When Rumer Willis’ Tory Ash debuted in Empire’s midseason premiere, it didn’t take long for her troubled past to surface.
When she was introduced as Jamal’s (Jussie Smollett) newest and closest rehab confidante, both Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) quickly began discussing the heroin-induced meltdown that led to her stripping naked at Fenway Park before she was later found in a coma in a seedy motel.
“She was a big star, brilliant too,” said Cookie. “But that heroin knocked her ass right out of the sky.”
It’s a story that is unfortunately rings all too familiar in the music business, with heroin overdoses claiming the lives of Dee Dee Ramone, Sid Vicious and Janis Joplin, among many others. However, Willis says it was a much more recent figure that drew her to the recurring part.
“I was on tour, and I had a layover day in New York. My agents had reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, there’s this role on Empire to do this Amy Winehouse-type rock star,'” Willis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was like, ‘I don’t need to see anything else. I’m going in. I don’t care if I’m tired.'”
For Willis, it was also the opportunity to mix acting and music that appealed to her. For years, she had moved from one to the other and then back again. In addition to her onscreen roles, which included comedy (The House Bunny) and horror (Sorority Row) films, as well as recurring roles on dramas such as 90210 and Hawaii Five-0, she also made a name for herself as a performer. After first showcasing her vocal talents playing Roxie Hart in the Broadway revival of Chicago, Willis turned heads and earned rave reviews during a spring 2016 stint at the famed Cafe Carlyle. She then took her act, in which she performed covers of Britney Spears, Fiona Apple and, yes, even Winehouse, on the road in the fall.
“I’ve been singing since I was super little, but I’ve always struggled to find which avenue exactly I wanted to do,” she says. “Being able to do music as well, and the way they do music is such a dynamic, classy way, so I was really excited.”
Willis said the show has also helped her stretch herself musically. “When I was able to hear some of the music they were writing, I was just so excited and blown away,” she says. “They played stuff that was something that I never really would have thought to go to or do but something that felt so right and sounded right in the place that I wanted to go. It was a perfect, happy turn of events.”
The Amy Winehouse-inspired role also was particularly fitting given that Smollett had brought Willis to Empire’s producers after seeing a video of her singing a Winehouse song on social media. “Rumer brings something so special to the character. She’s so effortless, she’s not making a caricature of what it is,” says Smollett. “I love working with her.”
However, Willis cautions there’s much more to Tory than the headlines and scandals suggest. “I think it’s less about the drug use. You have to really find what’s someone trying to cover up with their drug use and why they might be feeling like they want to use it as an escape, because I would say the majority of the time, people don’t just get into that position,” she explains. “I didn’t want to model it or imitate anybody or someone else’s life so when I got to Chicago, I sat down with the writers and asked them about what their thoughts were. She’s also evolving as the season goes on, so I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Looking ahead, Willis is also excited because of a certain guest star appearing in the season three finale. Her mom, actress Demi Moore, will make her Empire debut in that episode and will heavily recur in the upcoming fourth season of the hip-hop drama.
“It was so exciting. She called me and said, ‘Hey, they talked to me about maybe doing this part. Would that be OK with you? Do you think that that would be fun?’ recalls Willis. “I said, ‘Yeah, that would be amazing. You have to come do it.'”
Although the two haven’t yet shared any scenes together, Willis says she enjoyed showing her mom around the Chicago set. “It’s a dream come true.”
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.