Want to elevate your acting chops? Star opposite television and film heavyweights like Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard and watch the magic happen. Though Grace Gealey, who plays Anika Calhoun on FOX’s new guilty pleasure drama Empire, makes her TV debut on the hit show, we loved finding out that she’s a seasoned theater actress who landed the plum role just a few months after moving to Chicago. And for all the poised fierceness that the beauty delivers each week, Grace admits that deep down inside she’s a tomboy.
EBONY: Congrats on Empire being picked up for a second season already! What a way to make your television debut. Is this freaking you out right now?
Grace Gealey: Thank you so much, we’re so excited. I’m overwhelmed in a beautiful way. I’m so happy that people are receiving the show and I’m glad that they’re connecting to it and relating to it and understanding it and being invested in it. Instead of being on a huge high, I’m just so humbled and grateful. So that tends to keep me a little more grounded during all of this wonderful hubbub.
EBONY: You’re based in Chicago, but a native of the Cayman Islands. Tell us about growing up there and your family life.
GG: I’m biracial. My mother is Afro-Caribbean and my father is Caucasian-American, and I was born in Pennsylvania and moved to the Cayman Islands when I was about 2. So I grew up there with my mother and it’s really all I know. I grew up there until it was time to go to college, and that’s when I moved back to America. I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where I received a B.A. in theater arts, and then University of California Irvine’s graduate program and obtained my M.F.A. in acting, and that’s how that transition went.
But growing up in the Cayman Islands was amazing. You can’t really tell on the show, which is kind of funny, but in a lot of ways I’m a huge tomboy. And it comes from my island years, you know? I used to run around barefoot and climb trees and pick fruit and sell it on the side of the road like a real island girl.
EBONY: That’s awesome. Was acting the only thing you ever wanted to do?
GG: That’s a really good question. Because of the fact that being a professional actor is not a career that is widely pursued back home in the Cayman Islands, I never thought it was a viable profession. It didn’t even cross my mind. So when I knew I wanted to do theater, I didn’t think actress, even though I loved to perform.
I thought it was an American thing and an island girl was not going to do anything like that. So I started to think within the confines of the country. And for such a small country, the industries that are more prominent are hospitality and tourism, finance, banking. Another one was education. So I originally went to school to be a drama teacher, because I thought, “well, this is the only way that I could be saturated in this environment all the time.”
So I went to school and started that. And halfway through my career, a beautiful freelance director named Tamara Harvey pulled me aside. She was like, Grace I really think that you should consider making this a career, and I was like, I think I can do this actually, maybe I can! That’s what prompted the master’s degree, because I was thinking about this from an educational point of view. And now I need to look at it from an actor point of view. So I’m not done with my training, let me continue.
EBONY: So you grew up a far cry from your character, Anika.
GG: Yeah, talking about the differences between Anika and myself. Well, first of all, she’s filthy rich! I grew up with very humble beginnings. Even without working at Empire, Anika’s father’s a doctor and her mother’s a debutant, so she was well-off.
EBONY: How did the role come to you?
GG: They were casting out of Chicago, so that’s where it started. I moved to Chicago three months before booking Empire, so I just happened to be in Chicago, and I was auditioning for a couple of pilots that had come that way. I put myself on [an audition] tape. Lee didn’t know me from a sack of potatoes and he decided to take a look at the tape. Thank God he did, because that’s what started the journey.
EBONY: Anika is obviously sharp, smart, sexy and helped build Empire with Lucious. Who do you think she was before we the viewers meet her?
GG: This is something we’ve developed as characters, and Terrence and I talk about it all the time. Like, “This is how they met…” I don’t know if the writers are going to write it that way, but according to Terrence and I, Anika was hired first and then a relationship began, and I really love that idea.
When you ask a man, “Who are you?” he’ll say, “Well, I am the CEO of XYZ.” If you ask a woman, most of the time she’s like, “Well, I’m so-and-so’s mother or so-and-so’s daughter,” and they tend to identify themselves in a relationship. So I love to lead with, “nope, she’s the head of A&R for Empire and she also happens to be his girlfriend.” She was hired first because of her talent. She’s extremely smart, she has a great ear, and then she happens to develop this relationship with Lucious.
EBONY: When preparing for this role, you spoke with a female A&R at a hip-hop label. What did you learn from her?
GG: What struck me as I continued to do research was that everyone that I was seeing was male. There’s got to be something to be said about the fact that she’s a female in this position. It’s a heavily male-dominated industry. So when I spoke with her I said, “Hey girl, am I crazy or am I right in assuming that is this an industry populated heavily by males?” And she said, “No, you’re absolutely right,” and it totally changes the way in which you do your job.
She was very confident and sure and meant business. So when I was giving the essence to Anika, our conversation had a heavy influence on who she would be. She didn’t have to have a large overwhelming energy, but Anika has to present herself as someone not to be played with. Though she is small and classy and elegant and refined, she will kick your ass.
EBONY: Can we look forward to more entanglements with Cookie? What’s it like to work opposite Taraji?
GG: I’ve been really blessed to be with this cast. Because of the role I have, I’m either with Terrence a lot or with Taraji, and it’s just been so amazing. Taraji as a person is hilarious. She’s absolutely the funny bone of the cast, and I continue to glean from her and learn from her. Having a theater background, I live for being present and in the moment. We did that debutante scene over and over again, and every time we did it, it was different. It was so much fun, at the end of the night we were high-fiving. I feel like my performances have been elevated just because I’ve been able to work with both Taraji and Terrence.
EBONY: Can you give us a hint as to anything Anika has coming up? Is she going to get more control, or relinquish some of that control?
GG: I don’t know if I can tell you that. But I will say that she’s on an incline from here when it comes to fighting for what she believes is hers. Cookie says a great line: “I’m here to get what’s mine,” and I think that’s so interesting, because that’s the internal line for everybody in the show. Like Bunkie as we know him in the first episode wants to get what’s his. Lucious wants to keep what’s his. All of the sons want to get what they feel they are the rightful heirs to.
Anika is unaware that Cookie is an original investor. She is unaware that Cookie—even though she has been out of the game for 17 years—has a musical ear, the natural instinct and talent to hear great music. Anika doesn’t know that all of this history has happened between Lucious and Cookie. So Anika feels like she is just defending what she has helped to build in the last five years. I’m just supposed to step aside and let you “have what’s yours”? That doesn’t make sense to Anika. So because of her lack of knowledge about the situation, she’s not backing down. And I guess the question remains: if she did know the history, would she back down? I don’t know.
EBONY: What do you say to those who feel Empire is making us look bad and don’t see it as entertainment?
GG: I feel like people who say those things are missing the bigger picture. Empire is dealing with a lot of issues. Now the way in which we deal with them, and the way that the writers are the directors and the actors, that’s art. When you put art out there, it’s in the eye of the beholder, and that’s totally cool. But when it comes to the issues at hand, you can’t say that it’s campy, you can’t say that it’s stereotypical, because you know someone or a situation or an event that you can relate to in this.
We deal with homosexuality and homophobia; we deal with sibling rivalry; we deal with mental illness; we deal with illness in general with Lucious and dying; we deal with being the other woman and having old relationship revisit you; we deal with your old skeletons coming out of your closet; we deal with parent and child issue; we deal with child abuse. We deal with so much, and then you throw music in there…
They are very serious issues that need to be talked about, and Empire is bold enough and risky enough to talk about and not care about the possibility of negative feedback. People want to sit in a bubble and think that these issues don’t matter and the world is beautiful and green and clean and perfect. And it’s not. There’s nothing campy about family dysfunction. That’s what I would say.