The executives at FOX must really be enjoying the runaway success of its freshman drama Empire. The series debuted to almost 11 million viewers and over the first three weeks, the hip hop drama has increased in viewers and the all-important 18-49 demographic each week. The drama centers around a music mogul’s plans for the future of his empire as his three sons and his ex-wife battle each other to become the next heir apparent to the hip-hop throne.
One of the reasons for the success of the series is the work of actress Kaitlin Doubleday. The California native plays Rhonda Lyon, wife of the eldest son in the Lyon family who may be the one that is actually pulling all the strings.
Kaitlin sits down with the Pop Culture Principle to discuss her new role, why playing a strong, confident character was important to her and why it’s a good thing the people behind Empire tackle some of the biggest social issues today.
Pop Culture Principle – Can you tell us the basic premise of Empire?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Empire is about a music mogul family. Imagine P. Diddy ten years from now with grown children. The empire is worth billions of dollars and the father is dying of ALS. He has three sons and wants to pick a successor to take over the company when he’s gone. Between the three sons, one of them is a Justin Bieber like spoiled rapper. The second son is gay and a talented singer/songwriter, but the father is against his lifestyle. The third son, my husband, was never accepted by the family as much because he didn’t have any music talent and also married a white girl, which is another thing frowned upon.
Pop Culture Principle – What can you tell us about your character Rhonda Lyon?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Rhonda is like the Lady Macbeth of the show. It seems at least from the way that it is set at the beginning, everything evil that happens is really by the hands of her because she is calling the shots. Her husband is manic depressive and relies on her a lot. Rhonda and Andre have been together for ten years. They met in college and have really grown together. They are the most successful, loving relationship on the show, so it’s kind of interesting to have this couple who is perceived to be the evil ones who are pulling the puppet strings at the demise of the rest of the family, yet they are the only ones who have a functioning partnership.
Pop Culture Principle – Some people would consider Rhonda to be a bad person. Do you think she is someone who is misunderstood and knows what they want and goes for it?
Kaitlin Doubleday – I think that for every actor, you have to believe that about your character. You have to figure out why your character is motivated to do what they are doing. Unless you are playing a psychopath who enjoys hurting other people at all costs, which most people are not that, you understand the reason they are doing this is because of that or the reason they are doing that is because of this. It’s not purely just to watch other people suffer, so there are a lot of reasons that they do what they do.
To be honest, Andre started this company, so when his father is dying and he doesn’t say you are my successor, Andre is a little upset. You know, Andre went to Penn and they are considering giving the company to Hakeem or Jamaal. So, they are thinking they worked their assess of the last ten years and you aren’t going to give the company to them? Both Andre and Rhonda have devoted their lives towards the idea that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the company. So, when it comes up that they aren’t automatically taking over the company, they are not happy about it and decide that’s now how it’s going to go down. So, I don’t think that they are evil at all; we just get to play the bad guys on the show which is really fun.
Pop Culture Principle – Many of your scenes are with Trai Byers who plays your husband. What is it like working with him?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Trai is a wonderful human being. He is a person that everyone loves when they meet him. Honestly, just from an artistic point of view, it’s been an enlightening and amazing experience for me. All the work that I have to do to make all these things real for me and imagine what would happen if your husband is having a nervous breakdown and how would I feel. It’s almost like all the work is done for me because I feel such a connection with Trai Byers that when I look at him, my heart believes. He’s such a wonderful human being that I don’t really have to do much homework as an actress. I really love him as a person. He went to Yale and is very schooled in the craft and he sticks up for our characters all the time. I really feel it’s a team effort when I am working with Trai on set. It’s amazing to work with somebody who wants to make sure that we have an honest experience in front of the camera no matter how they cut the scenes or what happens.
Pop Culture Principle – We find out Andre is suffering from a bipolar disorder. Do you think Lucius purposely pretends he doesn’t know what’s wrong with Andre? Does he see it as a sign of weakness?
Kaitlin Doubleday – He does see it as a sign of weakness. You’ll see later on in the season that he already knows exactly what has happened to Andre in the past. One of the times that Andre has an episode, Lucius explodes at one of the doctors telling him not to call his son that and that he didn’t want to hear it again. He decides in that moment that he is going to just ignore it. I think the reason it is written this way is because there are a lot of people who really don’t understand depression. Many people don’t recognize it and don’t get it. I think that is one of the many reasons why Empire is written in the racy way that it is. Choosing Andre to be married to a white person was a choice made on purpose or choosing that one son is gay was done for a reason. All of this was to shed light on things that may be misunderstood and things that people may have pre-conceived notions about.
