It takes a talented cast to build an empire. Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard and Gabourey Sidibe are just a few of the many stars in Fox’s Wednesday night hit drama ‘Empire.’ With an all- star ensemble, Ta’ Rhonda Jones has no problem shining on her own in the breakout role of Porsha Taylor. Jones is every bit as sassy and tenacious as her character and no stranger to struggle. But through sharing her personal experiences, Jones inspires others to work hard for what they want and never give up on their dreams.
What was life like in Chicago before ‘Empire?’
I used to be an assistant director of nutritional services at a nursing home, and I used to be a butcher for a grocery store, and I was an assistant manager at a shoe store. And then on top of that, I would do hair and design prom dresses on the side.
Having never acted before, what was the audition process like?
I had no clue that it was for a show. I thought that Terrence Howard was looking for rappers. When I went in, I talked to the casting director. She said hey, you got your lines and I’m like oh…oh…ok cool. I got the email but ok cool. And then I’m reciting the lines, but I couldn’t really remember it. The Tiana character, that’s the role I originally tried out for, had so much cursing. I couldn’t remember the lines. I just went in cursing.
The casting director stared at me for a really long time like that’s not in the script. She said, you know what, leave your name, number, email and I’ll get back to you. And I told her, well I already left my name, number, email. She said well I need it again. And then that’s when she emailed me the Porsha role.
I got fully prepared. I stayed up, going over lines. Went in the next day, recited the lines. And after that, they kept telling me to come in each day, like hey come on this day, come in that day. So I’m like but what is going on? Why am I coming all the way up north for five minutes? And then you send me on my way and I don’t know what’s going on.
So one day I finally said you know what, let me research what it is that I’m getting myself into. And that’s when I YouTubed Empire and I saw all these phenomenal names: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Danny Strong, Ilene Chaiken, and Lee Daniels. And when I saw Lee Daniels’ name I remembered walking into a room with a man. He kept saying yes, yes you knew what you were doing when you walked in here looking like this. And I said, this ol’ thang? You know this is nothing. And I had no clue it was Lee Daniels until they called me and told me that I was on hold. And I passed out.
How much has your life changed?
Oh my God. 360. And it is such a blessing. I get the chance to do things that I had never imagined doing because I never had time to do them. I’m 28 and I’ve never left the city of Chicago. I’ve never flown on a plane. I didn’t even have my driver’s license. There’s a lot of things that I never did with my real life that I’m now doing now that I’ve got an opportunity.
How much of Porsha is you?
I wanna say maybe 50/ 50. Porsha is a hustler. She’s always trying to finesse her way into things. If you watch the show then you realize that she’s always trying to shoot her shot to become this rapper. She’s always telling Cookie like yo I could do this. She just wants to prove things to Cookie, and I’m one of those people who just has to prove things. I always wanna prove somebody wrong.
And she’s sassy. And I’m a little bit of sassy. She’s just green but she says whatever she wants and then I say whatever I want. But she’s tacky. I love her to death.
Did any of the other actors have any advice for you in the beginning?
I remember speaking to Rafael. Rafael was one of the guys that played Jamal’s boyfriend in the first season. And he sat down and he told me (the show hadn’t even aired yet) you’re gonna be a star. And I hope you’re ready for it. I said oh boy please, whatever, it’s not going anywhere. And he kept saying but you have to be the one to create this character. He said whatever you put into this character has to come from you and you gotta just make the character. And with everything that we’ve filmed, I always ad-libbed majority of it, maybe because I can never remember my lines.
How nervous were you the first day of filming?
A lot of people always ask me were you nervous your first day? And I said no. A make- up artist, she doesn’t work there anymore, was doing my make- up and told me, don’t look at any other actors. Don’t talk to any other actors. Don’t speak to any other actors. Basically, leave everybody alone. She never explained to me why but I thought because everybody was gonna be in a bitchy mood, so I said ok I won’t say anything to anybody. So I was just to myself. It never registered that a camera was in front of me. I just did it.
And suddenly everyone started approaching me like hey I’m Terrence. Hey, I’m Malik. Hey, I’m Taraji. And they would ask me like why you never talk, why you never say anything. And I’m like because I was told to never talk to the actors. And they were just like who told you that? When I talked to Taraji, Taraji was like oh you wanna know why, because some actors are in acting mode or trying to figure out how to become that character. And some scenes are very serious and they don’t wanna be bothered. They’re trying to meditate. They’re trying to transition into that character. So I said, oh she never said that. She just said don’t talk to anybody. I’m to the point where I don’t even care if you’re meditating or trying to get into character because I’m so goofy and I can’t help but talk.
On camera, it seems like everyone’s got a grudge against someone else. What’s the dynamic like among the cast and crew when the cameras are off?
It’s like a big family reunion. And everybody is just so welcoming and just so chill. Everybody is dope in their own way. Cause some folks are a little intimidated by the next person because they fear that that person may come up too soon or come up before them and take their spot. Nobody’s like that. We all support one another. We’re all happy for each other. We congratulate one another. We’re just very supportive of one another’s endeavors or achievements.
That’s rare to find.
You know, I hear that a lot! And I don’t know why. I’m just like well why wouldn’t people be cool? This is like high school. You gotta see each other almost every day, five days out of the week, for nine months. We’re all cool. We all have our favorites. We’re always doing something on the weekend, we’re always getting together whether it’s bowling, whether it’s at somebody’s house cooking. It’s just like we’re one big family. And I’m just so blessed to be a part of this amazing cast and crew.
With over 7 million viewers, ‘Empire’ is Fox’s top-rated show. Why do you think ‘Empire’ has gotten as popular as it has?
I think because all the characters are relatable in their own way. Like everybody knows a Cookie. My sister is a Cookie. She’ll take no mess from nobody. Everybody has that one friend or one cousin or somebody that’s just like a Porsha. And then on top of that, the fashion is just bananas.
And then the music. The music is out of this world. I think the music on the show is just so diverse. You got a little bit of soul. You got a little bit of hip hop. You got a little bit of rock. You got a little bit of everything in the music. And like I said, it’s just so relatable. Everybody can relate to something on the show.
Speaking of music, are you working on any new releases?
I am, I am. I have a single, and I’m thinking about releasing it soon. I get a lot of people who comment like where’s the music, man? Where’s the new music?
How would you describe your sound?
My music is so diverse. I’m a big, big fan of storytelling. And with my music, when I rap you can actually just picture everything that I’m saying because I’m that great at telling stories.
Hip Hop today is not the same. It’s not the same from when I grew up, and I grew up listening to Missy Elliot, Eve, Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill, Biggie, Tupac. Hip Hop today is all about strippers, money, cars. And jewelry, and that’s fine. But because of the time that we’re living in today, people with platforms like a lot of these artists, need to start using their platform for the greater good. Like Tupac for instance. He was a hard- core gangster rapper but at the end of the day, he knew how to tackle issues that were going on in the world and then get back to business.
A lot of people know I’m a big advocate for gun violence awareness. I’ve joined the Brady Campaign. And I actually wrote a song. It’s on my SoundCloud. It’s called “My Block”, and I talk about my old neighborhood that I grew up in, how as a kid I was able to do things that we can’t do today because the gun violence in Chicago is so ridiculous. I talked about how we used to play hopscotch, jump rope. We could stay outside till ten o’clock at night, without a care or worry in the world because we knew we were safe.
And I’ve written quite a few songs talking about things going on in the neighborhood, things going on in the world period. A lot of people don’t know my grandmother raised me and my eight siblings. She was the one that took us all in. She’s taught us a lot. And then I took it and ran with it. And I talk about that in some of my songs.
Has working on the show influenced your decision to release more music?
It’s so hard to say because we talk about this a lot. And even Taraji vouched for me. She’ll text me, she’ll be like what are they waiting on? What are they wasting this good talent on? And I do really, really appreciate it because she really stands up for me. And you don’t get a lot of people who do that. Women sometimes don’t like to see other women ahead of them, but Taraji’s not like that. She always wants to see somebody do great or see somebody move up the ladder.
