanted to drum up publicity to help his career.

Smollett has denied that he staged the attack and maintains he is innocent. His attorneys have called the charges against him "prosecutorial overkill."

There were several supporters outside the courthouse doors as Smollett arrived for the hearing, including some who waved signs.

Activist Wisdom Cole led a few chants in support of the actor, the black community and the LGBT community. "Jussie has been a person of high calibre and character. He comes from an activist family. He has a consistent track record and history of supporting marginalised people … and so his track record is not on par with the idea of a hoax," she said.

Earlier this week, Twitter erupted with opinions over Empire's mid-season premiere, as Smollett's onscreen character also dealt with personal drama.

"I don't know if y'all been reading the blogs and all the foolishness, but it's kinda been a tough week," his TV persona said.