‘Empire’ CD Claire Simon Talks 4 Tips for the Audition Room
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.”