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‘Empire’ State of Mind

Grace Gealey on her role as a high-powered music exec on Fox’s newest series

When Empire, the new series from Lee Daniels, premieres on Jan. 7, it’ll be not only something to watch, but something to listen to. The Fox series brings viewers into the world of Lucious Lyon, a ferocious hip-hop mogul whose fading health means major changes for his entire operation. In addition to his three sons, all of whom are angling to take over his kingdom, Lucious is tangling with an unpredictable ex-wife, a troubling past and a music industry teetering on the edge of obsolescence.

And then there’s Anika Gibbons. Played by Grace Gealey, Gibbons is Lyon’s paramour and A&R rep, and perhaps the least volatile character on the show—or so it seems. Here, Gealey talks about landing the role, doing her homework and why you won’t see her singing on TV any time soon.

Talk about luck: the show films in Chicago and you had coincidentally just moved there from New York when casting began. How’d that work out? 

They knew they were shooting the series in Chicago and were casting out of Chicago, and that was fortunate for me. I went into the casting director in Chicago, and she put me on tape and she sent it off.  Then Lee Daniels flew in to do the callbacks and two days later, I got the job.

Two days? That’s not very long. 

No, it all happened within a span of five days.

What was it about the show that appealed to you? 

Well, apart from the names attached to it, it was the character I’m playing. But just the caliber of artists that were associated with this was the number one thing. The other thing, of course, was the actual script, reading it and meeting this character, who was just this extremely refined and elegant but fiery woman who showed what she felt more than spoke it. I found that to be very interesting, and was thinking about what things I could bring to her.

Gealey on 'Empire'

Gealey on ‘Empire’

The music industry is such a unique thing. What kind of research did you do into how A&R and labels work?

Well, I watched a lot of interviews with A&R people, but the biggest thing I was missing was a female A&R executive. I was learning that the music industry was very cutthroat in a lot of ways, and my biggest question was if you were a woman, how did that play a role. Luckily, I was able to get an interview with a female hip-hop executive and I just asked her every single question I had. She was completely honest with me and that was the best research that I got.

The show’s about a lot of things: family, business, pride, talent, loyalty. What is it you want people to take away? 

You know, the reason why I find this whole project to be extremely fascinating is the dynamic that we’re creating.  You have a husband and wife—now ex-husband and ex-wife—with their three children living in the ghettos of Philly and dealing drugs. This is the African-American community associated with hip-hop culture, and this is the family dynamic in that community.  So, I think the show gives a sense of hope; it gives a sense of an expanded view for people who think that’s how everyone lives. It’s about showing the different elements within our culture.

You’ve filmed almost the entire first season now. How does Anika change over the course of those 12 episodes?

Oh, every episode is so interesting because I started to develop my own trajectory for the character, and then I’d get a script and it would change everything. That happened with every single episode.

It’s an interesting time to portray the record industry because it’s in such transition. Are you guys paying attention to real life stories?

Yes! You’d be so surprised by the things we talk about and the things that we live with, and then what happens in today’s world.  I mean, I can’t give too much away, but the parallels are unbelievable.  I can’t wait for you to see it; I can’t say any more.

Do you have any musical talent yourself?

I sing and I dance.

Are we going to see any of that?

No! I don’t think so. You’d be surprised by some of the actors on the show who are able to sing or have musical talent—that will definitely shock you—but not me.