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Exclusive Q&A: Annie Ilonzeh Talks Empire, Person of Interest and Graceland

WARNING: Spoilers for Empire and Person of Interest

Actress Annie Ilonzeh has appeared in some of my favorite TV shows as of late. After roles on General Hospital, Charlie’s Angels and Arrow, she made a mark in a couple other series. On Person of Interest last season, she played Harper Rose, a fierce but mysterious grifter that always had a few tricks up her sleeve. She liked to keep Finch and Reese guessing. On Graceland, she gave Brandon Jay McLaren’s Jakes a much needed love interest. When the USA Network drama was canceled in 2015, Jakes and Courtney had made the decision to take the money and run.

And now Ilonzeh’s in the middle of a stint on FOX’s wildly popular primetime soap, Empire. She’s playing another Harper — this time the character’s name is Harper Scott. She’s a reporter who’s made it her business to investigate Empire and its main mogul, Lucious Lyon. I recently hopped on the phone with Ilonzeh who did admit Harper may have some secrets or some hidden motivation for targeting Empire and Lucious. The rest of our conversation touches on what it was like to work with Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Plus, I had to ask her about POI and Graceland.

TV GOODNESS: Were you a fan of Empire before you joined?

ANNIE ILONZEH: Absolutely. Yes. Major fan. When I went in for the producers, I was caught up with storylines and characters and everything. It was like, I know Lucious would say this. I already know he’s going to try me. They were just laughing. When you know a show you can predict or assume what a character would say or do. So I was right on board.

TV GOODNESS: Before you joined the show, who was your favorite character?

ILONZEH: Honestly? Lucious. I love Cookie, I really do. But I’ve always been a fan of Terrence. I just love what he does with Lucious. So Lucious is definitely my favorite character.

TV GOODNESS: What was it like to work with Terrence Howard?

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

ILONZEH: It was so thrilling. I didn’t realize I was nervous at first until I sat back and was like, that was Terrence Howard. We were able to play and feed off of each other and kind of ad lib and throw some stuff in. It hit me after the fact, once our scenes were done and shot and everything. It was just super thrilling, I guess, if I were to sum it up. He was so supportive and he was so open and vulnerable. And just like, ‘okay, okay, cool.’ And when I would add something — ’cause I’m new so I wasn’t sure how they would take it or how lenient they are with the writing — and I would add a couple things…and then kind of take it back. He’d be like, ‘You’re still going to say that, right? That was dope.’ Oh, okay, okay. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come on, I got you. I got you. You’re good. Do what you were doing before, it was great.’ So that made me feel really, really good.

TV GOODNESS: What do you enjoy about playing Harper?

ILONZEH: I like her spiciness. She’s definitely willing to get in there and battle back and forth with Lucious. And you have to because Lucious will…he’ll take over. If you don’t, he’ll just run the show. I love her strength. I like her power. She’s pretty quick with it. Sharp. And able to throw it right back at him just as quickly as he does with her.

TV GOODNESS: At the end of “A Rose By Any Other Name,” Lucious says he’ll give Harper the exclusive to his story. So moving forward, what does that look like?

ILONZEH: Well it’s a lot of hanging out, her kind of shadowing Lucious. Following him around trying to get…see the family for what they really are. At first see the family for what they are through his eyes. But more so see how he responds to the ASA Awards, any of his secrets or scandals that he has or has brewing. It’s some of that. Her eyes are open a lot more to who Lucious really is. The powerhouse, the charming guy, the manipulator, the fighter, the vulnerable side as well. So seeing those shades — those will start to unravel and it will be very interesting.

TV GOODNESS: So that means she starts to soften towards Lucious and she’s believing what he’s showing her?

ILONZEH: There is a little bit of loosening up I guess, softening up as well in regards to her approach towards Lucious and also the way that she views him. Her point of view when it comes to Lucious — she definitely softens up. But she knows that at any given moment that Lucious can take you down some twists and some turns that you did not see or expect. So I think her guard is always up. But, yeah, she softens up and it’s maybe not so much of a professional relationship. They get a little friendly — they become friends.

TV GOODNESS: Does she face Cookie at all?

ILONZEH: Yeah, there are a few times when Cookie comes around. They interact. Yeah, that will happen.

TV GOODNESS: What was it like playing opposite Taraji P. Henson?

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

ILONZEH: That again was thrilling. It was super exciting. Just on a whole other level Cookie is such a force. I personally feel that Cookie mirrors a version of Taraji in some form or fashion. I think probably a lot of people have said that just seeing her outside of Empire, which is great. She is a strong, powerful funny, intelligent, witty, sharp woman. That’s what Cookie is. That’s what Taraji is. So that could be intimidating or surprising to another person that’s new coming in. I would just sit back and observe and this is a master at work creating a masterpiece which is why Empire is Empire today. Which is why people, when people think Cookie, people don’t think about a cookie or anything else other than her. Taraji. And I got to see it firsthand like front row seat. So aside from our characters going back and forth, I remember just sitting outside my body being like this is a woman creating a masterpiece. And that’s special to watch.

TV GOODNESS: Are you going to be in the final season of Person of Interest at all?

Photo Credit: Giovanni Rufino/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. © 2015

Photo Credit: Giovanni Rufino/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. © 2015

ILONZEH: [Harper] ended up leaving but not getting killed off or anything like that. She does appear in the final…actually, the finale, she will appear. I hope that doesn’t give too too much away. There’s a lot that goes on in the finale. But she does come back and I was super excited to hear that Harper came back or had the opportunity to come back and that it all worked out. So, yes.

TV GOODNESS: I really loved Harper.

ILONZEH: I know, she was so fun. I loved her, too. I got to live out my dreams of being this superhuman woman that could fight bad guys and be able to do a couple of tricks. I love doing that stuff. I love the physicality and the action. So I got to live that out which is great. The cast and the crew are amazing. They’re perfect. They’re super wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. As soon as I got the call to do it I was like, yes. We’re making this happen. Yes.

TV GOODNESS: I’m very crushed that it is ending.

ILONZEH: I know, everybody is. I think they are, too. But you’ll see that…I think shows in general like to end on a high note as opposed to just keeping it going, keeping it going, and there’s no more steam. So they probably decided that as well. But that was definitely fun, too.

TV GOODNESS: Speaking of shows ending, you were also on Graceland and that was also pretty crushing because it ended on a cliffhanger, especially for Jakes and Courtney. Did producers give you any sense of where Jakes and Courtney were going to go had a new season happened?

ILONZEH: Brandon (Jay McLaren), who played Jakes, we would speculate — and Larry [Teng], who’s one of the executive producers and directs a lot of them too — we kind of would speculate that this is Bonnie and Clyde. I mean, they’re going to be all over the world. Not just Florida. Like they’re gonna go to Germany and they’re going to partner up and have this money and go everywhere. It was going to be a Bonnie and Clyde situation where they were going to flee with the money and just get out of town. And probably be pursued by the other guys and you know just the battle back and forth.

And so we were super bummed when they were like uh, yeah, canceled. Because we didn’t really see that coming either. All the anticipation for what the storyline could be for the next season — for everybody — but also Courtney and Jakes. It was something new for them to explore as well for Graceland. Adding a new character and with Jakes’ transformation to evil, I guess you could say — you know, just more on the bad side. All things, I guess, must come to an end.

TV GOODNESS: I really wanted to see what they’d be up to in the next season.

ILONZEH: I know, we wanted to Bonnie and Clyde that so bad. We get along so well, too. [Brandon’s] such a great guy. And everyone even on the show. I worked with Vanessa [Ferlito, Charlie] as well. We were like, no, can we call them? What do you do when they say it’s canceled? It’s like you just want to call up and go, ‘Now look, guys. It’s a little premature. Hold on.’

TV GOODNESS: At least give us a movie, something!

ILONZEH: Right. Give us something. Give us six episodes. Give us a miniseries. Let us wrap it up properly.

TV GOODNESS: Exactly. I hate when shows don’t get the chance to wrap up properly.

ILONZEH: I know. Take us over to Hulu. Figure something out.

TV GOODNESS: What’s next for you?

ILONZEH: I don’t know. I don’t.Which is exciting because I like rollercoaster rides. I do. But then sometimes I don’t. I want to know what’s coming up next. I flip flop back and forth emotionally. I want to play some crazy superhero or something.

TV GOODNESS: That’s definitely the rage on all levels of entertainment.

ILONZEH: Yeah, you’ve got Marvel and DC going back and forth and anything that’s out there that they touch is just insanely great and does well.

TV GOODNESS: Do you have a character in mind that you’d love to play?

ILONZEH: Well, I know Marvel is doing Black Panther. So, that to me, I’m like sign me up. Yesterday. Sign me up. And I’ve already done the research and I know the story. I know that world of Black Panther. and it overlaps with all the other characters in Marvel. And they all help each other out in each other’s worlds. So I’m like, yeah, sign me up. I got you. I’m right here. I’m already good to go on the athleticism part and all of the physicality. So let’s just go. The next thing to do is just send me the script.

TV GOODNESS: That’s awesome. You have to put that out in the universe sometimes, you know?

ILONZEH: You absolutely have to. You absolutely have to.

Ilonzeh will also be hitting the big screen later this year. She has a major role in the upcoming Tupac Shakur biopic, All Eyez on Me. She plays Kidada Jones. We’ll have more on this amazing experience another time.

Empire airs Wednesday nights at 9/8c on FOX. Meanwhile, the final season of Person of Interest kicks off May 3 on CBS. And, hopefully, we’ll be seeing her in another comic book project sooner rather than later.

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