While Gealey admits she now loves both mediums of television and theater because they offer different challenges, she was “addictively drawn to the excitement, cacophony, and risky-in-the-moment nature of the theater,” and that is something she can never be rid of.
“The most important thing I learned at university was to accept, embrace, and celebrate my individuality,” she continues. “Your uniqueness is your key. Much of the time we find ourselves ensnared in the trap of trying to shed the things that stand out and comprise our originality. In actuality, we should be commemorating these things in ourselves and others.”
It was this way of thinking that helped her land several different roles off-Broadway (“Let’s be real,” she laughs, “it was more like OFF-off-Broadway”), commercials and short films, before she even found herself auditioning for the role of Anika Calhoun on Empire.
“I auditioned on tape on a Monday,” Gealey recalls of the process. “Then I was told on Tuesday that I had a screen test with Lee [Daniels] on Wednesday, waited patiently on Thursday, and got the call on Friday. My life turned into a completely different direction in the matter of a week and I have God to thank for that.”
And what a whirlwind the show became. With millions of weekly viewers, Fox reported that Empire became the only primetime scripted series to grow in total viewers over each of its first five telecasts in over 20 years—and that’s only because statistics like this weren’t properly calculated earlier than that. Who knows how far back of a record it really beat. Regardless, it’s safe to say this rise in fanfare was due to the enormous amount of talent and gasp-worthy drama the show offered—starting with the lead characters Lucious Lyon (played by Terrance Howard) and Gealey’s rival on the show, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson).
“It’s always wonderful to be around seasoned artists and glean what you can in each moment,” Gealey says of working with Howard and Henson, and most importantly, learning from them. “I was reminded to take risks. Since this was a new medium for me, I was still negotiating the presence of the camera as I simultaneously created my character’s arc.”
It’s no secret that Gealey’s character, Anika, has caused much buzz and controversy on the show. As Lucious’ love interest from episode 1, she is a very polished, even-tempered businesswoman—quite the opposite from Cookie’s outspoken, passionate, and fearless character traits. Despite their differences, it’s their similarities that make them butt heads: they are both equally independent, protective, and strong.
When I tell Gealey that Anika is actually my favorite character on the show, she beams. “Is she really? I love that! If fans celebrate her, I celebrate with them,” Gealey says. “If they love to hate her, I also celebrate in that because it shows they are so wrapped up and invested in the show, that they actually believe it. It’s a win/win.”
And fans certainly do love to hate Anika. When Anika and Cookie finally came to blows in the season finale—an event that was certainly going to happen sooner or later—Twitter erupted with passionate trending topics, mostly followed with #catfight, mostly on the side of Cookie.
“It’s something the audience had been waiting to see from the very first episode and to finally give that to them was great,” Gealey says of the long-awaited brawl. “We had a blast shooting the scene and I was psyched to even do some of the stunts, like reacting to Cookie’s punch and flipping onto the pool table!”
With such strong-willed and driven women on the show, I wondered if Gealey felt a personal connection with her character. “I identify with being an independent, educated, ambitious woman of color. I identify with being betrayed. I identify with being hurt,” Gealey says. “I identify with doing things out of emotional eruption that I wasn’t always proud of. She’s human. So yes, I identify with her humanity. And I suspect I’m not the only one.”
She certainly isn’t. While there are a fair share of fans who are #TeamCookie, Gealey received a flood of encouraging tweets regularly each week during airtime, mostly those embracing Anika’s individuality and even her relatable flaws. “Her largest weakness also happens to be her greatest strength: her ability to love,” Gealey says thoughtfully. “And in this case, to love Lucious.”
Apart from her super-composed attitude, Anika is also admired for having one killer wardrobe. From sporting glittery frocks, peach bustier dresses, and sexy cleavage-baring jumpsuits, Anika has truly been every fashion editor’s dream.
“I grew up a tomboy, but as I’ve transitioned into adulthood, I’ve embraced my femininity,” Gealey says of her own style. “It’s not extremely girly, but definitely soft and feminine. So because of that, I enjoyed the fashion and style on the show. I loved the navy blue, laced jumpsuit Anika wore, in particular.” (As do we!)
Now with season 2 set to premiere on September 23, we asked Gealey what’s in store. “Expect lots of jaw-dropping moments, revelations, shifting dynamics, and more,” says Gealey—which sounds just about right. “You can’t prepare yourself for what you will be privy to.”
“And what about Cookie and Anika?” I ask. “Do you think they could ever be friends, or has that ship sailed?”
“It’s TV,” Gealey says. “Gosh, anything could happen, really!”
Read more Entertainment Interviews on ClicheMag.com
BY MEGAN PORTORREAL
Grace Gealey Interview: Photography: Gilles Toucas, Stylist: Adena Rohatiner, Makeup: Anthony Merante for Fr8me Agency, Hair: Michael Kanyon for Celestine Agency. Featured image: Jumpsuit Forever Unique, Earrings Graziela Gems, Rings Melinda Maria