Let’s call a spade a spade. Empire is not only the most popular show on television right now, it is also the best show on television right now.
Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, the drama centers around a hip hop and entertainment company, Empire Enterprises, and the drama that ensues between Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his family as they each seek to gain control of the company.
The show features the most diverse ensemble cast on primetime network TV today and boasts intelligent writing, brilliant performances, and an impressive record of making each episode better than its predecessor. Empire‘s secret sauce is clearly comprised of many ingredients, and it’s my belief that the primary component of the show’s success is the work of Kaitlin Doubleday.
Undoubtedly the standout of the series, Kaitlin Doubleday plays Rhonda Lyon on the series, a character who is married to Lucious Lyon’s eldest son Andre (Trai Byers). Together, the modern day Bonnie & Clyde appear to be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure they seize control of the family business. Think of them as a much sexier Frank And Claire Underwood (obligatory House of Cards reference). Rhonda and Andre also have an open marriage where they are not afraid to wield sex as their weapon of choice when it comes to their satisfying their insatiable thirst for power.
Doubleday is also the only Caucasian on the core cast and her character’s ethnicity has recently become a key plot point as Lucious Lyon has recently made it clear that he is unwilling to hand the keys to his kingdom over to his eldest son simply because he is married to someone of the opposite race.
Kaitlin Doubleday offers powerful performances every week and adds humanity to a character that is capable of just about anything.
The result makes Empire one of the most gripping television soap operas in recent memory, one where Doubleday’s character is absolutely pivotal.
I recently caught up with the actress to discuss her character on the series and what we can expect from tonight’s episode and next week’s season finale.
Murtz Jaffer: Hey Kaitlin! How are you?
Kaitlin Doubleday: I’m great how are you?
MJ: Very good, very excited! I absolutely love Empire, so if you’re ready to get started, I’ll jump right into it.
KD: Yeah, let’s go!
MJ: I have to tell you that Empire is my favorite show on TV right now and Rhonda is my favorite character. Prior to their current issues, Andre and Rhonda seemed to be on the same page. How would you define their relationship in the beginning of the season?
KD: Rhonda is your favorite character?
MJ: By far, they said I could have anyone from Empire and I wanted Rhonda. You can even ask Alex.
KD: Over Cookie?! Oh my god, that’s the first time I ever heard that and it’s very flattering!
MJ: And so how would you define Andre and Rhonda’s relationship at the beginning? It looked like they were both sort of using each other but I feel like Andre’s reaping the benefits while Rhonda’s doing the groundwork.
KD: Yeah, I think that… you know they have a 10-year relationship so we’re only seeing like a month of it, right? So who really knows what the hell they are doing and what she’s getting from him? And she has her own company too so maybe she is using him but I think that she also doesn’t see it as him reaping the benefits. I think whatever benefits that they get, she sees herself as 50% of the beneficiary. So I think she was willing to do anything. I just think that everybody has their limits and she wasn’t expecting a paralyzed 90-year old to open that door that day. He [Andre] didn’t warn her.
And I think that they have an understanding (like when he slept with the deputy mayor [Episode 3] and she’s said ‘call me her name’). I don’t think that she didn’t know he was going to do that. I think they tell each other what’s going to happen the whole time, but the fact that that took her by surprise… she was just like sickened and annoyed. Kind of like ‘I thought I was coming here to sleep with this beautiful woman that you showed me a picture of and now I’m going to be with this 80 year-old guy that’s in a wheel chair? No!’
I just think that they are the kind of couple where anything goes… as long as they talk about it. Like anything. They do some crazy stuff, but it’s not ever in this sort of betraying way or there’s no betrayal that’s happening because they always… they’ve agreed upon this. And it doesn’t bother them and I think that their love works [despite] the cheating stuff. I think that they are so close and they are so deeply connected and he has this personality disorder that requires him to sort of need her in a lot of ways. So I think that she’s never threatened by anything. So the cheating stuff doesn’t mean anything to her because she knows she is never going to go anywhere.
MJ: Is the last episode [Episode 9] where that relationship really changed (because I feel like that was really Rhonda’s breaking point)?
KD: Yeah. I mean she was drunk and threw up and then was in a car like ‘don’t make me do this anymore,’ but I’m not sure. I don’t know if that’s meant to… (also it’s difficult because I’m not the writer so, I don’t know). I could say ‘yeah, she’ll never do it again’ and then in the first episode of next season she’s like sleeping with 10 dudes, who knows? So, I don’t know, but I think that that moment annoyed her and I think that she had already been annoyed from him not taking his meds and not going to the doctor’s appointments that she was setting up and drinking when he wasn’t supposed to be drinking that she’s like fed up with his behavior.
And when he does this stuff, like I think she thinks ‘you’re not just screwing this up for yourself, you’re screwing my life up by having a manic break at your job.’ Like I think that she’s incredibly angry at him because she feels that his manic depression can be controlled if he actually follows through on what he needs to be doing… but he’s not.
MJ: In your opinion, which desire of Andre’s is stronger? His need to take over his father’s business or his loyalty to his wife?
KD: That’s a good question. I would say loyalty to his wife, but again you never know if that’s really going to be the case because it’s a soap opera right? That’s what’s so fun about it. Anything could happen. He could kill Rhonda for all we know! [Laughs]. So, I don’t know. I think (and the way that they explained it to us when we first got there) that they are Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. They are totally intertwined and don’t make any decisions without each other. She’s been his rock and gets him through life basically for 10 years.
And he really doesn’t have anybody else outside of her. So I think that she could tell him to… she could find a way to convince him to do anything. If she wanted to convince him not to take over Empire, I’m sure she [could] convince him to do that too.
MJ: When I watch the show, Andre seems like the obvious choice to take over as he has has the best educational background and spearheaded the IPO. While Lucious believes that a celebrity brand should be driven by a celebrity, is there more to the story as to why he seems so adamant that Andre not be the one to take over?
KD: Well, I mean he did have that line in the other episode I think Episode 9 when he said or Episode 8 when he said “you know I didn’t trust you after… ever since you married that white bitch.” So maybe that’s what it is. So I mean I think that he, I just think that he probably never really bonded with that son. And obviously he was a drug dealer that came from a very different place than Andre did and I think that for whatever reason they just never were bonded because they didn’t have music to bond them. And Andre was super straight laced and got straight A’s and went to Penn and then went on Wharton.
And I think that part of Andre was probably doing that to get acceptance from his father that he never got (like his brothers did). So I think that he also probably doesn’t want to give [the Empire] to a son that he doesn’t feel bonded to and who is not a celebrity.
MJ: Critics have applauded Empire for having one of the most diverse casts in network television and I find the storyline where Lucious tells Andre that he won’t leave Empire to him because he married a “white woman” particularly fascinating as in a way, it is almost reverse racism. How do you see this storyline playing out?
KD: Oh gosh, do you mean his racism?
MJ: Yeah, like I mean is there no way that Lucious and Rhonda can put their differences aside? Is there a way for Lucious to be able to trust Andre with the company?
KD: Gosh that’s a good question too. You have good questions! I don’t know if it’s going to ever play out because I think what these things do on our show is they strike chords… I would hope that if I bring up these issues, the writers [would] also want to sort of send out a message like ‘well that does exist, but Rhonda can be trusted and (even though she’s white), there’s actually just one thing to do… whatever is best for her husband and that is the relationship that they have.’ So, if we continue to see that… And I think that Lucious’ character is pretty evil. I don’t think that Rhonda’s character is evil at all. I think that she’s the bad guy because the son there is the bad guy. But really what they are doing is they’re just — she’s worked her ass off with him, and [received] no acceptance from that family for 10 years. And the fact that he might give it to Hakeem (who’s essentially like a Justin Bieber-esque kid) or Jamal (who really never showed any interest in it) is insulting.
It’s like really? We’ve been, (and I say we just because I do consider Andre and Rhonda such a clear team), like I feel like Andre is probably either at work or with Rhonda and that’s all. And when he’s with Rhonda, they are probably talking about work and I feel like Rhonda has too sacrificed a lot of her life in that ‘okay we’ll do anything and everything to make this your company because you deserve it and I believe in you and like that.’ So I think that she’s just doing whatever she can and will do to give her husband what she believes he deserves.