Pop Culture Principle – Would you consider Rhonda the ultimate puppet master?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Lady Macbeth is that right? She pulls the strings and her husband doesn’t do anything without her. I think that was how it was originally written, so I would say yes. Andre really doesn’t make any decisions without Rhonda.
Pop Culture Principle – With your character, Cookie and Anika on the show, you have several very strong, powerful female characters. Was that important to you and one of the reasons you joined the series?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Oh my God yes! Being a blonde girl that people may think is pretty; you can play pretty boring characters a lot of the times. It’s great having more to do, having more to say and having your lines mean something more than what’s on the page. I get to play a character that is manipulative and cunning and doing all that stuff is much more fun than being the pretty wife. It’s been really fun honestly and working with Trai is awesome. One of the main reasons that Empire is working right now is that we have some amazing people working on the show. We have Terrence and Taraji at the helm of the ship and no matter how over the top or dramatic these scenes become, they are rooted in honesty because the producers were smart enough to pick real actors. So, I think that is kind of what makes the soapiness work is that we all try our hardest to root it in honesty.
Pop Culture Principle – How far do you think Rhonda will go as far as her and Andre running Empire one day?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Oh man, I heard a secret last night that I couldn’t believe. Let’s just say that she will go as far as you ever think she might go.
Pop Culture Principle – In what ways are you like Rhonda and not like Rhonda?
Kaitlin Doubleday – I am literally nothing like Rhonda. I am a bleeding heart who doesn’t eat meat and is obsessed with saving animals. I am such a dork, but she is crazy and cool. She’s very sexual and very manipulative which I don’t think I am.
Pop Culture Principle – Do you think it’s important that the show tackle the issue of homosexuality in the African-American community?
Kaitlin Doubleday – I think it’s amazing how the series has handled the issue so far on the series. I grew up in LA in an artistic household and my godfather died of AIDS when I was 10. He was gay and I understood what that was at that age. There was no shame at all with it, but it was just heartbreaking to lose someone so special to our family. I guess I am a little naïve as to how backwards a lot of the country still is. Of course there are huge strides in this country as far as race and homosexuality, but I am still surprised that there are people who still think like Lucius. The more strides you make the more aware people will be. Hopefully by the time we are eighty, people will look back and say that I was part of a show that dealt with this and dealt with that. I hope within my lifetime that has changed completely.
Pop Culture Principle – Why is it that women who are ambitious and goal are vilified while their male counterparts aren’t?
Kaitlin Doubleday – I know, isn’t that terrible? The thing that is strange about it is that it’s mostly women that are saying that. It seems like everyone is rooting for the underdog and hating on the woman who is strong, beautiful and intelligent.
The way that our society is setup and because men can literally have a baby every single day and women can have a baby every nine months inherently just that alone means that biologically, men can do whatever they want more than women can. Just because of our society and the roles that men and women play, it’s harder for women to find a good man instead of the other way around. I think that when a women finds a good man, there is a lot of judgment from other women. I see it all the time, for instance the show The Bachelor. When there is a bachelor, all the girls are awful, evil and hate each other. When there is a bachelorette, the guys become friends and mess with each other and have a blast. That is just the way our society is setup; women have to compete with each other and men don’t really have that aspect, so they don’t need to hate on other men that are succeeding. I think it has a lot to do with the roles of men and women in our society.
Pop Culture Principle – What can fans look forward to for the rest of the first season?
Kaitlin Doubleday – Hmm, a lot of twists and turns and shocking cliffhangers almost once a week. There are some specific moments that I am obsessed with that stick out in my memory. For instance, seeing Anika walk out in front of Cookie in her underwear, Cookie will get back at her-let’s just put it that way. All the things that you think can go wrong with Andre and Rhonda will. Whatever you think would be a crazy twist and turn, it most likely will happen.
We would like to take a moment and thank Kaitlin for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk with us. You can keep up with all her latest news and information by following her on Twitter @KaitlinDday. You can watch brand new episodes of Empire every Wednesday night at 9/8C.