Success is often measured in numbers. That is especially true when it comes to the world of entertainment. For proof that Fox’s new drama, Empire is a triumph, look no further than the record-breaking numbers the hip-hopera has been bringing in week after week following its debut earlier this year. Not only have fans tuned in in record numbers, but also critics have praised the show. Empire‘s critical acclaim is partially the result of impressive performances and strong casting.
Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, Empire stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson and features original music courtesy of Timbaland. The supporting cast is comprised of familiar faces like Courtney Love, Derek Luke and Gabourey Sidibe and also new faces like Bryshere Y. Gray. Gray plays Hakeem Lyon, the youngest son of Lucious Lyon, whose entertainment company, Empire Enterprises is at the center of Empire’s storyline.
“Fans just get to see artists like Hakeem performing on stages, driving in nice cars and flaunting their lifestyle, but fans don’t get to really see their lives,” says Gray. “Their personalities are often swept under the rug and fans don’t get to really experience who they are behind the scenes. Empire gives people a look at that other side, which is part of what made me want to be a part of the show.” Here, Life + Times talks with Bryshere Y. Gray about working with Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, playing a character that people love to hate and his career outside of acting.
Life + Times: There has been much speculation as to which hip hop mogul Lucious Lyon is based on. Did you personally reference any rapper’s story for inspiration for playing Hakeem?
Bryshere Y. Gray: I hadn’t really did any homework. It wasn’t like I said I’m going to take from this rapper and that rapper. I just tried to create. Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, the amazing Empire writers and myself just created Hakeem together. That’s really all that was.
L+T: It must be great working with veterans like Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson., especially with this being your first major acting role. What has been the best part of working with them?
BYG: They got so much advice to give you. It’s great working with them. They’re phenomenal. They are two people who are so experienced. They make it so comfortable working on set. They really set a tone. You know? They are wonderful. I love them.
L+T: Not only are you working with Terrance and Taraji, but also you’re working with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Naomi Campbell, Raven Simone, Courtney Love and many other well-known celebrities. Have you been starstruck at any point throughout filming?
BYG: Yeah, man. To be honest, it is definitely that way. When you are working with Snoop Dogg and Naomi Campbell and Taraji P., it’s mind-blowing. It’s like a mental high.
L+T: Empire’s fifth episode was directed by the legendary John Singleton. What was it like working under his direction?
BYG: I love working with John. John has always been so honest with and fully invested in his work. It’s an honor to work with somebody like him. The man who created Poetic Justice and Boyz n the Hood directed Hakeem’s first music video. That was legendary.
L+T: Some Empire fans may not know this, but you’re also an artist. You perform under the name, Yazz The Greatest. How excited were you when you learned that Timbaland would be handling much of the original music for the show?
BYG: It was a dream come true. He has been fully invested in projects from many of the artists that I grew up listening to. Now he is working with little ole’ me. I’m honored to be working with Timbaland.
L+T: Do you feel more like an actor or an artist when you are in Hakeem mode?
BYG: I’m definitely acting when I’m playing Hakeem. Hakeem is not Yazz in any type of way. So yeah, I’m acting as an actor and as a rapper.
L+T: It can be difficult making the transition from actor to artist. Are you ever nervous that people will not take you as serious as an artist as a result of your role on Empire?
BYG: Well that happens a lot in this industry. I agree with you. I don’t know why it’s that way, but with me it’s not going to be that way, because I’m a hard worker and I let my work speak for itself.
L+T: Billboard recently ranked the Empire characters by likability and you came in last. Have you come to terms with being the character that many fans of the show love to hate ?
BYG: [Laughs] It’s not a great feeling, but that’s what happens when you play a character people love to hate. I don’t look to get loved, but Hakeem does, so it’s weird.
L+T: The official Empire soundtrack will feature Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Juicy J and several tracks from you. What makes this soundtrack special?
BYG: We make music that’s being debuted each week on the show. The soundtrack came together as episodes came together, so it’s like a story. It’s not just music. It’s also the story behind the music, which makes it more interesting.
L+T: What do you think people should take away from Empire?
BYG: You can get inspiration. There’s also family drama, sex and powerful people. You are going to get a lot of things with Empire. It’s unpredictable.