MJ: This show has resonated with so many people and appeals to so many different demographics. Why do you think it has struck such a chord with audiences and why do you think it has become as popular as it is? I mean I think it is going to end this year as being the #1 show on TV.
KD: Right. I think it’s because of the gay son and the… I think what makes Jamal’s character so relatable is the fact Lucious doesn’t accept him. So I think if everyone accepted him, it probably wouldn’t be as fun to watch, which is crazy but it’s true you know? Like you want to see ‘oh wow other people go through these struggles too and even if you’re rich and have everything in the world like maybe your dad still won’t accept you and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ So, I think that there is that going for it. I think that it’s really enthralling to watch Trai Byers do an such amazing work with this disease of manic depression (or bipolar disorder).
And I think that has also struck a cord. Some people wrote to me on Twitter last week like ‘oh, I was also in a relationship like that and seeing you cry and deal with that really reminded me of this and that,’ and I think that also strikes a chord.
I think Cookie is absolutely fascinating and wonderful and charismatic and you don’t want to take your eyes off her and she’s hilarious and so is Porsha. And then you have the music aspect with Yaz and Jussie and they are so talented. And it is so fun to hear Timbaland’s beats every week.
And then you have an interracial couple that is like the evil, conniving, and manipulative bad guys and that’s really interesting to watch too. So there is literally something from everything and then to have Terrance Howard who is a brilliant actor and a gorgeous man as the lead. And it’s also a soap opera and nothing has been done like that since Dallas and Dynasty. So literally, it’s something that has (with the music aspect) never been done before or, if you want to compare to Dallas and Dynasty, has not been done in what 30 years?
MJ: In this past episode, Lucious seemed adamant that Rhonda be the one to sign the papers to keep Andre in a 48-hour psychiatric hold. How will that play out in Episode 10 and was it a calculated decision by Lucious to use that to turn Andre and Rhonda against each other?
KD: It was a calculated decision and I was surprised when I saw the episode because when we were shooting it, it looked a lot different and there was more to that scene where I feel like that was a little bit more clear, but who knows why things get cut on the editing room floor? But basically he wanted, he was the one, Lucious was the one to call the services on his son. But he didn’t want him to know that. He wanted his son not to trust Rhonda and think that she did it. So he had Rhonda sign the papers, and now in the next episode, you’ll see that what he wanted was for Andre not to trust Rhonda, and he doesn’t. He thinks that she did this and she didn’t. So that’s what he wanted, but he screws it up because he still doesn’t… Lucious doesn’t accept Andre’s disease. You can call these people and put a rift between him and his wife but if you’re not willing to help him or go visit him in the mental institution or whatever, you’re not going to… he’s never going to be close to Andre. They are never going to be bonded and one of the reasons is because of this disease.
MJ: And finally Kaitlin can you set up the season finale for me? We’ve only got two episodes left and can you please bring bad Rhonda back?! I really want bad Rhonda back!
KD: So we have three episodes left technically because we have next week and we have two hours of the finale, right?
KD: So that’s kind of exciting. And the bad, manipulative, sexy Rhonda? Is that who you want back?
MJ: Yeah, can you bring her back please? I don’t like this “good” Rhonda.
KD: [Laughs]. No, we’re not going to bring her back this season unfortunately. I mean their life gets pretty crazy, let’s just put it that way. In the last episode, definitely some crazy s*** happens to Andre and Rhonda and it bonds them again. So they will go through this rift of him not trusting her (because she signed him in), but by the end a really huge life circumstance happens to them… actually two huge life circumstances happen to them, because it’s a TV show why not throw in an even bigger one? And they’ll become bonded. So I’m not sure if we’re going to get the risqué Rhonda back for a while.
MJ: It was great talking to you, you are literally my favorite on the show. You can ask Fox. You are the only one I talk about whenever they ask me what I’m thinking about the show.
KD: I love it, thank you so much!
MJ: Have a great day! Thanks. Bye-bye.
KD: You too, bye.
Empire airs tonight at 9 p.m. on FOX
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Tags: Empire, murtz, Murtz Jaffer