Understand this about ”Mistresses” star Rochelle Aytes: She is not scared. When you inventory her thick résumé of TV and movie roles, you will quickly realize that Aytes has played the entire spectrum of roles during her illustrious career. The Harlem, N.Y., native has a versatility to her game that’s enabled her to tackle everything from playing an abused girlfriend (Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion) to a reporter (White Chicks) to a police officer (“Forgotten”), to a prosecutor (“Detroit 1-8-7”) to a record executive (“Crazy Sexy Cool”) to a confused girlfriend (“Desperate Housewives”) and everything in between.
That’s why this golden goddess of Hollywood was able to slip into her role on ABC’s “Mistresses” as easily as one of those enviable designer dresses she has flossed on red carpet movie premieres in the past.
In “Mistresses,” Aytes and her co-stars dive into the devious world of infidelity and duplicity with married men — behavior that backfires with stinging consequences. Aytes plays April Malloy, an emotionally fractured woman who is picking up the shards of her shattered life after learning that her recently deceased husband, who was her best friend, was carrying out an illicit affair on the low that produced a love child. Adding to that is the fact that she is friends with women who are doing the same thing to their spouses.
“My character does not have illicit affairs. She’s the victim here. Her husband died and that was the only man she’d been with for 19 years. And after he dies, she finds out he had an affair. So in the beginning of the show, she’s dealing with that. I guess [my character] is the only one who is sticking to her moral code,” Aytes says.
Her co-stars (Alyssa Milano, Penelope Ann Miller, Yunjin Kim and Shannyn Sossamon) do not, nosediving into delicious devilry and creating storylines that are as much fun as Aytes says the set is.
“When I found who out who was in the cast, I was so excited. And it’s been absolutely amazing. They’re all so talented. And humble. And Alyssa Milano, of course, [I’ve] been watching her since ‘Who’s the Boss?’ And she came in and was so kind and welcoming and generous. I just felt very natural and completely comfortable. We became a like a little family,” she says.
Among her large catalog of juicy film and TV roles, Aytes has thrived at portraying both the helpless victim as well as a woman of power and authority. In “Mistresses,” she plays a character with both of those mental attributes coalescing into a multidimensional, contradictory and therefore exciting character.
“This character is a combination of both, which is one of the reasons why I was so excited to play her,” she says. “Just like in life there was a moment where she feels like a victim, where she feels betrayed. But then she has the opportunity to show her strength and move forward. She definitely has both of those characteristics.”
Aytes was also excited to portray a real person as she is did with the upcoming biography on the ex-supergroup TLC titled, “Crazy Sexy Cool,” slated to be televised some time in the fall. The experience gave her a whole new perspective on one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, the music industry, and multiplatinum singer-turned-music executive Pebbles. Having the opportunity to speak with the surviving members of TLC — Chilli and T-Boz — on the phone and together at lunch is an experience Aytes said she treasures.
“Shoot, I would say that my perspective was greatly changed more on the TLC movie because I’ve never done a biography before. And all of a sudden I felt such a huge responsibility to tell the truth about the person because she’s real and she’s going to see it. It was absolutely amazing to be given this role, it was an honor,” she raves. “I just found out how much I love to portray real people. Here I am portraying all these characters. And then I’m playing this real person and I felt this huge freedom, as well as responsibility, because I’m not her at all and I’m looking at all the videos and interviews and studying her mannerisms and cadences and that was just so exciting. I had a ball doing it.”
Her outlook on women who stay in toxic relationships was also altered after playing a woman who was cheated on.
“She [April Malloy] ended up taking it personally that her best friend was involved in an affair, and they had some words. Thinking about these relationships, you look at it from the outside and you say ’if that were me, I would leave or I had preconceived notions about how I would act.’ But it really changes when you are living in that person’s shoes. It really does. And things change when you start looking from a child’s perspective, because I have a child,” Aytes says.
Aytes, ironically, played on a similar show five years ago on the Lifetime channel. As a character actor, Aytes has gotten totally absorbed with each character, and she looks completely different from one role to the next.
“I think [that's] true, and coming from background of dance and studying acting, we would change up. And I would put on a short blonde wig if I had to because it’s all about the character, not about Rochelle. I think that’s what’s so much fun,” she says, “I don’t want to look exactly the same in everything I do. And if I’m not identifiable, then that can be a blessing or a curse. But I’m fine with it. Because at the end of the day, I’m still working and I’m enjoying what I do.”
Her longevity in Hollywood also has to do with adhering to advice from the veteran thespians and filmmakers she’s come across since getting into the acting game.
“Tyler Perry said that the greater your success, the greater your responsibility. [He also emphasized] staying spiritual. I remember him having a spiritual adviser that he was in connection with and I think that was very important. People start talking about you and spreading false information and it can really affect your spirit. So faith is very important to me,” she says. “Also, Lynn Whitfield had kind of guided me, certain techniques she would talk to me about, about losing yourself in the character.”
Aytes completely cloaks herself in the April Malloy character in order to present a woman who is dynamic yet vulnerable, a strong woman with weaknesses, a principled woman but one who is also contradictory, and she does it in a way that resonates with audiences as authentic and sympathetic.
“You know, all I want is for people to watch and really believe the character and not think about Rochelle and invest in that person. When you watch TV or movie and the most important thing is that they care about the character. If you don’t care about the character, then you won’t care about their story or anything else. So I hope that I’m doing my job and that they believe the character,” Aytes says.
ABC’s “Mistresses” airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST.