story / Koko Ntuen
photos / Nikko Lamere
hair / Ashley Lynn Hall at One Represents using R&Co
makeup / Campbell Ritchie at One Represents using Bare Minerals
stylist / Joey Thao
Grace Gealey has had a breakthrough year with her starring role as Anika Calhoun on Fox’s hit prime time favorite, Empire. Far from the sandy dunes of her roots on the Cayman Islands. Gealey has been building her echelons in the acting world, receiving a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of California, Irvine, and performing on stage stage before landing her the pivotal role of Anika on Fox series.
Grace hasn’t let the taste of success and sudden stardom get to her head. The beauty was as down to earth and candid as ever during our LADYGUNN shoot and chat, telling me tales about auditions and her life.
JUMPER – BARDOT. TOP – AIISHA . EARRINGS – STYLIST OWN. RINGS AMARILO & ELODIE K. SHOES – JUST FAB
WHAT WAS THE AUDITION LIKE FOR ‘EMPIRE’?
It was an intense audition process with Lee, who is a genius. He settled for nothing but the best and as an artist, it was truly gratifying.
WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU DID WHEN YOU FOUND OUT YOU GOT THE ROLE OF ANIKA?
Apart from the running through the hallway of the charity event I was attending and screaming? I took a moment to thank God.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST DAY ON SET LIKE?
A lot was going on. We were shooting in tight spaces and I got a good idea of just how many people were behind the scenes. A sensory overload! Once I got the gist of everything, I was focused and eager to both perform and learn.
WHY DID YOU THINK ‘EMPIRE’ BROKE ALL KINDS OF NETWORK RECORDS AND BECAME A HUGE HIT?
‘Empire’ speaks to many topics and experiences through the characters, story-lines, music and diversity. It’s bold, risky and apologizes for none of it. To push envelopes, discuss taboo topics and provoke people to think are just a few of the goals. In the end, we find ourselves thinking, discussing, feeling and becoming passionate about so many things. We relate and connect to something: whether it’s a character, a song, a situation or experience. I love that about ‘Empire’.
HOW IS THE ATMOSPHERE ON SET?
Everyone is a purveyor of top-notch work – from the directors to the crew to the cast. You’re surrounded by people with amazing hearts, great senses of humor and the joint desire to produce something epic.
ANYTHING REALLY SPECIAL YOU BOUGHT YOURSELF OR ANYONE ELSE SINCE LANDING THE ROLE?
Not yet. Maybe I should get on that, huh?
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF FROM WORKING WITH SUCH A BLOCKBUSTER CREW AND CAST LIKE TARAJI P. HENSON AND TERRENCE HOWARD?
That it’s important to trust and remember who you are at all times.
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE YOUR ACTING IN THE FUTURE?
I’m interested in delving into even more multi-dimensional characters that play against my type.
WHAT DO YOU DO ON YOUR DOWNTIME?
I paint, ballroom dance, watch movies, pamper myself, hang with beautiful friends, hike and eat!
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ABOUT YOURSELF AS AN ACTRESS SINCE YOU STARTED ACTING?
It’s been a long time. I was in theater before doing television and this helped me to continue pressing into my spiritual foundation in order to ground myself as a person. I’m much more emotionally supple than I used to be. I was very guarded for a long time in my personal life and that was reflected in my acting. Now, I’m much more vulnerable and malleable in a lot of my work. I can’t wait for more opportunities to show that.
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE GROWING UP?
A tomboy. And I loved it. I have a lot of male cousins and we used to treasure hunt, play sports, build clubhouses, go to the beach, climb trees, skid on bikes. I had an epic childhood in the islands.
WHAT SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES DO YOU SHARE WITH YOUR CHARACTER ANIKA ON ‘EMPIRE’?
We are both independent, educated, ambitious women of color. I can also relate to her tumultuous relationship with Lucious. I understand where Anika operates from and what drives her desperate motives. Although I don’t agree with many of her actions, I can’t judge her for any of it. It’s how I am able to empathize with her and play her with truth. Other than that, we are stark opposites of each other which makes her so fascinating to play.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES WITH
My most embarrassing audition was when I was trying out for a NY production of the musical Chicago. They wanted us to tap. Not only do I not tap, but I’m literally the worst tapper on the face of the earth. So when they put us in groups of five (in a room full of 60-70 people), I looked like a 5 year old playing footsie with the floor. It was terrible. I couldn’t even FAKE tap. I just moved my foot around a few times and kept smiling. I was mortified for a year. Now I can laugh at it. But MAN. That was atrocious!
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED THE MOST ABOUT HOLLYWOOD SINCE BEING THRUST INTO THE SPOTLIGHT?
That it’s fickle. You have to stay grounded in who you are and your foundation at all times.
WHAT STRESSES YOU OUT?
YOU’RE FROM THE CAYMAN ISLANDS. WHAT IS ONE THING THAT YOU MISS THE MOST ABOUT HOME?
The serenity. (And anonymity!)
WHAT IS ONE FOOD YOU MISS THE MOST?
Cayman stewed beef!
Tell us your biggest “Hollywood” moment.
Attending my first red carpet. Having everyone call my name while the flashing cameras were going, was one of the first times I felt like I was really in Hollywood.
TOP- ALEXANDER WANG. JACKET – SHANE PEACOCK. BOTTOMS – SHANE PEACOCK. SNAKE EARRINGS – ELODIE K. RINGS – ELODIE K & AMARILO . SHOES – SIGNATURE BY SHOE DAZZLE.
TOP – STYLESTALKER . BOTTOMS – STYLESTALKER . HAT – LACK OF COLOUR. NECKLACE – HAATI CHAI. SHOES – SIGNATURE BY SHOEDAZZLE