Dedicated Empire viewers got an intriguing glimpse at Rumer Willis’ Tory Ash last season. But when the show returns for its fourth season on Wednesday (Sept. 27) the actress predicts Tory will leave a more lasting impression.
“She met Jamal (Jussie Smollett) right out of rehab in the beginning stage of exploring what sobriety is and figuring out who she is sober,” Willis tells Billboard about her soulful character, who showed off her killer pipes in a handful of episodes in late 2016 and early 2017, where fans also got a sense of her troubled past and potentially dangerous side in four episodes. “She’s also figuring out all the different aspects of her addiction and how it affects her and what it’s like to make music sober, what sober life means and how all those things affect her life.”
Willis, 29 — daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis — is best known for her appearances in the films such as The House Bunny and a championship 2015 run on Dancing with the Stars. But it’s her role as Tory Ash that hits all the notes she’s been trying to pull together her entire career. “Empire tells the story of a big record label and how they have to have a variety of sounds and Jessie brought her to mine and Lee’s [Daniels] attention and I had no idea she could sing and had such a soulful voice and we love that sound,” says one of the show’s executive producers and director of four season four episodes Sanaa Hamri. “Once we saw that there was a rol for Tori and with Jessie having such faith in her we decided to have her on board to really represent that trust in a variety of sounds and that’s where she fills that space for us.”
On a show that isn’t afraid to tackle so many of the issues facing America today — from racism and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to addiction, homophobia, LBGTQ rights and the war on drugs — Hamri says Willis has been a “great addition to our cast.” Which, it’s worth noting, will also include her mother Demi this season as a not-to-be-trusted rehab nurse.
Billboard spoke to Willis about her character’s growing story line, where she found inspiration for Ash and her long-in-the-works debut solo album.
What was it that sold you on diving into this character?
I first fell in love when they said she was this kind of Amy Winehouse type and that was it for me. Amy Winehouse is pretty much my favorite artist of all time. I didn’t really need to know much more.
You’ve lived so much of your life in public. Was there a time when you realized you had to dial it back because so many eyes were watching?
Regardless of whether you want to call yourself an addict or you have a problem, we live in a culture that kind of celebrates or encourages… especially on television, drinking when we’re sad or using drugs and alcohol as a mediator for feelings. I know many people regardless of how they want to identify themselves… people who’ve used substances or food or shopping or men to numb their feelings.
You’re one of the few white characters on a predominantly black show. Is this a unique opportunity for you to reach a different fan base?
Definitely, which has been really cool. It’s also the first thing I’ve ever done that has shown a lot more of my music. It’s been exciting to have people say, ‘I had no idea you could sing, I really love your music and your voice!’ It’s not really something I’ve put out there or been lauded for or recognized [for].
How does your relationship with Jamal change this year?
I think Tory really found a strong friendship with Jamal, but when you’re struggling with sobriety and finding new outlets and who you are you can push people away. More often than not you usually replace one addiction with another, they can be interchangeable. If it’s not substances, it can be people or a relationship. Tory can be a bit volatile at times and there are moments when maybe she’s not thinking clearly… addicts can be very selfish.
Will we see more of that side of you than the four episodes you were in last year?
I’m definitely in more episodes this year.
This cast is so packed with talent and great guest arcs, how do you stand out in such a crowded ensemble?
I think there are always such incredible characters on the show and so far there really hasn’t been a character like this or someone who has really dealt with the struggles of addiction and with how there are people around you that kind of want you to succeed, because it helps them succeed. One of the most brilliant parts of that is the dichotomy of seeing how people from an outside perspective can look at a rock star and see that, for lack of a better word, they are a fuck up and they’re just doing drugs. But it’s interesting to see someone who is really struggling and in pain and wants to get better, but people around her aren’t helping her get better because it doesn’t suit them, it doesn’t benefit them.
You said this show has really given people a sense of your musical side they may not have been aware of and you clearly have the talent. Is it safe to assume that you’ve got a secret album you’ve been working on?
I am working on an album! I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to put it out there. I’m in the process of figuring out exactly how that will come about. It’s been an exciting process, working on it for years back and forth, a few songs here and then a few songs there, figuring out exactly what my sound is. This is the first year I’ve really grown up a little bit in that sense. I like a lot of old music, old jazz, but I didn’t know what to do to make that relevant. I didn’t want to put out an album that would disappear, but I also have to figure out how to make it relevant.
Do you write your own music? Are you working with any producers or songwriters we might know?
I like to write my own stuff. But I also like working with the producers on Empire too, that’s been amazing. The music that they’ve had me sing was amazing. The stuff on Empire really opened up my eyes as to what I want to do musically.
Have you met with labels about it?
I definitely haven’t gotten that far yet. Rodney Jerkins has been doing music on Empire and I have to say that has been really inspiring to meet someone who is a legend and work with him on the show.
What kind of album do you think Tory would make?
I think it would be Amy Winehouse mixed with Florence + the Machine and a bit of No Doubt. She’s got that jazz, but a lot of that rock ‘n’ roll too, which is the direction i want to explore for myself.
Last season had a ton of other recurring guest stars like Eva Longoria, Taye Diggs, Phylicia Rashad, Nia Long and, we found out on the final episode, your mom will be joining you this season. You said you two don’t have any scenes together, but is it fun to be on the same set?
Yeah, we are on set together and my birthday was in August, so we celebrated on set which was pretty fun.
Do you ever have a “MOM!” moment when you’re working together?
Oh, of course! How can you not? But I’ve been in other stuff with her before, like when I was really little and I was in Striptease.