When rapper Ta’Rhonda Jones came in to audition for the role of the prissy pop star Tiana on Fox’s TV smash hit “Empire,” Chicago-based CD and former actor Claire Simon envisioned her in a much different role.
As Porsha, the smart-talking, aggressive assistant to Emmy nominee Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon, Jones was so perfectly cast that co-creator Lee Daniels had the actor wear her own clothes and makeup while filming.
In addition to that validation, Simon was nominated for an Artios Award alongside her Los Angeles–based casting partner Leah Daniels Butler (sister to Daniels), for her work on the show’s pilot as well as the series overall; “Empire”—which returns for Season 2 Sept. 23—was the only dramatic TV series to be recognized for both.
Starring Terrence Howard as patriarch Lucious Lyon, Henson as his jailbird ex-wife Cookie, Trai Byers as eldest son Andre, Jussie Smollett as R&B singer-rapper Jamal, and Bryshere Y. Gray as youngest son Hakeem, the unabashedly soapy drama centers on a family struggling to remain a unit in the face of greed, pride, and the cutthroat music industry.
After casting for Fox on past Chicago projects including “The Mob Doctor” in 2013 and “The Chicago Code” in 2011, Simon was called on by the network to find local actors.
“Most of the series regulars were already cast, but they were still looking for Hakeem, so I got to do a little searching,” Simon explains about the hunt for real-life rapper Gray, who went on to land the role. Simon also found Grace Gealey, who stars as Lucious’ current wife, Anika Calhoun, in Chicago. (“Empire” shoots in the Windy City, although it is set in New York).
“When she came in to audition, Lee was, like, ‘She looks like Halle Berry! I feel like I just discovered the next Halle Berry,’ ” Simon recalls. “And then in the pilot episode, Cookie says something about it, which was funny to see.”
Alongside the success of other music-based shows like “Glee” and “Nashville,” “Empire” is in a league of its own when considering its seamlessly incorporated hip-hop–centric soundtrack and its stellar ratings (the series continued to grow its audience with each consecutive episode after its Jan. 7 premiere). That popularity is largely thanks to the winning combination of captivating writing and a cast that delivers.
“[That’s what] was really exciting to work with: [Lee] didn’t want something you expected to see. He likes actors of all shapes and sizes, and he didn’t want a typical-looking TV show,” Simon says. “As we’ve moved more and more into the [casting] process with the rappers or the urban sides of the story, there have been several times where [creatives said], ‘We need real, we need gritty, urban types.’ They didn’t want actors from the suburbs; they want the real deal.”
The show’s realism provided a new type of fun for the CD, who was previously unfamiliar with the music industry and details such as what A&R executives wear on the day-to-day (hint: It’s not a suit and tie). Particulars like these hammer home the importance of an actor’s research, because many came improperly dressed.
“Being as truthful [to the role] as possible is in your favor,” Simon advises. “Come in prepared but flexible enough to be able to change what you had in your head. Be as real as you can to make it your own and don’t let anybody see the acting part of it.”