Meet Grace Gealey, The 'Empire' Bombshell About To Blow
Empire's Grace Gealey isn't just a pretty face. She's the next big thing
For Fox's new hip-hop drama Empire, the power feud between Lucius Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) isn't the only thing to DVR. Enter Grace Gealey, the 30-year-old Caymanian import, who is stepping into the spotlight as the head of A&R of Empire Records and Lucius' bae. Her role as Anika Gibbons marks her Coming To America moment, minus the rattail and rose petal showers. Without a reel or industry plugs, Gealey landed the role off the strength of her talents. When she speaks of her character, it's almost like a mirror. "She is smart, she’s elegant, she’s refine," she tells VIBE. "She’s very good at what she does, she doesn’t say much, but when she does, you listen ... She needs to make all of this work so everything she does within Empire is to support that cause." Alongside Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, Gealey will be setting herself up for greatness. Believe we'll be watching.—Adelle Platon (@)Let's start from the beginning. You're an island girl. How did you stumble upon acting? I am! I was always into performing, growing up. We called it drama, but back home in the islands, it's not a profession that is normally pursued. Our biggest industries are tourism, hospitality and banking so I never thought ‘I’m going to be an actress.’ I initially decided to go school to be a drama teacher 'cause I was like, ‘Wow I’ll do that all the time if I’m teaching it.’ 'Cause education is highly celebrated back home. When I was in undergrad, I decided to study drama and halfway through, I realized I wasn’t doing a lot of the performance aspects of it. There was this wonderful woman named Tamara Harvey, freelance director from Shakespeare’s Globe, that was coming as a guest director; she was the one that pulled me aside and said, ‘You should consider this as a career.’ Was there any moment of fear where you were like, "If this doesn't work out, I need a back-up plan"? Yeah, right before I booked Empire actually and you know what though, it wasn’t bitter. I understand that there are a few roles out there and tons of actors. Just because you don’t get the big break doesn’t mean you’re not worthy or that what you have to offer isn’t valid. There a lot of other things I love to do. I consider myself as an artist, so I dance, I paint, I sing so as long as I’m creating, I’m happy. I wanted to create in this medium more than any other, but I was starting to transition into a place where I was like, ‘You know if I don’t get a chance to be an actor for a living, I’m okay with that. How else can I impact the world?’ And so I started to branch out. I did ballroom dancing, I painted and I started selling my paintings and thinking about teaching ballroom dancing and auditioning. I was okay with transitioning out of ‘This is going to be my life’ and I think with that, came Empire. Do you think it’s because you have all these different talents that helped you book Empire? I don’t like to think of it that way. I guess I can’t strike it out as a possibility because what all those things offer me is a well-balanced psyche. I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket to say ‘I need this. If I don’t get it, I’m going to die.’ How did you end up coming into contact with Lee Daniels? Was it through an audition? It was in such a way that I have to believe there is a higher power at work. And I say that because I was inside, I didn’t have a reel, I wasn’t a name, none of that. I saw the script and I loved it. The reason why I got an opportunity was because I was currently in Chicago at the time and they were shooting [there]. I submitted a tape, it went straight to Lee; he decided to take a look at it. And this happened in a span of five days, he flew in, we did a screen test and two days later, I got the gig. What's it like playing Taraji P. Henson's opposite? Taraji is a powerhouse. She’s really phenomenal to work with, and I feel the same way about Terrence. Granted, they’re two different energies because of the characters but because they are so good at what they do and they’re phenomenal artists, it’s all work mode. It just encourages me to elevate my own work as well so it’s been a wonderful experience for me, and she’s been so much fun to play with. What have been some of the lessons that you’ve learned from watching both of them on set? Oh goodness, there have been many. The thing that I get the most out of seeing Terrence and Taraji at work is that they are very supple artists, and by that, I mean that they are malleable in the moment, they’re honest, they preserve a truth. They are bold. They take risks. They do their homework and you can absolutely tell. Do you see parts of yourself in your character, Anika? I do. The parts that we’re similar is that I went through this before. She’s indomitable and very independent, and I find myself to be that way as well, based on my upbringing. She won’t put down without a fight, and I feel that way too. The difference is she’s rich, honey! My girl’s wealthy! (Laughs) You’re making your television debut so the paper will come. She’s making millions! And you’re talking about an island girl who used to climb trees in silk on some side of the road. And like barefoot tomboy. Coming from the islands, was there a culture shock when you came to America? Oh yes! I moved to America when I was 18. I actually still have a very strong accent which I’ve been really good [about] covering it up. What surprised you about American culture? Back home, we watch a lot of movies and that was never available to us. When I came to America, I was like ‘No it’s really coming out this Friday? Not three months from now?' So things like that where you were like, 'This stuff is actually true.' Because as an island girl, you’re like, 'Aww we can only dream.' There’s something scary, knowing that in Florida, someone can pick you up in a car and drive you to 50 states. Back home, it’s like, ‘Girl, you’re 15 minutes away.’ What is going to surprise folks about Empire? It’s very unpredictable, even from the cast. When we were doing the reads, we were like, ‘Oh my god!’ You know where it’s going to go, but you don’t.