With each new set of series premieres, it becomes more and more clear that this Golden Age of television is here to stay awhile. FOX’s new hit drama Empire is one of many shows to come with the prestige of an esteemed film director at its head, and co-creator Lee Daniels has woven an intense family drama that everyone is buzzing about. The show has already been renewed for a second season, and while some critics, including our own, find the plot to be more soapy than necessary at times, many of us agree that it’s hard to look away from these characters, and the King Lear-inspired narrative that’s unfolding.
While actors like Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Terrence Howard bring familiar faces to Empire, newcomer Grace Gealey brings an extensive theatre background and an infectious excitement about her role as Anika Calhoun. For Gealey, who had no previous television work, this opportunity must be attributed to something bigger than herself, or mere beginner’s luck. Paste caught up with the actor to talk about her role on the series (which she likens to Robin Wright’s on Claire Underwood House of Cards), working with Academy Award-nominee Taraji P. Henson, and why everyone—including those who’ve been critical of the series so far—should keep watching Empire.
Paste Magazine: First off, congratulations on your network television debut! Not too shabby, right?
Grace Gealey: Thank you! What a way to come out.
Paste: Can you talk about how you landed on such a highly-anticipated series?
Gealey: I honestly believe in a force that’s larger than our own. I believe the divine had a lot to do with it. I was not a huge name. I wasn’t SAG, I didn’t even have a reel. I moved to Chicago from New York, three months before booking this. I wanted a break, and just needed some time to rejuvenate myself, and still audition in the meantime. Because Empire was shooting in Chicago, they opened up the Chicago talent pool to audition. I submitted a tape, and Lee took a look, and flew down to Chicago to check out a few callbacks and screen tests that I was a part of. I got the role about two days later.
Paste: Even though much of this is new to you, I know you have an extensive background in theatre. What’s it been like transitioning from live performance to TV?
Gealey: The biggest difference for me has been the fact that, even though you have scripts of each episode for television, you don’t have the entire season in front of you. With a play or even a film, you see the script from beginning to end, so there’s a certain understanding you have of the character’s arc. The other big thing for me has been working out of succession, for camera. For theatre, when you have a climactic moment, you’ve normally worked the moments before that, to get to that climax and to discover exactly what that looks like. You don’t really get that luxury with TV (laughs). So it’s a different challenge, but an exciting one. I’m working with a bunch of tour de forces who are helping me assimilate into that world.
Paste: I’m most excited about how the show will take on very real issues in the black community, like homophobia and child abuse, which we really saw in the pilot. When you first got a look at the script, what were some of the scenes that jumped out at you?
Gealey: Those things jumped out at me, for sure. There was a scene that’s not there anymore, where my character addresses the homophobia Lucious shows towards Jamal. I loved that scene, because she really stood up to him. There’s also the fact that you have this woman in the music industry as head of A&R. The more research I did, the more I discovered that this is a heavily male-dominated industry. So this is huge for all women, not just women of color. She’s successful and high-powered, so that was extremely interesting to me. Some may see her as beautiful, but her intelligence and ambition got her the job—Lucious got involved with her afterwards.
Paste: Terrence Howard describes your character as a “respectable force.” How do you see Anika fitting in with—or being unique from—the other women we love on TV, like Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, or Olivia Pope on Scandal?
Gealey: I think she’s an amalgamation of a lot of these characters. I’d probably say she’s closer to Robin Wright’s character on House of Cards, because she doesn’t say much, but when she does speak, you listen. And also because there’s not much that rouses her—she’s a different energy from [Taraji P. Henson’s] Cookie. Cookie is very overwhelming and she’s in your face, and you’re going to know when she enters the room, because you’re going to hear her. Anika is going to choose her battles, but when she does pick, it goes to the core, and to the heart.
Paste: Speaking of Cookie, I think we’re all, now, looking forward to the times when you and Cookie are going to face off. What’s it been like working with Taraji P. Henson?
Gealey: It’s been phenomenal. She has been such a lovely person to learn from, and to work with. She’s gracious, she’s present, she’s honest. That woman’s a beast. I love to be around that caliber of work, so that I can continue to elevate. I feel the same way about Terrence.
Paste: There are, obviously, critics and viewers who haven’t been sold on the series yet. What do you think some of them will be most surprised about, with the upcoming episodes?
Gealey: I’m glad you said that, because it’s hard to determine what the whole season will look like, just based on the first couple of episodes. It takes a completely different spin. No matter what you may think is about to happen, I guarantee you, you’re wrong. I say that because we were in table reads every week and [were shocked]. If we’re doing all of this research and character study, and we were still surprised, then I can guarantee the audience will feel the same.
I’d also encourage people to keep watching because I can guarantee that there is going to be some person, some event, some thing that’s going to appear or happen, that you will be able to relate to—whether you’re a man or woman, a person of color, or not. Empire deals with the black experience, the human experience, sibling rivalry, what it feels like to be ignored or doted upon by a parent, illness, death. There are so many things that I think the audience can identify with.
Paste: I’m definitely looking forward to more. Thanks so much for this.
Gealey: Thank you!
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.