On a Friday night in March 2014, Grace Byers (née Gealey) couldn’t stop rocking in her chair, waiting for the phone to ring. She had just auditioned for the role of Anika Calhoun in a new series set to film in Chicago, “Empire,” and this call could be a defining moment in her life.
She’d come a long way since she left her home in the Cayman Islands at 18. After graduating from the University of South Florida and getting her Master’s of Fine Arts in acting from UC Irvine, Byers longed for a more multicultural environment, setting her acting ambitions on New York City. She slept on a friend’s couch before she could afford her own place, and auditioned everywhere, booking a few gigs in small local productions and occasionally flying to Chicago to act in plays. But it wasn’t enough.
“My unemployment completely ran out and I was about to be evicted,” Byers remembers. “I was like, I can either go back to the Cayman Islands and get a 9-to-5 at a bank, or I could go back to Chicago and hope that someone saw me in one of [those] plays.”
In fact, someone had seen her, in “Rent” at American Theatre Company: Chicago agent Marisa Paonessa, who reached out to Byers to represent her. Paonessa sent her out on what seemed like every audition in the city — including this one, for the role of Anika. Now, all she could do was wait. “I saw [Paonessa] call and I said, ‘This is it, it’s a yes or no.’ She said, ‘Grace? You booked it.’ I was skipping up and down the hallways — literally, my life changed in that moment.”
“Empire” — which returned from its third-season hiatus last month — has shifted the pop culture zeitgeist since its 2015 debut, counting 16.3 million devotees.
If you haven’t been watching, the show follows hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard), who is in the midst of a familial power struggle at his recording label, Empire Entertainment, co-run by his ex wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the keeper of the series’ many meme-worthy catchphrases.
Byers’ Calhoun — gloriously dubbed “Boo Boo Kitty” by nemesis Cookie — ruthlessly seeks to take the Empire label from Lucious (she most notoriously fought Rhonda Lyon, played by Kaitlin Doubleday, off a balcony to her death). But Byers, as sweet and genuine as she is in person, doesn’t place judgment on her small-screen character. “I don’t think of her as manipulative and [calculating],” says Byers, 33. “I have to think, what are the circumstances that push her to the extent of feeling like she needs to do this? Other people would see it as completely terrible — Grace would — but Anika is at a place of desperation where it’s needed for her, otherwise she’ll die.”
The show has been a personal hit for Byers as well: She met her now-husband Trai Byers, who plays Lucious’ son, Andre Lyon, on set. After dating for a year and a half, the pair tied the knot in Grand Cayman last April.
“I always heard, ‘When you know, you know’ and I always thought, ‘I don’t know what the hell that means,’ ” she laughs. “But it’s true. Especially when you’re older — Trai and I are in our 30s, we’ve dated, we’ve done it all. … By the time we got together, we said, ‘We know what we want and you are what I want.’ ”
Being co-stars adds an interesting caveat, especially given that their characters despise each other (Trai’s Andre was married to Rhonda). “People think I’m lying, people think it’s weird, but when I see him on camera, whether I’m watching the camera or I’m acting with him, I do not see Trai,” she says. “I see Andre and he sees Anika and that is that. Even when we’re playing vicious scenes together, we’ll go away holding hands.”
And now, Byers has even more to look forward to. She’s currently shooting the indie thriller “Bent” opposite Sofia Vergara, Karl Urban and Andy Garcia, and is working on her first book, I Am Enough, a motivational tome for young girls who face bullying, out in 2018. But no matter how high her star rises, Byers never forgets the journey that got her here — or that one call that changed her life.
AT THE SHOOT
On a cold March day, Grace Byers arrived at Splash (777 W. Chicago) with her crew in tow — including her new sister-in-law — to turn up the heat in bold spring hues.
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Stylist: Kimmi Ade, 10 Management Agency
Makeup: Chelo Acosta and Karen Lynn for Karen Lynn + Associates, Inc.
Hair: Telona Wilson