Monday, April 13, 2015

“Empire’s” Trai Byers Returns Home to Inspire KCKCC Theatre Students

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- Hollywood came to Kansas City Kansas Community College Wednesday as two actors from a hit Fox show came to talk with theater students about how to be successful actors.

Kansas City, Kan. native Trai Byers plays Andre Lyon in the Fox primetime series “Empire.” Joining him on the performing arts center stage was Grace Gealey, who plays Anika Calhoun in the show that centers on a hip hop music and entertainment company and the family who is fighting to control it. “Empire” has already been renewed for a second season.

“Getting to know me was important,” Byers said of his success in Hollywood. “Learning about myself in different situations, in different areas helped me to learn where I fit in and made me more versatile.”

Byers, whose mother Michelle is a student at KCKCC, received a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Kansas. He then attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles before graduating from the Yale School of Drama. He is best known for his roles on the daytime soap opera “All My Children,”  “90210” on the CW and for playing James Forman in the Oscar-nominated “Selma.” Byers’ character on “Empire,” is the eldest of the three sons of record label head Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. While Andre is considered the most business-savvy of the three brothers, it is his bipolar diagnosis that has received much of the attention, especially during the last half of the first season.

“Be seen,” he said to KCKCC theater students. “Get into classes and be prepared for the showcases. Stand behind your work and let people see it. Always aim high and believe in yourself.”

Gealey was born and raised in the Cayman Islands. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida followed by a masters from the University of California-Irvine. Known more for her stage acting prior to “Empire,” she had roles in “Rent,” “The Misanthrope” and “Tartuffe” before landing the role on Anika. She said being the child of two deaf parents contributed to her acting abilities because it forced her to communicate in a much more visual way.

“My first language was ASL, and you really have to emote through your sentences. I think my desire to express myself through acting came from that,” she said. “I think what I have learned most is that I am enough. If you go into an audition and they want oranges, it doesn’t mean your apples are rotten. It doesn’t mean that my value as an artist has shifted. It just means that what I have to offer is not what they are looking for.”

Byers said he was having difficulty finding work and was seriously thinking about coming back to KCK when the audition for “Empire” came along.

“Everything stopped. I couldn’t get a job to save my life. I had nothing except for my relationship with God,” he said. “Maybe being an actor is what I wanted, but maybe that was not what God wanted me to do. I was about to come home when I got the audition for Empire.”

Byers said when it came to the last part of the audition and only about five actors remained, it went terrible. But, he said, that is where his strong religious beliefs overtook once again.

“The volume cut out on my audition. They couldn’t hear what I was saying,” he said. “Lee Daniels (one of the creators of ‘Empire’) told me later that I wasn’t supposed to get the part. This has been an amazing journey.”