"TV Guide Entertainment Network presents Soap Opera Q&A" Rhonda Ross
AKA: Toni on Another World

It is virtually impossible to talk with actress Rhonda Ross without mentioning her world-famous mother, the Supreme Diana Ross. As you will see, Rhonda welcomes the chance to share her feelings about growing up as the daughter of the First Lady of Motown. But there's a lot more to Rhonda than her famous mom and her current soap-opera role. Read on.

Is it OK to mention your mother?

Of course it's OK.

You must get tired of hearing that.

I really don't. I love her so much. I'm so proud that she's my mother. I've never felt a need to run from it or ignore it. I don't get bored with it.

How has she influenced you?

She's my No. 1 influence on many levels, not just on a career level. I think she's a wonderful actress. I'm also a singer, and I think she's a wonderful singer. But as a person, as a businesswoman, as a mother... I'm not a mother yet, but I've tried to take on a lot of her qualities.

I'm surprised her acting career hasn't gone where it should.

I agree with you and I think she would, too. There are not very many roles for women in their 50s, and not many roles for black women. Then you get a black woman in her 50s, so it's just not available. And that's too bad.

She was supposed to do a film about the life of entertainer Josephine Baker.

Yes. That was a very important project for her. She was going to produce and star in it. Then the HBO film with Lynn Whitfield came out, and that kind of took the wind out of her sails. She worked on it for so many years, but they would have come out about the same time.

You said you also sing.

Yes. I'm a jazz vocalist.

Has Mom given you any advice, music-wise?

Not really. I'm not the kind to ask for it, either. She's also a jazz singer. I watch and I listen, but I don't ask for advice as such. She's very good at conveying the message, the story of the song. That's what jazz is all about. It's storytelling.

The way she put over those songs in Lady Sings the Blues...

Yes. She was wonderful. And she didn't try to copy Billie Holiday, but she did try to find Billie's essence so she could come from the same mindset that Billie was coming from. Really, that's what an actress should do.

She's not a trained singer. Are you?

Yes. I've trained as an actress, and I make sure on Saturdays I go to my acting class, even though I'm working five days a week. And as a vocalist — my husband, Roger Kendrick, is a brilliant jazz pianist, and literally, he has taught me how to sing. We've been together for about four years, and we've had very strict classes where he teaches me how to sing and how to phrase and how to compose. I have done some composing, and I'm very proud of what I've composed, and that's all through his teaching. He works with a singer named Abby Lincoln, and I've learned so much from her. So I have really trained in both areas.

Let's get on to Another World. Tell me about your storyline.

My storyline is a love triangle. My character, Toni, is deciding between her boyfriend of about a year, Chris, and Tyrone, who she grew up with. They were always best friends. Right before Christmas she realized she had different feelings for him, so now she's trying to decide which man she's going to eventually be with.

How do you feel about head writer Richard Culliton and the scripts that are coming from him?

Well, I've only been working with his scripts for about two or three weeks, so I don't have too much insight. But I do know that he is loved here on the set. He's brought a humor and a comedy back to, say, the characters of Felicia and Cass that they are so happy to have. Others are talking about the complexities he's added to their characters. Like I said, I've only worked with his scripts for a short time, so I'm still waiting to see where he's going to take this love triangle. But so far, so good.

Do you know if he has any long-range plans for Toni?

Gosh, I would hope so! I don't know what they are. I haven't gone in to meet with him and ask, but I would definitely hope so!

What are your long-range plans?

Long-range plans... I'm really enjoying myself here. I'm going on a year in March. Of course, I would like to try my wings in other things, like film and stage. I'd really love that. I plan to continue my composing and my music, and otherwise I recently got married, so I want to have some babies.

Those things that "real" people do.

Yeah! I'm open. Life has been very, very good to me, and I feel very blessed. So I sort of let it go where it will.

Going back to Richard Culliton for a minute: He knows the history of AW. Over the years, the show has gone off in ridiculous directions with characters doing things they would never have done. The talk is that people are happy with what he's doing. Are you sensing that?

Absolutely. From the beginning. We were still doing Michael [Malone]'s scripts, but with [Richard's] revisions. Everybody was saying that their characters were getting back to what they were meant to be 15 years ago. So I think he does have a good understanding of this show and the characters.

Regarding other cast members...

This week is the first time I've worked with Linda Dano. Linda, Stephen Schnetzer, Eric Stewart, who plays Chris, and I are together in this sort of mystery Culliton has devised. I've worked with Stephen, obviously, throughout the trial, but this is the first I've worked with Linda. She's a delight.

Do you have any idea what you'd like to see happen with your character?

I've been pretty lucky. I've gotten the drama, you know, the whole caper of finding Chip and torturing him. And I've gotten love scenes. I'd like to see more complexities. That's the wonderful thing about soap operas —a character can go to the limits, one extreme to the next. That's what I'm hoping, that they allow Toni to grow and develop. I have no complaints, because Toni has had the opportunity to do that.

This has to be the best acting training there is.

It's twofold. Your character's in a new play every day, and she has to find out who she is that day. It's different from doing the same play onstage every night. There are also the great technical things, like speaking up for the boom and finding your mark, but there are some bad habits you can get into. You can learn your lines at the last minute. You can come on, say your lines and go home. If you take the good and try to leave the bad behind you, it can be a wonderful, wonderful training ground for anything else you do in life.

The cast is so extraordinary — Mark Pinter, Anna Stewart...

Wonderful people. Maybe because we're way out here in Brooklyn, it really is an ensemble. I don't feel like they've been on for so long, and I'm new so I have no place. I feel like part of the group.