Published on November 1st, 2014 | by Jameelah "Just Jay" Wilkerson0
An Exclusive tête-à-tête With Grace Gealey
Tell me your whole inception into acting — When did you first become interested in it? And, how did all begin for you, Ma’am?
As a young child, for as long as I can remember, I always loved being on the stage; whether it was theater, dancing or singing, it was always a part of who I was. In high school, I chose Drama as an elective and that’s when the journey began to materialize in a very tangible way.
Now where exactly do you hail from? And growing up there, who all did/do you consider to be your strongest influences?
I am originally from The Cayman Islands. Back home, we treasure the arts in a deeply cultural way and celebrate various foundation-al forms of performance; such as story-telling, improvisation and comedy sketches. Even though the full-time profession of being an actor isn’t something that is typically pursued in the islands, I was still very passionate about the craft due to the nurturing and facilitative nature of my high school drama teacher, Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette, and the head of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation, Henry Muttoo.
At what point exactly did you opt to pursue acting on a professional level?
During my years in my undergraduate program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. A beautiful soul, Tamara Harvey — who also happens to be a brilliant freelance director for prestigious places such as Shakespeare’s Globe in London — was guest directing a show one year. After working with me for a bit, she pulled me aside and encouraged me deeply to consider making this a career. Needless to say, she was successful in her persuasion. *Smiles*
If I am not mistaken, being cast in the upcoming, highly anticipated FOX series EMPIRE is your first professional acting gig, correct? That said, what is the premise of the show?
It actually isn’t. I hail from the theatre world and my background is mainly on the stage. In addition to quite a lot of regional theatre, I’ve done a couple of short films and a few commercials as far as the camera is concerned. This is, however, my first television credit and to be introduced to the TV world alongside this powerful cast is phenomenal to experience.
…The show is centered around the Lyon family; Lucious Lyon [Terrence Howard], his ex-wife Cookie Lyon [Taraji P. Henson] and their three sons. The concept is that Lucious, CEO of Empire Enterprises — an extremely lucrative Hip-Hop record label company — is looking to groom a successor. His three sons are in perfect positions to vie for the position and Cookie, recently released from prison, is fighting to get what she feels is rightfully hers. My character, Anika Calhoun, is Lucious’ girlfriend, as well as the Head of A&R for the company; so you can imagine what kind of tension that brings!
How exactly was the auditioning process like for you? Can you tell me how this particular role actually came about?
I really enjoyed the audition process, which is something you don’t hear very often, I’m sure! After sending in the tape to the executive team, Lee Daniels flew to Chicago to audition and screen test a few people including myself. It was an intense process; Lee is an artist who knows exactly what he wants and it’s the very reason why I love and respect him deeply. He worked with me quickly and intricately, and I remember walking away thinking: “No matter what happens, I will never forget that experience.” It was that powerful.
Your character’s name is Anika Gibbons — What can you tell me about her?
Anika Gibbons has now been corrected to Anika Calhoun; and she is a smooth, cool glass of fire. Sparring more with her behavior than her words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Indomitable, silently fierce and afraid of very little; she heads the A&R department at Empire Enterprises. She also happens to be the girlfriend of Lucious Lyon. She’s smart, sharp and very good at what she does. Most of all, you connect with the vulnerability of her love for Lucious. She’s a true delight and (a) delicious challenge to play.
How then does Anika either differ and/or compare to you, Grace? Are there any similarities at all between the “real” you and the woman you’re portraying on EMPIRE?
Absolutely! Raised by a single, deaf, black mother, I connect deeply to what it means to be an independent woman. Through her, I’ve learned new definitions of the words: tenacious, indomitable and steadfast. In addition to being extremely talented, smart and hilarious, she is also a very, very classy lady. All of these attributes were embedded within my sister and I. I feel like these are qualities that live deeply within and help to define Anika. A huge difference between Anika and I is her wealth, of course! I come from very humble beginnings; an island girl who would climb trees, run around barefooted and who sold guineps on the side of the road during the summers. Another difference between Anika and I is the fact that she is able to face strong opposition with a silent demeanor. I embrace my island roots when it comes to speaking up during those moments!
EMPIRE is both co-created and executive produced by Lee Daniels [The Butler, Precious] — Is Mr. Daniels pretty hands on when it comes to the day to day filming of the series? In having said that, what has it been like for you working with the famed Hollywood producer/director?
Lee is a very specific and detailed director which serves us beautifully as we film. Working with him has been extraordinary. He is not afraid to challenge me with weaknesses, risks, freedom and thinking outside of the box. In such a short time of filming, I have already felt a significant shift in my approach to the work.
Your co-stars are some very high profile ‘Tinseltown’ heavyweights; Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, Trai Byers and Jussie Smollett — What has it been like for you working on the set(s) of EMPIRE?
This cast is such an honor to work alongside with. Every person is such a purveyor of honesty, connection, owning themselves and taking risks. Being saturated in this environment only elevates the performances. You can literally see how one person will inspire the other through the work. The respect is unmatched and the fun we have just seems unfair! I get to do this every day? I absolutely love it.
And, as an extension to that last question, is there a real camaraderie amongst all of you actors? Do you maintain close friendship(s) on/off set as well?
Definitely! There is a connected dynamic all throughout the cast because we know that we are building something that is larger than us. To be helmed by Lee Daniels — and Danny Strong — and cast-wise by Terrence and Taraji, is no small acknowledgement. We all respect each other greatly.
Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes that you can share from some of your time spent filming the series? Are there any real memorable moments, thus far anyway?
Taraji is the real funny bone of the cast; when she’s around, you’re bound to split your sides laughing. As a group, we all have our inside jokes with our characters and the story, but at the moment I’m unable to think of one that won’t give away something in the script! Just know that we have a grand old time on set 🙂
Longevity, what do you attribute yours to? And, of course, what will keep sustaining you in entertainment?
I strongly believe that having a well-balanced life outside of the industry is very important in sustaining me both in and out of the entertainment business. I love to express myself and exercise my creativity in various ways. I also have a wonderful family and beautiful friends that keep me locked in their surrounding support; which is an irreplaceable thing. Lastly, I have a strong spiritual practice, centered around love which keeps me grounded and stable.
Do you have any other additional/outside aspirations, maybe even completely away from entertainment?
I’m fortunate to be living out my aspirations right now in so many ways! But as far as additional hobbies, I do love to sing, paint, ballroom dance and travel.
To date, what has been your biggest career moment, so far?
This is it! Without question.
Looking ahead, say five or maybe even ten years from now, where do you see yourself?
I’ve learned that many things can happen to anyone at anytime, shifting your path in an entirely new way. So because of that, what I’ll say is, my dream for the upcoming years is to continue pursuing my art through various mediums; expanding in exponential ways and finding the right challenges that continue to tap into my deepest potential as an artist.
As for the immediate future, what’s next for Grace Gealey?
Apart from Empire…When I find out, I’ll let you know 😉
Is there anything I left out or just plain forgot to mention?
Nope! You’re awesome.
Any “closing” thought(s) for our readers?
We premiere in January! Make sure to tune into FOX to catch what we’ve been brewing 🙂