Pennsylvania-born Grace Gealey makes her network debut in Lee Daniels’s epic new drama series.
Drama queen: Between television success and a love of food, Caymanian actress Grace Gealey can’t seem to stay away from Philly for long.
The impeccably coiffed and styled Anika Calhoun, Grace Gealey’s character on Fox’s new drama Empire, is a far cry from the little girl who grew up in the Cayman Islands. “I was such a tomboy,” says Gealey, 30. “My most vivid memories are summers, when we used to run around barefoot and climb trees. It was very freeing.” Though Gealey grew up in the Caribbean (her mother is Afro-Caribbean and her father American), she was born in Pennsylvania and visited Philadelphia frequently growing up. “I love the food,” she adds with a laugh.
Born to hearing-impaired parents, Gealey and her older sister, Faith, learned to express themselves through sign language at a very early age. “Wanting to communicate in various ways is something I’ve always been attracted to,” she says. And while not many Caymanians pursue acting as a full-time profession, Gealey’s college professors at the University of South Florida encouraged her to make the leap, seeing a rare talent within her. She enrolled in a master of fine arts program in acting at the University of California, Irvine, immediately following graduation and was soon booked in back-to-back plays in Chicago, having moved there from New York to live and work.
The move proved especially propitious: Celebrated director and Philadelphia native Lee Daniels was casting in Chicago for Empire, his new, seductive TV drama starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as exes feuding over a major hip-hop record label. While the show films in Chicago, Philadelphia plays a major role both in the plot and location. In flashbacks, the city is where the first seeds of the fictional Empire Entertainment are sown, when Empire CEO Lucious Lyon (Howard) was still a struggling young rapper running drugs with his young wife, Cookie (Henson).
Daniels was in Chicago looking for his Anika, the savvy and beautiful head of A&R for Empire Entertainment (as well as Lucious’s current girlfriend). Less than a week after auditioning for the director and only three months after moving to the city, Gealey landed the part. “It was just the greatest feeling,” she says. “I know that sounds cliché, but this was something I felt was slightly unattainable because of where I’d grown up. This isn’t common for somebody of my culture.”
While being hired for the pilot alone was quite a feat, Gealey considers herself doubly blessed to work alongside heavyweights like Howard, Henson, and Daniels. “I sit and watch. I can literally see the years of experience; it’s a master class,” she says of her costars in action. And as for working with Daniels? “He knows what he wants. And because he doesn’t settle for just anything, every day you are challenged to rise to the occasion,” Gealey says. “That’s a really beautiful thing for an artist. You always want to feel like you’re evolving and growing.”