Growing up in Los Angeles, Kaitlin Doubleday never could have predicted that her name would one day be associated with hip hop’s television takeover. As Rhonda Lyon, Doubleday rounds out the cast of Fox’s smash record label/family drama, Empire. When we last saw Rhonda, she was a-crashing down a flight of stairs on the show’s mid-season finale. Luckily, she managed to suck it up and chat with Paste about high school musicals, her favorite celebrity guest stars, and being a modern-day soap star.
Paste Magazine: Your parents both worked in the entertainment world. At what point did you decide that you wanted to join the party?
Kaitlin Doubleday: I was surrounded by it my whole life, but I don’t think I wanted to do it, for real, until I was in high school and I saw the musicals that my high school put on. They spent, like, seventy thousand dollars on each musical. The first musical I saw was Singing in the Rain, and they had real rain on stage. I saw that, and I thought “Oh my god, I need to do that.”
I was a dancer, so I had to dance a ton all summer long before I could get into those. Once I had that moment of, “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll have to be doing this forever,” so I started planning where I was going to go to college.
I ended up not going to college because I randomly got an amazing agent in high school and got my first job—Catch Me If You Can—when I was in twelfth grade, so I thought maybe I should just stay here and be serious about it, and study here and just act. So that’s what I did.
Paste: So, how did you end up being a part of Empire?
Doubleday: Honestly, the regular auditioning process. You know, every pilot season you test for shows, which means you get down to the wire, and sign your contracts, and meet all the creators. It’s like a clusterfuck, and it’s insanely stressful. That’s from January to March and that pilot season two years ago was just like any other, in which I was reading two scripts a day, going to coaching at night, and never seeing anybody. Just totally wrapped in auditioning, and Empire was one of the scripts. So that’s how that happened.
Paste: There have been a lot of big guest stars on the show in the last season. Who are some of your favorite people from inside or outside of the music industry who have popped in?
Doubleday: I didn’t really work with a lot of the guest stars, but I absolutely love Chris Rock, I think he can do no wrong. Patti LaBelle was incredibly kind. Oh, and Jennifer Hudson was a sweet girl. She was incredibly nice. Watching her perform at the church with, like, five hundred extras was a total highlight of doing the show at that moment. It’s been fun just to watch this stuff. Even if I’m not in it, I’ll just show up on set and watch it.
Empire is about the inner workings of the music industry, but it’s the interpersonal relationships that keep viewers hooked. Love, treachery and family are all high-drama concepts that make the show just as much of a soap opera as anything else on TV. As a member of the Empire team, is that how you see your show?
Doubleday: Definitely. I mean, it is a soap opera, completely. I think that took a little bit of getting used to for all of us. At first, we didn’t quite realize it, and then we saw it and were like “Oh, that’s what this is?”
I also think that’s why people love it so much. There hasn’t been a night time soap done well in years, and years. I think that’s what made it such a huge success. Now, it’s definitely fun to just sort of play into all that, “Yeah, who can you trust in this moment, who’s making an alliance, is what I’m saying real, am I going to use this against somebody?” It’s all of that kind of stuff where somebody can be completely innocent in one episode, and [not in] the next. It’s kind of fun to see where the alliances go.
Trai [Byers] and I tried to stay pretty clear on exactly where our relationship is. Is it breakable at this point? It’s not breakable at this point? Who has come between us? Originally, he and I were feeling like our relationship was unbreakable. Then there were a few bumps along the way, but we remain two of the few characters where they’re really bonded. There hasn’t really been anything that has come between us. It’s fun, and I think it’s definitely what you’re saying about relationships first. When we come back to the second half of the second season, there’s going to be less guest stars. I think everybody wanted it to go back to the family—what it was in more of the first season with less distractions. I think we’re all happy about that.
Paste: With fans so passionate about the show and all of its characters, has the experience of dealing with Empire fans been different from other projects that you’ve been a part of?
Doubleday: Yeah. A hundred percent. I think that people are just more excited to see you because they have so many formed opinions about you. As opposed to “Oh, you’re on that show I love,” they’re literally like, “Oh my god, I love you. I love what you did,” or “I hate you. I hate what you did.”
I’ll be waiting in line at the airport, and they’ll be like, “Did it hurt when you fell down those stairs?” For the first two or three times that this happened, I was like, “Did I fall the last time I was here?” Like, what is she talking about? We shot that a long time ago. It’s like “Oh, she knows that I’m Rhonda, and she’s asking about when I fell down the stairs on the show.”
Also, the fans really want to know the secrets. They’re like “Please just tell me, just tell me, who pushed you down the stairs? Who did it?”
Paste: That brings up a great point. Since your show is so predicated on surprises, twists and turns, do you end up waiting until the last minute to find out where storylines are heading?
Doubleday: We do, but not that much. When we’re left in the dark, I think it’s just because ours is a particularly hard show to write. All the writers say that. You have to write a show based around music numbers, and family drama and guest stars. They are in the writer’s room all hours of the night.
Paste: Well, we’re all excited about what’s coming next. So. Who actually pushed you down the stairs anyway?
Doubleday: (laughs) I fell!