'Pearson' Star Gina Torres on Exploring Race and Political Corruption in USA's 'Suits' Spinoff

"She is in the midst of a rebirth,” the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter of Jessica Pearson's dark new chapter in Chicago. “She wants to do better, she wants to be better, but can she be different?"
Courtesy of Adrian Burrows/USA Network
Through the first several seasons of USA Network’s Suits, a drama populated by powerful and power-hungry characters, Gina Torres’ Jessica Pearson was reliably the most formidable person in every room. Played with steely intelligence and sly charm by Torres, Jessica was always more compelling than the “no-nonsense boss” cliché she could have become. As mentor to Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), she provided a needed counterweight to the show’s machismo, and their interactions hinted at a complex backstory for Jessica that was otherwise unexplored.
 
Torres left Suits in summer 2016, but has returned for guest appearances in a handful of episodes since — including the season seven finale, which doubled as a backdoor pilot for Jessica’s own Chicago-set spinoff. Pearson, created by Suits’ Aaron Korsh and Daniel Arkin, sees a newly disbarred Jessica returning to her hometown and taking a job as right-hand woman to the city’s mayor. As morally gray as Suits could be — it started, after all, as a show about a fake lawyer — it pales in comparison to the world of Chicago politics, which pushes Jessica into much darker territory. “She is in the midst of a rebirth,” Torres tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She wants to do better, she wants to be better, but can she be different? She does have this skillset, and it’s seductive, and it’s expedient, and we don’t want her to lose that, but we do want her to retain her soul.”
 
Torres speaks with THR about how her obsession with the 2016 election inspired Pearson, Suits’ scrapped plan to kill Jessica, and exploring her character’s heritage for the first time.
 
Having left Suits in 2016, what appealed to you about playing Jessica Pearson again?
 
We had left a lot on the table with Jessica, because she was always in service to the firm [in Suits]. We’d never really gone home with Jessica. We never knew what she wanted for herself, other than the survival of her firm. We never understood what it took, and all the sacrifices that we made in service to the firm, and to her employees — all her little monsters. She is the Gaga of Pearson Specter! So I knew there were so many places we could go, and I think that's ultimately why Aaron and Dan [Arkin] were able to get on board so quickly, and why USA was able to get on board so quickly. It’s the Jessica you know and love, and a heck of a lot more.
 
Pearson deals a lot with political corruption, and you’ve mentioned that your obsession with the 2016 election inspired the show. What in particular did you want to explore?

 
A lot of it is realizing how deep the rabbit hole goes. Something that we've heard a lot of over the last two years is: Is it party or country? Where do you side? Which matters more to you? It's shocking when you hear the answers, or when you don't hear a damn thing because no one is telling the truth. But the sense of this complicity, and this culpable deniability where [politicians] say, “Well, I didn’t know that was happening.” How do you live with yourself? So watching this play out in real time in my real life, and then thinking about who Jessica Pearson is and what she represents in the world, and how she herself wants to change, that was a big part of it. In the first episode of Pearson, she is in the midst of a rebirth. She wants to do better, she wants to be better, but can she be different? Because she does have this skillset, and it’s seductive, and it’s expedient, and we don’t want her to lose that, but we do want her to retain her soul. So, come along for the ride!
Aaron originally considered killing Jessica when you left Suits. What was your reaction to hearing that?
 
He told me that he had that idea, and I knew exactly where it came from. When you have a beloved character eat it, then it sort of sets up the next season with the sense that no one is safe, anything can happen, and it raises the stakes on the other end of it. But he was met with such a visceral reaction of “Hell no!” [from the network]. And when he told me that he had thought of doing that, for a minute, I was just like “You can’t do that!” I mean, if you have to do that I'd never get in the way of your creative process, but … you can't do that! And never have I been more relieved and happy that he didn't do that, because now we get to be with Jessica for a little while longer. 
 
Jessica dying would have felt like an uncharacteristically dark turn for Suits. But Pearson has a darker tone from the offset.
 
Yes. No one is safe. It is darker — I mean, it’s not Gone Girl, it’s not The Purge, we do still find time for gallows humor, but nobody’s dancing through the halls on this show. That’s not happening. As wonderful and entertaining and fun as that is, we're in a world where the stakes are higher because you are dealing with life and death, and with people’s livelihoods, and how quickly a fortune can turn, and how that breeds desperation. Desperation is the mother of a great many things. It can be the mother of great things, and it can be the mother of nefarious things, and we touch on both, and everything in between.

The subject of race comes into play much more here than it did on Suits, particularly with Jessica’s Latina heritage. Was it satisfying to explore that side of her after playing her for so long?
 
On Suits, it was wonderful because Jessica wasn't black or white, she was green. She was rich and fabulous and in charge and a boss, and that's all that mattered, and you wanted her to be all those things. But now that we have this opportunity to get to know this woman better, and to fully flesh her out, it was important to me on a lot of different levels to explore culture and race. It was important to me that we show how many different ways a Latin person can look. We have the character of Yoli (Isabel Arraiza), who is for all intents and purposes the traditional Latina American beauty, and then you have Jessica Pearson, who people might think “Oh, well she’s black.” But she’s not. Having played her for a while, I am full-blooded Cuban, both my parents are Cuban, I grew up in the States, and if you know anything about the Cuban people, it’s just a vast mixture. We look like Laz Alonso, and we look like Cameron Diaz, and we look like me, and everything in between. It was important to me to show that.
 
It feels very strange watching Jessica be second-in-command on Pearson, after so many years of her being the most powerful person on Suits. Did it feel odd to you?
 
Yes! I don't like it! It’s like “What is this?” She can do it — it takes a little effort, and we’ll see how long she can hold that up. She even speaks to it in the first episode, she acknowledges, “This is gonna take me a minute.” It’s also fun to see where she takes orders and where she doesn't. I think part of being a good leader is getting things done, and making other people think it was their idea half the time.
 
What’s been the biggest change for you in going between the two shows?

 
In Suits, I was with the boys all the time, and I was with one particular boy [Harvey] most of the time. Which was great, and they were fun and lovely and we had great relationships and it was fabulous on camera. With Pearson, I get to have wonderfully layered, complicated relationships with women. I love what happens when a group of strong women get together and decide that they'e gonna do something. I love my girlfriends that I've had forever, since they're my confidantes, they're my go-tos, and I understand the richness of a layered relationship with women. With Keri (Bethany Joy Lenz) it is combative, it’s layered, it’s two women coming at the same problem in very different ways. You may or may not pick sides, but that's a fantastic relationship that I'm very excited for the audience to sink their teeth into. I also have the relationship with my cousin, Angela (Chantel Riley) who doesn’t know me from anybody, doesn't trust me. None of these women actually trust me. I have to earn these relationships, and she's coming at it from a very different place than Keri's coming at it. You get to see a much more vulnerable Jessica dealing with her family. For me, in terms of the evolution of this character, where I get to go with her now in this world is incredibly exciting.
 
Harvey comes to Chicago to help Jessica with a case in the show’s backdoor pilot. Do you foresee any more Suits crossovers?
 
I don't quite know, but I think regardless of what may or may not happen, you can’t ignore the fact that that's the mothership, and I come from that world. So we can't say that that world no longer exists. These were people that are part of the DNA of this show, and they still live and exist and are off having their own little adventures. But Pearson is such a different animal. This show really has, I believe, been able to make a clean departure from that world. So it will be challenging and interesting to see if it even makes sense any more [for the shows to cross over]. It might just not make any sense.

Pearson debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. on USA Network.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.