Stephanie Davis Smith Stephanie Davis Smith | May 28, 2019 | People Feature
Gina Torres is leveling the playing field for women of color as the star and producer of a new Suits spinoff, Pearson. She comes to the Windy City as the title character, Jessica Pearson—an alpha female and former lawyer working in the mayor’s office—and makes some power plays both onscreen and off. Here, she scoops on the show, the political landscape of Chicago and her friend the Duchess of Sussex.
Gina Torres—or, rather, her captivating character Jessica Pearson—is a 5-foot-11-inch, ball-busting alpha female with an intimidating wit, a razor-sharp tongue, a killer wardrobe and sleek high heels to match. She waltzes into her new high-powered job in the Chicago mayor’s office on the first day unapologetically late and ready to bulldoze through the red tape. Forget the irony that she recently lost her law license and—most shocking of all, perhaps—followed a man from Manhattan to the Windy City.
The complexities of this character, who left the USA Network hit Suits and is starring in her own spinoff, Pearson, are well-suited to Gina Torres, the dynamic actress who plays her. For six years (opposite the new Duchess of Sussex, the former Meghan Markle, who became close to Torres while filming), she developed the hard-nosed former lawyer into a role formidable enough for a Chicago-based spinoff.
“I didn’t have to brush up on Chicago politics,” Torres notes. “It is kind of a microcosm of what’s happening on a national, and even global, level. It’s one of the reasons the creators and I thought her life could be so rich in Chicago, because it’s so central to what’s going on currently.”
It’s the eve of her 50th birthday, and Torres is far from Chicago and its politics in sunny Los Angeles, where she lives with her 12-year-old daughter, whose father is Torres’ ex-husband, actor Laurence Fishburne. Torres is hopping into a chauffeured car on her way to a photo shoot. “It’s a heck of a number,” she says in a soothing honey-coated voice of the milestone birthday. “But I am excited about it, in all honesty. I have never felt better and more in my body than I do now. I am as pleasantly surprised as anyone else that I still get to do what I want to do—and at this level.”
The level is elevated, to say the least. Along with playing the title role in Pearson, Torres is also serving as executive producer, changing the Hollywood game not only for women of a certain age but also for women of color. Torres is winning more at showbiz than Pearson ever could in a courtroom.
And it isn’t a solo act. Pearson features a noticeably diverse cast, with many women and people of color working in elevated positions. Is it on purpose? “We made a very conscious effort to portray the world as we know it to be,” answers the Cuban-American actress passionately. “As we see it, this isn’t a pretend alternate reality. It’s Chicago, for the love of God!”
Torres grew up in the diverse world of the Bronx as the youngest of three kids born to Cuban parents. A talented mezzo-soprano (“I still sing all the time, but not professionally. I’m not reclining on a piano anytime soon”), she began singing at an early age and attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, aka the school that inspired Fame—maybe one of the few productions of that era that did look like the city Torres grew up in.
Now that the actual mayor’s office of Chicago will be occupied by Lori Lightfoot—the city’s first black, openly gay female mayor—the timing couldn’t be more perfect. “I’d love to take credit for the new Chicago, but the show’s not on the air yet,” Torres notes. “All the headlines will affect next season and our writing, though.” Right now, Torres says she is thinking about big questions. “What do we want to tell our viewers? We live in such crazy, exciting times. Never have I felt more of a responsibility and an opportunity to tell as many stories as possible and to see as many sides of these stories as possible. I’ve said before, the world of Suits was about the top 5 percent. Pearson is about how those decisions affect the other 95 percent, and we see that in real time.”
Indeed, in Suits, Pearson was what Torres calls “a unicorn, with no explanation to her existence” or how she came to be. “It was all mythology, which is fabulous. It served its purpose beautifully.” But Torres says one of the most refreshing things about Pearson is that we get to see the rest of Jessica and where her family comes from—namely, the rough-and-tumble South Side of Chicago. “You get to see her in a world that’s imperfect and volatile. Very real. Very now.”
Although much of the filming takes place in Los Angeles, Torres has been coming to Chicago to shoot. “I would love to come in the warmer months,” she says with a chuckle or two. “Everything takes on a whole different haze through chattering teeth. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city. The architecture is insane. I love walking along Lake Shore Drive, and the food is ridiculous. But when you stand out in cold weather for 14 hours... that’s never a good time. But Chicago when I have leisure time? I’ve always loved it. The people are so much fun.”
Toward the end of the second episode of Pearson, Torres stands up at the mayor’s press conference and lets the reporters in the room take a crack at her. “Now, I know some of you still have many questions,” Pearson says. “Come at me. I’m an open book.”
We took that as an invitation of our own.
You’ve been in The Matrix, played a superhero, an FBI agent—are you drawn to action?
I keep thinking of Jessica Rabbit. I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way. That’s the niche I fell into. I’m tall and fit, and have a deep voice. It’s like, ‘Follow that girl into war!’ It’s kept me working.
You’ve performed with some of the biggest talents around. Anyone you’d still like to work with?
I was watching the Today show and Glenn Close popped up. It was one of those moments where I thought, God, I love her. God, she’s good. She just makes me happy. I know I could just relax and be in for a good time and know she’s going to teach me something. I think we’d have a blast just hanging out. And Jordan Peele... Jordan, call me!
At the royal wedding, how was it to be there for this amazing, iconic event and see your friend Meghan Markle up there?
God bless all of you who have to ask. God bless you. But the answer is in your question. The answer is in your question. The answer is in your question. There’s nothing more to add to that. It was surreal all the way.
What did you think of Bishop Michael Curry of Chicago’s speech “Love Is the Way” as it was happening at the wedding?
I thought his message was beautiful. I think the British people looked around, thinking, ‘So is this what y’all do?’ [laughs] In general, they were sort of perplexed. I loved it. I thought he did a great job!
Have you given Meghan any advice about motherhood?
Oh, she doesn’t need my advice. She’s all good.
As a working mom, how does this show affect raising your daughter, and what do you want her to see from you on Pearson?
I think being a working mom is hard. When you’re not with them, you think you should be with them. You’re constantly questioning yourself. The goal is finding balance. I want my daughter to see her mother work hard and work toward her dreams. She sees by example that it’s possible. Not only possible, but within reach.
As a producer, how will you do things differently from those you’ve worked with in the past?
I’m learning all the time. I have often believed it’s important to pick your battles. You don’t want to fall on your sword for the wrong thing. That comes from time, wisdom, educating yourself and not being reactionary. You also always need to leave space for someone who knows better. For those who can see down the road and around the corner to see what you don’t see coming.
Photography by: John russo | styled by Alexis Fallon | All clothing and accessories
courtesy of The Ruby Fashion Library