Empire star Bryshere Y. Gray fills us in on his favorite guest star, where he hangs in Chicago, and what the cast does off-screen.
Bryshere Y. Gray.
When you watch Bryshere Y. Gray as Hakeem Lyon on Empire (which films in Chicago) it’s hard to believe the hit FOX show was his first TV role. The 23-year-old actor and musician—who has already racked up two NAACP Image Award nominations and three Teen Choice Awards nominations—has talent and energy that make it nearly impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen. And he’s not slowing down anytime soon. In addition to this breakout role, Gray recently turned heads playing real-life performer Michael Bivins (of the R&B group, New Edition) in BET’s The New Edition Story, and is set to star in an upcoming independent film, Canal Street. We got on the phone with Gray to talk about his recent roles, his favorite things to do in Chicago, and how he likes to give back.
What has been your favorite song of this season so far? BRYSHERE GRAY: Wow, there’s so many to choose from. Just working with [supervising music producer] Rodney Jerkins, who is Grammy Award-winning, has been a journey, as has working with Ne-Yo. This season has been very fun.
Empire sees a ton of amazing guest stars come through. Who has been your favorite so far? BG: Leaving the trailer and seeing Mariah Carey walking to hair and makeup almost gave me a heart attack. Oh my goodness. She’s Mariah Carey! I wanted to ask her for a selfie so bad, but I knew I would get in trouble.
You had recent success playing Michael Bivins in BET’s miniseries, The New Edition Story. Tell us a bit about that and what it meant to you to be a part of it. BG: Well, the nerve-wracking thing was to have Michael call me every morning before set, [saying], "Heyo, B, are you like me or what? Look in the mirror. Are you like me or what?" I’m like, "I'm like you, Mike, I’m like you!" So I think that was the most fun part of playing Michael Bivens. And I was just honored. That was fun, and good-energy music that was a part of the culture and very important to a lot of people’s lives. If you would go back in our brains, at least one of [New Edition’s] songs, you remember. So that's why it spoke to me. I said, “This is history. I gotta do this.”
Bryshere Y. Gray.
Did you expect it to have as big of a reception as it did? BG: No, because you don’t do it for that; you don't expect that. As a professional entertainer, actor, musician, you do things for the quality of it. You don’t do it because you want fame or recognition. You either get it or you don’t. But the fact that you’ve done it and you put your all into it in the long run, you see results.
At this point, you’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago shooting Empire. What are some of your favorite things to do or places to go here in the city? BG: Chicago has been a place where I always wanted to come and check out the culture, and try some pizza—they have the most amazing pizza here. So we’re eating pizza, we're just having a good time in Chicago, checking The Bean out. It’s cold, but we like when the snowflakes come down. We like to walk and talk with hot chocolate, and go to the hot dog spots.
On Empire, the relationships among all the characters are very volatile, but off screen, does the cast hang out together? BG: Yeah, for the most part we always hang out. I mean, whatever’s written [in the scripts] we kill, but that’s a fantasy. For us it’s about connecting and having fun. Jussie [Smollett] may cook one day and I might be getting a massage on the other part of town and he’s like, “You coming over for dinner? Because mama’s coming.” Taraji [P. Henson], he calls her “TV mama.” He’ll say, “TV mama’s coming, and Trai and Grace [Byers],” and I cannot be the one who's not gonna show up. It’s cool to have a good relationship with everybody. Sometimes, we work so many hours as actors, it’s tiring, and you just want to see this person at work. But when you actually respect the people and you love the people you work with, it changes the whole dynamic of everything.
You’re also committed to giving back. Tell us about that. BG: We started about five years ago, with my mom and me just giving out posters and stuff like that, then it [turned into] giving back to the homeless in Philadelphia. Then it grew to a high school tour. Now [there’s] Fresh Empire and Ms. Berry Cares [Gray’s mother, Andria Mayberry’s foundation]. And [Mayberry’s] book is out right now—Before Empire: Raising Bryshere “Yazz The Greatest” Gray.”
Is anything else coming up for you? BG: I just need to know how to play piano now. I’m trying to teach my niece so she can sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” We'll get it. Give us a couple weeks, we'll get it down!