Taraji is a huge inspiration to a lot of women.
Have you read her book? Oh my goodness. She talks about her struggle and every time I read each page I get these like, I don’t know why I get these feelings, butterflies in my stomach. And then there was a lady saying, no it’s not butterflies, you’re just excited because you can relate.
Every time Taraji talks to me she always says you remind me so much of myself, and she always says I love the woman that you’re becoming. I never could understand why she would say the things she would say to me until I read her book. And every page I flipped, I was like oh my God, I did that. Oh my goodness, that used to be me. I used to be the same way! So it was just like literally a spittin’ image of me.
Empire takes on a lot of issues that affect people all over the world. Is there any issue that holds a special meaning for you?
Absolutely. No matter how dysfunctional your family may be, at the end of the day, they always come together. I don’t care how much dirt Lucious does to Cookie or how much dirt Cookie does to Lucious, or how much crap Lucious says to Jamal. At the end of the day, they all know how to come together. That’s what I love. That’s how I can relate.
You lost a cousin to gun violence. How did something of that magnitude affect you?
It definitely pushed me because when he passed, I only tell a handful of people this story, when he passed five months after that is when I landed the role on ‘Empire.’ And a lot of people don’t know, I kept a watch of his. It’s a G- Shock watch.
And when I was auditioning for the role, I was going through some things at work. And I started to job hunt cause I was tired of working all those jobs. I literally worked seven days a week, sun up to sun down. I never really had an off day, and when I did I was too tired to do anything.
So I started job hunting and I applied for a job at a hospital which was gonna pay me double what I was already making. And when they called me and told me that I landed the role, that exact same day I got a call from the hospital saying you got the job. So I was like, oh my goodness. Which one do I take? I’ve been doing this nursing home stuff for some years. I have my license. I’m experienced. I’m familiar with it. But this acting gig, I have no clue like how long this is gonna last. What is it gonna bring me? Am I gonna be stable?
So I got down, and I prayed for a really long time. I said, Lord Jesus if this role is for me, I need a sign. And the alarm on the watch went off. I had that watch for five months and the alarm had never gone off. And the time on the watch was 8:23 PM and the reason why I am stressing that is because I always used to play the lottery for this old lady at the nursing home. And she would always give me two dollars, like two dollars was gonna be enough for me, and said go play your lottery. And I said Rochelle, what am I gonna do with two dollars? She said go play my number and play your number. And the number that I would always play was 823.
And I would never win! I used to get so mad. It took me a year to realize that I was a winner. I would always play that number in the lottery but would never win, but when that alarm on the watch went off, I was a winner.
For anyone going through what you went through or struggling the way you had, what advice do you have for them?
Lie and steal.
Lie meaning lie down your own rules and steal every opportunity that comes your way.
Where do you hope to see your career go in the future?
To the moon, honey, to the moon! All the way to top! I wanna be like Pinky and the Brain and take over the world.
I definitely wanna become a household name. I’ve done a few movies, a quick pop in, pop out. But I want people to know the real me. A lot of people don’t know my story, and I wanna be able to tell my story and have people understand that you gotta walk in your purpose. No, you gotta strut in your purpose.
And it took me a long time to figure out what was my purpose, and I may still be wrong but for right now I feel like my purpose, my duty here on Earth is to give the people hope. Help girls who look like me, who talk like me, who walk like me, who come from where I come from make it. And be good at it and commended for doing what I’m doing. You don’t get a lot of girls like that. Especially coming where I come from. I was adopted. And when you see kids in foster care, you know they tend to go down the wrong road because they don’t have the guidance or because they were missing the parents in their lives.
But I’m here to tell people like me that you can, you will and you shall.
And that is music to our ears. Watch Ta’ Rhonda Jones as Porsha Taylor in ‘Empire’ every Wednesday night this fall on Fox.