EMPIRE’s Grace Gealey previews the first season

FFfe_16-grace-gold_2758DJ2_hires2The second episode of FOX’s latest hit, EMPIRE, airs tonight after an all new AMERICAN IDOL.  The episode, “Outspoken King,” follows the aftermath of what was presented in the pilot, as Cookie settles in to live out of jail, and everyone faces their new reality.

To celebrate the great ratings and excitement the show has received, I spent some time chatting with EMPIRE’s Grace Gealey, the current head of Empire’s A&R (you know, the role Cookie wants?), about what’s coming up, why the show is relate-able to everyone, and why you should tune in!  Check it out!

The cast, the creators behind the show – it’s all so great.  What was it about EMPIRE that made you want to be a part of the show?
Once I saw the names that were attached to the project, that immediately drew me to it, and then you have Terrence (Howard) and Taraji (P Henson) and also the role that I was playing in relation to Terrence and Taraji.  And then I got a look at the script, and I was able to see a little bit of this character that they were presenting, and I saw that she was a different energy.  She was a different presence in this family. You have this dysfunctional family that is really trying their hardest to make it work, and Cookie gets released from jail.  Then you have this really elegant and refined, yet indomitable, strong, talented, smart, sharp lady by his side, and it really intrigued.

EmpireI liked that aspect – Cookie is released, she wants A&R, but Lucious says to her, no, I have someone in place. Your character is not just some woman he can push aside for his former wife.  I like that it’s established, her worth in the family/the business.
Right, exactly!

What can you tell us about what comes next?  Now that everything is in place, where does it go?
It’s hard to say – I can’t give anything away, but I can say that first of all, it’s not what you think; that’s for sure.  The writers have done a really great job of that.  You think that everyone is going along a certain trajectory, and you realize that t’s totally not what you thought at all.  That’s something to look forward to.  The unpredictability of it.  Something I can say – with Cookie being a part of EMPIRE, where the rub is really there, the fact that Anika feels that she has a right to be there.  She’s the head of A&R.  She’s Lucious’ girlfriend, she’s completely relevant, she’s not obsolete.  She does not feel that way about Cookie.  In her mind, she has no idea, and you see that, that Cookie was the original investor.  [Anika] doesn’t know that, and because of that, it propels her forward to say A) you guys are divorced, so what are you doing here? and B) you’r eobsolte.  You have no more place here.  Your sons are pretty much grown; we’re taking great care of them, as far as their careers are concerned.  You’ve been out of the game for a very long time, so I’m pretty sure anything you have to offer, as far as musical ability or talent or an ear is irrelevant.  I think what you can look forward to is some of the delicious tension and exciting conflict that is going to happen with [Cookie] being there – not just with Anika, but with everybody in the company.

EmpireYou touch on a good point of Anika not backing down, and Taraji’s character then needs to really prove herself, which is an interesting story.
Absolutely, and I think you’re going to see a lot of that, for sure!

Did the cast know each other – obviously Terrence and Taraji have worked together, but was the cast familiar with each other, or did you all just come together and find the instant chemistry?
I hadn’t worked with anybody before, so it was very new for me.  This is my television debut, and probably the most time I’ve spent on camera.  My background is in theater.  I’ve done a few short films, but not as much time on camera as this is allowing me.  This was definitely huge for me.  Taraji and Terrence, I’ve definitely followed their careers, and Gabby (Sidibe).  It was kind of unreal for me to come to set, and be like, wow, I’m here, and I love the work that everyone’s doing!  I’m an artist, and I was there to create work and create art, and to have something powerful and strong, and evolve what Lee (Daniels) and Danny (Strong) had.  That’s where my mind was; the bonds that you develop on set come after time.  Everyone’s there and they really wanted to provide the same kind of work.  As you continue to do do the scenes with each other, you build the rapport, where it’s like, wow, I really trust you; wow you’re a very present and honest and intuitive actor.  Wow, that was such a great scene that we had, because we played off of each other really well.  That type of stuff, you develop over time.  This entire process has been so rewarding for me.  I’ve learned so much.  I’m so happy to be with the people that I”m in the company of.  I’m so happy that the ratings were what they were.  I really feel like we have put our heart and soul into this project, and I’m glad it showed.

EmpireThat’s a question I had – knowing your background in theater, how was it to step in front of the camera?  What is that like / how much different has that been for you?
It’s a different process for sure!  With theater, you have the beginning to the end – you see where you start and you see where you end up within those parameters. Camera, you don’t really have that.  You know, you have the first couple of episodes.  You’re not privy to a lot of the information right way.  That’s different, too, so you work along a different arc.  Also, with camera work, you work out of order.  That has been a wonderful challenge.  Sometimes, you’ll do certain scenes that are in the latter part of the season.  That has been different for me because I’m used to with theater, you work through a certain moment, and it’s leading you to a climactic moment.  A lot of times you don’t get that chance with camera, so it definitely creates a different respect you have for camera actors. That has been a really wonderful challenge, I’ve really enjoyed that.

What about having that instant gratification in theater of the audience reaction, versus having to shoot a pilot and then wait for people to see it?
[laughs]  I think the wait is probably the hardest part.  I was so ready.  There was so much build up!  Everywhere you go, it’s on billboards, in magazines.  I was kind of receiving a lot of attention about it; people were really excited about it.  It’s been wonderful, because we’ve been working, so that’s been a great distraction!  I just knew that once the New Year hit, I was like, it’s on and popping, and I can’t wait.  Now that the world has seen the pilot, and we’re really excited – [tonight] is where I’m really looking forward to how people will be responding to it.  You get a chance to get to see the meat of more of the characters.

I love the music aspect of it – will Anika be a part of the music beyond heading up A&R?  Will we see you doing a song or dance?
I do sing and I do dance, I’m very musically inclined, but I think because of the part that she plays, that she’s the head of the talent, I think that you’ll probably see more about how she rears and cultivates her talent as opposed to showing you some of hers.  I think that is what you would consider her talent to be.  I don’t know if there will be anything more in the future, where you’ll actually hear her sing, but as for now, no [laughs].

EmpireIs it a collaborative set?  Were Lee and Danny available to discuss the character and steps, or was it all pretty well spelled out as you read each one?
There was a definite collaboration.  They’ve been in and out, for sure, but in the beginning, they were definitely present. I know that I had a lot of questions.  Being a black woman and coming head to head with another black woman.  It was like, well, this is how I would respond to it, so how are we going to shape it with two different energies?  Lee was there for me in the beginning and we were able to hash out a lot about Anika.  As you can tell in the pilot, you’ll hear her talk much more, but she’s a woman of very little words.  When she does speak, you absolutely listen.  It was like, how did you want to fill up the rest of the script?  I could come up with a bajillion and four things, but what direction did you really want to take her.  So Lee and Danny were there for that process and once I got the gist of it, then I went flying with it, and I’ve gotten amazing responses.  We’re really liking the way in which she’s going.

What I enjoyed, and you mention it – you’re a black woman going head to head with a black woman.  The cast is primarily African American, we’re seeing a lot of stories in “black culture,” yet I, as a white woman, was still able to relate, if you know what I mean?  It felt universal.
Absolutely!  That’s a great thing to bring up!  The beautiful thing about EMPIRE is that even though it speaks specifically to the black experience, it also speaks to the human experience!  Part of the reason why I feel like you, and other people, will continue to relate to it – there will be some person, some event, some situation, some emotion that we will be doing on the show that you can relate to.  That’s the wonderful thing about it.  Everyone can relate to parent and child friction.  Everyone can relate to sibling rivalry.  Everyone can relate to being pushed aside and feeling like old news, and being new news.  All of that kind of stuff.  Even though the topics we do address are topics that are within the African American community, we embrace that, we also really enjoy giving something out there in the world that people all over can relate to on a whole new level.

EmpireBeyond why you think people might relate – is there something you’re saying to people when asked “why is EMPIRE a show for me?”
When I talk about a new TV show, I’ve had people go “oh I think I’ve seen that before” and it’s like, actually, you haven’t! Us being in the show, the unpredictability factor is humongously high, so if you think it’s something you’ve seen before, I guarantee you it’s a reason you should watch the show.  And other people are like “I’m not sure it’s something I can relate to,” and it’s like, well, you might not be a fan of hip hop music, but this isn’t a musical, per se. We don’t break into random song and dance from time to time.  Music in this scenario is a character, its own life.  You talk about creating legacies and changing lives, saving lives with it.  It’s a movement, it’s movement.  That’s something you can relate to – even though may not be into hip hop; you’re into music in general, and hip hop is not the only kind of music we have in the show.  So there’s that.  There’s also the older and younger audience – if you are into family, the family dynamic.  If you’re into what it’s like to be away from your family for some time, and you feel displaced, or you feel like you’ve been wronged, or used, or betrayed or lied to, you can relate in that sense!  Of course, you have the homosexuality factor.  That’s something that has been speaking to quite a lot of people.  The thing that’s prevalent in the African American community, as far as the way that it may not be accepted, I feel like that’s something that we completely embrace and we’re very bold about, and that we take a risky approach to, in saying, hey, this is how it’s viewed – this is the truth of the matter.  We’re not trying to vilify anybody, but what we’re trying to do is raise the awareness of it, and show you how it affects everybody, on all levels.  And then there’s the issue of illness.  You’re dealing with someone who is dying.  Whatever you’re looking for, I’m sure you can find it in EMPIRE, which is not what a lot of TV shows can say.

You touch on homosexuality, on illness, on family.  It’s not in your face, it’s not preaching to fans about how they should or shouldn’t react to it.  The show puts it out there for fans to form their own opinions. 
Right, exactly, absolutely!

What else besides EMPIRE do you have going on?  Or has it pretty much been taking over your life these days?
It is!! We have a couple more episodes that we’re shooting now; we’re shooting the last few episodes, so that’s taking up a great deal of my time.  I’m also making the shift of being based in Chicago to being based in LA, so that’s kind of where I’m at right now.  I’m definitely auditioning, and as far as new parts on the horizon, I’ll have to keep you updated!

Do you get a chance to watch a lot of TV?  Any shows you can’t miss?
I’m a huge SCANDAL fan.  I have to catch up on the SCANDAL episodes.  I love HOUSE OF CARDS.  ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK; I dig it as well. I just started getting into TRUE DETECTIVE, and I follow HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, as well! And now I have to catch up on my films!! [laughs] The Golden Globes just happened, and there’s a bunch of nominations and wins and all of that kind of stuff that I saw, so I have to catch up on that as well!