Fox’s smash-hit drama Empire has been a steady crowd-pleaser since its 2015 debut, introducing much of the world to the talented Grace Byers.
Her portrayal of good girl-gone-bad Anika Calhoun has captivated audiences, generating loyal followers and plenty of haters along the way.
The actress spoke exclusively to EBONY about working with her gorgeous hubby, the status of Cookie and Boo Boo Kitty’s beef and what we can expect from the over-the-top series the fourth time around.
EBONY: When we first met Anika, she wasn’t nearly as ruthless as she’s become over time. How do you feel about her character’s growth in a more sinister direction?
Byers: I love the way you put that because so many people honestly think she’s been sinister from the beginning.
For Anika, I think she was pushed to a place of desperation. When you invest your life into your work and the love of your life also has to be a part of your job, it makes it difficult to say, “Oh, you just want me to drop everything and walk away and leave you alone? I don’t think so.”
I think for her it’s about having a return on her investment, and when she wasn’t getting that, plummeting to this place where there was nothing she wouldn’t do to assure she got something out of her relationship with Lucious and the Lyons.
EBONY: Anika and Grandma Walker have a very contentious relationship that’s somehow hilarious at the same time. Can you speak to the dynamic between you and Leslie Uggams on set?
Oh my God, I love Leslie! Loooove Leslie! She and I laugh all the time, and we’ll will continue to play with each other to find ways in which mama and daughter-in-law can battle it out.
Sometimes she’ll say, “I think you won this round,” or I’ll say, “You took that one,” with the insults [laughs]. Some of it is improv, too, so we have a lot of fun.
How was it working with Phylicia Rashad during Season Three?
Ms. Phylicia is honestly the epitome of class. She is, as we know, extremely regal, very professional and an icon who will go down in history as the woman who changed how Black women were perceived by the masses.
One thing that I didn’t know about her that I found out on set is how hilarious she is. She’s really goofy, and I love that about her. She has a sense of humor that will leave you rolling.
While Lucious entertained Giuliana and eventually chose Cookie by the end of Season Three, he and Anika still had a very flirtatious relationship while living together during that time. Do you believe she’s still in love with him?
Oh, yeah. I think there’s a part of her that will always love him. The levels of love will shift, but I don’t think that she could ever stop loving him. While I don’t feel like they were each other’s “one,” there was real true love shared.
Considering how combative they were during Season One, Anika asking Cookie to watch over baby Bella was a sign of growth for both of them. Can you speak to the progress these two women have made with one another?
There was absolutely a lot of fire in the beginning, which intrigued audiences. I think now they’re at a place where they realize they’re not going to get rid of each other. They’re going to experience life together.
Anika’s daughter is Cookie’s granddaughter, so Anika can’t cut Cookie out of her life and Cookie can’t cut Anika out of her life. They’re at a point where, not that they like each other at all, but they have an understanding that they have to co-exist.
What are some of the pros of working with your husband, Trai Byers (Andre Lyon)?
Believe it or not, getting to see him at work in itself is a pro. I love being able to work with him. Also, when we do have a scene together, it’s an honor for me. Relationship aside, I think he’s a phenomenal actor and a wonderful partner to play opposite of. I know every scene we’ve had so far has been very dramatic and kind of a downer, but I always have a ball.
I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’ve yet to think of a con, even I thought it would be overwhelming initially.
Yeah, I think the assumption is you guys work together all day, then go home and are together all night, which can seem like a lot.
I know, but it’s not overwhelming at all. I think the difference is that I don’t work every day with him. He works more often than I do, and sometimes we’re working in two totally different areas on set, so we may not see each other for hours. I think if we were working a 9- to-5 and literally saw each other all day, every day, it would be different.
But there really isn’t a con, at least not yet [laughs]!
So we know Anika has been framed by Grandma Walker and is headed to jail. What more can we expect from her this season?
Well, she’s definitely in jail during the start of the season, which is interesting because I know a lot of people were screaming for justice when she pretty much tore down Andre’s nuclear family. There’s definitely something satisfying in seeing her behind bars, even if she didn’t commit this particular crime. When she comes out, the dynamic will have changed quite a bit. Being away from her child has had a huge effect on her, and it will be interesting for everyone to see how she readjusts.
Last question: Why didn’t Rhonda get a funeral?
Oh, man, I don’t know [laughs]. That may just be a question for our writers!
Season Four of Empire premieres Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.