Grace Gealey, who plays a powerful record label executive on Empire, opens up about acting and working alongside legends like Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.
Musical TV shows are nothing new; we have Glee, we had Smash, and of course, all the reality competitions. But Fox's new drama, Empire—which shoots here in Chicago—is in uncharted territory as a completely hip-hop centric show. The plot follows record label executive Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) and his family including ex-wife Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson), as they navigate the world of money, power, and music. Newcomer Grace Gealey plays Anika Calhoun, the label’s head of artists and repertoire (A&R)—and Lyon’s girlfriend.
We caught up with Gealey and found out what it’s like to debut on network television, why Empire drew her in, and how she survives Chicago winters.
Congrats on the premiere of Empire.
GRACE GEALEY: Thank you!
What was it like seeing the premiere?
GG: I was ready, I think we were all ready. There’s been so much of a hype leading up to it for so long now that we were just like, “Alright, let's get this show on the road!” So, there was relief and excitement and pride because we're all so excited about what we created, and we couldn't wait to share it with everybody.
What kind of response have you been getting since the premiere?
GG: Oh, it’s been so phenomenal. Everyone is so excited about the show; everyone can’t wait to see [the next] episode. [Everyone has] been really supportive and we're grateful for that.
How did you become involved with the show?
GG: They opened up [casting to the] Chicago talent pool when they decided they were going to shoot in Chicago. I was [there] at the time, and I submitted through a tape. Lee [Daniels, Empire co-creator] took a gander at it, and then decided to fly out and do some callbacks and screen tests with people here, and I was one of those people. A couple days later I was given the job.
And this is your first network TV role, correct?
GG: That's right—what a way to come out, huh?
What’s it like to be debuting alongside iconic actors like Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson?
GG: Oh, there are no words. I am just truly humbled and completely grateful and honored. They’re wonderful, wonderful people to work with. They are powerhouses as you can see, and as we’ve known for quite some time. And of course Lee and Danny [Strong, Empire co-creator]—to be able to work with them has been just a phenomenal experience. All in all, I’m just truly grateful. [It’s] so surreal for me!
What drew you to the show and the role of Anika?
GG: The people that we mentioned...definitely peaked my interest. I was like, “Oh, okay, if they’re all attached to this project, it’s gotta be something phenomenal.” I also loved the fact that it was a primarily African-American cast. That was huge for me because you don’t really see a lot of that in the television world and on Fox, so [that] was really exciting, too.
And then, of course the character of Anika was the main draw for me. She’s this high-powered, successful woman of color in this male-dominated industry of music and hip-hop, and even though some may consider her to be attractive, you can tell that’s not what her draw was. [It was] that she led with her smarts, that she led with her talent, that she had many layers, and I loved the idea of that. I was like, “There’s something more to this woman and what got her here, and what drives her, and what continues to keep her strong and powerful.” I loved it, so I wanted to be given the chance to bring life to her.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you speak with any women in music or in hip-hop?
GG: Yeah, it's funny you asked that, because I did, and that was the biggest thing for me. I was like, “Okay, I could do research on A&R execs all day, and that can give me an idea of what they do and that’s fine, but what about a woman in this industry?” So I got a chance to speak with a woman who is the head of A&R at one of the hip-hop labels today, and that was so useful. That was probably one of my most useful resources because she was able to give me an idea of what it’s like to be a woman, [and] to dominate in this [testosterone-heavy] industry, and that was really exciting.
So, you’re not originally from Chicago, but you’ve been living here for a little while.
GG: Yes, I’ve been here for about a year now.
What brought you out here?
GG: Well, I was based in New York, and the city of New York is one of hustle, for sure. But I’m an island girl—I’m originally from the Cayman Islands—and I really needed to take a breath. I really needed some time to kind of set myself apart and enjoy a different quality of life. I had done some work in Chicago, so I was familiar with the Chicago scene. I still wanted to work, don’t get me wrong, so that’s why I went to Chicago as opposed to back home or something. [And] during that time, I booked Empire, so I was like, "Okay well, there you go!"
What’s it like shooting a show in Chicago that actually takes place in New York?
GG: Well for me, I don’t see it as being that difficult because I’ve lived in New York, so I’m able to draw from that experience and that high-paced kind of world. So for me, that’s nothing huge, and also, there’s a city feel [in Chicago] that’s very similar to New York. You can tell it’s a smaller city; there are not as many people as [in] New York; it’s not as crowded. But there’s still that drive and there’s still that hustle that lives in the air in Chicago. So, that offers some help as well.
More and more shows are shooting in Chicago. What do you think of the growing scene here?
GG: I think it’s really exciting and I hope that it continues to grow. I feel like one day it would be nice for all of it to expand nationwide, to tell you the truth, so that people can do this kind of art wherever they are. So, when you see growing markets like Chicago and Atlanta, it’s wonderful because we can explore [the industry] all over the nation, as opposed to just L.A. and New York.
Do you have a favorite Chicago neighborhood?
GG: I love Wicker Park. It’s a hipster area, there’s a lot of food there, great restaurants, great shopping, and it's super residential, so you don’t feel like you’re completely bombarded all the time.
Do you have any favorite stores or restaurants you like to frequent?
GG: I would have to say I love Coast Sushi; that’s probably one of my favorite places to go. I’m a huge fan of Nia, that place is really great as well. And then [Michigan] Avenue for shopping.
Like you said, you're an island girl, and Chicago is not very warm right now. Do you have any strategies for making it through winter?
GG: I never leave my house, that is [my] strategy. It’s terrible! I don't know how you guys do it. I try not to complain every day because I really do love Chicago as a city, but oh, this winter!
Aside from Empire, do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
GG: Well, I’m in the process of making the transition to L.A., so that's taking up a good amount of my time, and we’re also finishing up the season for shooting, so that’s where I’m at right now.
Will you be back and forth between Chicago and L.A.?
GG: Yeah, we’re hoping that this continues to be a huge success and there will be a season two. But in the meantime during the hiatus, I’ll be going to L.A. And then of course, if there is a season two, I'll be making my way back to Chicago.
Well, we certainly hope you do! We're very excited to see what the rest of the season holds.
GG: Just you wait!
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA FACEBOOK.COM/GGEALEY; MAX BARSNESS