What a difference one year makes.
Before Empire’s debut in January 2015, the leading cast members were able to walk down the street without being hounded by thousands of fans.
Trai Byers, who plays Andre Lyon, was ready to quit acting altogether after a successful supporting role in the Oscar-nominated hit Selma and a stint on the CW’s 90210 seemed to be the peak of his career. Similar to his onscreen character, Byers always found solace in church and was planning to star in a new role from behind the pulpit.
His on-screen younger brother Jussie Smollett, the man behind Jamal Lyon, had various recurring roles on major network shows like The Mindy Project and Revenge. When he wasn’t busy working on music, he was searching for the perfect gig before he “slid into Lee Daniels’ DMs,” as he says.
Bryshere “Yazz” Gray was focused on his rap career and set to go on tour before he landed Empire. He had a following on the East Coast that pales in comparison to the 363,000 followers he maintains now, and had no idea a phrase that describes a leaky faucet would make him an overnight success.
Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson were working actors with long, respectable careers. They had already seen box office success in films like Hustle & Flow before Lee Daniels sent them a script that would make them household names as TV’s most infamous couple, Cookie and Luscious Lyons.
Forget one year. All of this success happened in nine months and no one saw it coming. The unexpected smash ended with 16.7 million viewers glued to their screen, and 2.4 million of them tweeting about every twist and turn. Now, the hit show is back and Global Grind caught up with Trai and Bryshere on the red carpet of their season two premiere to find out what life is like since they became the biggest television stars on the planet.
Global Grind: Season two is set to return in a few days. Are you feeling the pressure?
Trai Byers: It’s good to get the love. I’m just happy to be back.
Bryshere Gray: I’m very excited. Season two is here; it’s going to be great music, and the drama is going to get better and better, so I’m excited.
What’s your favorite part about being a part of the Empire cast?
Trai Byers: I was just telling somebody a minute ago that the world is watching us and supporting these stories and storylines. We can give back in such a way that can help people to do some self-realization, and it’s amazing.
Bryshere Gray: My favorite part is being able to work with great directors and being able to work with great producers. It’s like working out, you know. It’s making me better and better and it’s a dream come true. I’m writing most of the music this season… I’ve worked with Tim, Swizz, and Ne-Yo. Raji is my acting coach, and Tim is my music coach. It’s amazing.
Eight months ago, no one had any idea that Empire would become the success it is today. How are you all dealing with your new levels of fame? You’re pretty much household names…
Bryshere Gray: It’s a responsibility. When I read the script for this character, I was about to be on tour and be busy with the music life. So, when I read the character, I was like, this character will be iconic if it’s done right, if he’s true to himself, and if he doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not. Hakeem could easily be a “F boy” or a weirdo, so you have to take that seriously and people look up to that. It’s a responsibility. The kids love it, so you got to walk outside and know ‘I can’t mess up because I’m being watched each second, and they want me to mess up.’
Trai Byers: I trained for a long time for this and in my training, I had tunnel vision. I still got tunnel vision. People can say what they want to say— this might not be the most popular answer, use it, don’t use it— but I got my eye down the tunnel. Yeah, life is a little bit different. People will stop you – sometimes they’re considerate, sometimes they’re not, but it is what it is. It’s excitement and it’s a lot. But you got to keep your eye on the prize. This is where it starts and not where it ends.
So what should fans expect to see tonight? More drama and craziness?
Trai Byers: Craziness? Oh yeah, we’re going to give the people what they want.
Be sure to watch the season two premiere of Empire on FOX tonight at 8/7 p.m.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty