7:00pm PT by Danielle Turchiano
'Empire's' Ta'Rhonda Jones: Porsha Is Not as "Green" as Everybody Thinks
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for "Our Dancing Days," the seventh episode of the first season of Empire.]
In a sea of such acclaimed actors as Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, newcomer Ta'Rhonda Jones has managed to steal scenes left and right on Fox's hip-hop drama Empire.
In her first acting role, Jones portrays Porsha, Cookie Lyon's (Henson) unexpected assistant. Little was known about Porsha when the character first arrived in the second episode of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's breakout series, and some actors, like Henson, felt they had to make up their own back story for who Porsha was and how she came to be such an integral part of Cookie's life.
Just a few weeks ago, Anika (Grace Gealey) tried to drive a wedge between Porsha and Cookie. It seemed like it didn't take just yet, but she's not letting up. First she spiked Elle's (Courtney Love) drink so she would be too high to perform, and then she caught Cookie and Lucious (Howard) in the act but kept it to herself, undoubtedly scheming something equally horrible for the Lyon matriarch. Porsha just may be at the center of her plans and the drama.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with breakout star Jones to get the scoop on all things Empire and Porsha.
The Empire pilot had already been shot and picked up before Porsha came about. How much was the show on your radar when you initially went in for it?
I got a call from my brother in the middle of the night, and he said this guy from a studio we go to, his name is Joe, Joe called my brother Tim and said, "Hey, Terrence Howard is looking for female rappers in their 20s; you need to call your sister and let her know this is a great opportunity." So my brother called me and told me to call a number. I did, and I spoke to Claire Simon, who is the director of casting, and she said, "Well, can you come in tomorrow?" I said, "Sure!" I still didn't really know what was going on [though]; I thought I was going into rap. So she emailed me a few lines, and it still never registered. ... The role that they originally sent me was Tiana, and when I recited the lines to her, she stared at me for a really long time, and in the back of my mind, I was just like, "OK, I messed up. I messed up big time." But she said, "That was pretty good, but I think I might have something else in mind for you." I thought that was just her way of sending me on [but] that very same day she emailed me the Porsha role. I went in the following day, and she had me do it different ways; she had me recite the lines a million times. And at this point it still never registered! She said, "That was good; can you come in Monday?" And I was like, "I work. I can't keep leaving work!" But I was kind of tired of my job, so I said I'd do it. Lee Daniels was there this time, and I didn't know who he was. I mean, I was very familiar with his name, but I just never saw his face or knew how he looked because I hadn't researched him [in that way]. I went in, and as soon as I stepped in the room, I felt his energy and we just vibed instantly.
At what point did you realize just how big this show was going to be?
After I auditioned I said, "Let me do my research," so I YouTubed it when I went back to work — in front of my boss. I let her know, "Hey, I might be getting something huge, so I'm just letting you know I might not be here too long." And she was just like, "You're not going nowhere; you're my best worker!" And all the names that came up on the screen — Taraji, Terrence, Danny Strong and Lee Daniels. And she said, "Oh this is going to be good if Lee Daniels directed this!"
Did you create a back story for who Porsha was since so little was known about her in the beginning of the season?
I spoke to Rafael [de la Fuente] and Jussie [Smollett], and they sat me down and were just like, "The part of it is to just be yourself." This is my first role. But they said the most important thing was that I should create my own character since I was the one plalying her at the end of the day. I ran with that. When we were on set, a lot of the clothes were mine; Lee didn't want anyone else doing my makeup, so I did my own. I did my own hair. Pretty much, I'm just me all the way around. [But] I could kind of see Porsha coming from an abusive relationship, and Cookie kind of saved [her]. I don't think she's as green as everybody thinks she is. She's a carefree, live-in-the-moment girl. She's not going to worry about yesterday because yesterday is gone; she worries about today because today is here.
Porsha has had some great one-liners that rival Cookie's. Taraji has been known to adlib many of hers; are there any of Porsha's you want to take credit for?
There are so many, honestly I can't count [them all]! (Laughs.) It was just all natural. When I read the role, I was just like, "Oh my God, I am Porsha!" [Except] when I said, "Turn up" in the last episode. Standing with Jussie and hearing his song come on, and it was like, "Oh my God, that's your song!" That was one of those where I was just living in that moment.
The audience doesn't know much about Porsha outside of the Lyons' business. Will we be meeting anyone from her life — family, friends, a boyfriend — this season?
No, but hopefully next season!
How loyal is Porsha to Cookie after Anika's offer?
She needs the money, I'm just saying! (Laughs.) Money makes the world go 'round, and Porsha's trying to go around the world.
Will you get to explore your musical talent on-screen this season?
No, but I put some ideas out there for the second season. Hopefully Porsha can shock everybody and give them a jaw-dropping moment, especially after [Porsha] throws in some ideas, and Cookie's like, "You know what? That's a good idea; that's what we should do." Porsha is known for that; she's known for throwing ideas out there! And people are sitting around wondering: How does she know? (Laughs.)
So clearly Cookie's trust in Porsha continues. How will Porsha start to factor in more when it comes to the way Cookie works?
[Porsha] always has opinions, but the only time she's involved is if she's around. If she's not around, Porsha doesn't care. I think she's very much musically inclined and [that's why] she's around. If she wasn't, I don't think Cookie would take her on board or care about what she said. But she does use her ideas.
Check out more of Jones in this exclusive featurette below:
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. What's been your favorite Porsha-ism thus far? Claim it in the comments below and be sure to bookmark THR's The Live Feed for weekly Empire coverage.