Story and Interview by Katina Goulakos
The Caymen Island native is best known for her role as Anika on Empire and like her characters, there are many levels to her. From her unique childhood, to her epic red carpet looks, Grace Byers is more than just another actress on television, she is a writer and more important she is a woman with a voice, waiting to be heard.
Imagista: Your character on Empire has so many levels, can you tell us a bit about what it’s like playing someone who is the cause of so much controversy?
Grace Byers: It takes a certain type of woman to stand alone against a formidable family – so to say she’s resilient, is an understatement. Here she was; a powerful, top-of-the-line head of A&R for one of the most lucrative and successful music labels in the country and all of a sudden, her boss’ (and boyfriend’s) ex-wife comes back unexpectedly with a history that is far more complicated and esoteric than Anika could ever imagine. In a matter of a few weeks, Anika’s world gets toppled over and everything (her career, her relationship and all she’s worked for) is about to be destroyed until she realizes that in order to stay in the game, she has to play the game. That’s when she truly became controversial and now we understand why. To help Anika transform over the years has been thrilling and challenging because she takes a different angle each year. These are the moments where I get to dig deeply and continue to expand, translate and unearth her depth, complexity, layers and humanity. So far, it’s been a four-year-long mining project and I continue to find nuggets of gold to help her truth shine in these token, (controversial!) moments on-screen.
Imagista: There are so many levels to Anika, Do you feel like you and your character have anything in common?
Grace Byers: We are both strong, indomitable, ambitious women of color that will stand for what we deserve. Although we differ drastically in every other way, I don’t judge any of the characters I play. I can’t. If I were to do that, I wouldn’t be able to honestly and authentically tell the truths of their stories. As her conduit, if I were to ever vilify her, how is that remotely fair to the very human rudiments from which all of these words, actions and deeds are generated? We may not ever personally align with her actions but we certainly know what it feels like to be rejected, ostracized, betrayed, hurt, enraged and anguished. These are some of the foundational human experiences that connect us to others in the world. If we were to choose to see her as a tremendously flawed person driven by emotional turmoil as opposed to an ‘evil villain’, then we would be able to relate to her as an imperfect human – which is what we all are. And you know, this is exactly the kind of compassion that we should exercise in our daily lives with every person we come into contact with. It’s a great thought to live by.
Imagista: Empire has a lot to do with music, do you have any musical talents?
Grace Byers: I love ballroom dancing and I sing. I also play the piano – I started when I was 5. I haven’t played in a long time but when I get a moment, I’m going to chop these nails off and get to it!
Imagista: Your new film Bent is directed by Bobby Moresco, who is one of the best in the business, what was it like working with him?
Grace Byers: It was such an incredible experience. Bobby is an artist who pursues the raw truth at any cost and it shows. He also wrote the script of Bent – which is based off of the original novel written by JP O’Donnell – and to see him, at times, forgo lines, blocking or even original wardrobe options just to pinpoint the honesty of the moment was what every artist lives for; that incessant, committed pursuit of truth. I also had to sing since my character, Kate, is a singer with her own music joint in the film. I hadn’t sung in a long time and was a little terrified of the idea. It was a very difficult time of embracing vulnerability and pressing past my own comfort zones to honor the truth of Kate’s passion, talent and desire in the opening sequence. Bobby wouldn’t allow me to move through it – or any scene – without giving beyond the very depths of my core to this character. When I thought I was, there was more. And more. And even more. After we were done, I was exhausted and disheveled……and felt the most exhilaration I had ever felt in a very long time. That’s the kind of experience I continually desire as an actor in this business.
Imagista: What is your character Kate like in the film?
Grace Byers: Kate is extremely fascinating. I know we already shot the movie, but I just want to continue demystifying her. She’s deliciously complicated: delicate but tough, free but bound, absolute but unsure, in love but in pain.She deeply loves Danny (played by Karl Urban) and the intricate, flawed, profound and complicated love they share is the undercurrent of the entire movie. You don’t see her as often throughout the film, but you absolutely feel her.
Imagista: What do you love most about being an actor?
Grace Byers: Lending a voice to the voiceless. When I give my mind, body and soul to a character so that their truth can be told, I feel like I’m helping to instill that much more grace, love, compassion and perspective into the world.
Imagista: You always look amazing on the red carpet, how would you describe your personal style?
Grace Byers: Thank you! Most of that goodness comes from my wonderful stylist, Adena Rohatiner. My personal style is (humor me here): ‘Airport Chic’. I crack up every time I use that term but it perfectly describes my personal wardrobe: comfortable and effortless with a touch of style. Many heels in my closet are still dying to be worn because my newest favorite wardrobe addition are my Anine Bing Charlie Boots. I literally wear them everywhere.
Imagista: You had a unique childhood, can you tell us what it was like for you growing up?
Grace Byers: Being born into a unique family structure – one where my parents were deaf, interracial and divorced – I felt painfully different. Many of my younger years were spent trying to fit in or work to earn my worth and validity in the eyes of others. My identity seemed elusive to me and being bullied throughout my childhood exacerbated the concept of acceptance of self. This people-pleasing ideology followed me into my adult years until I was able to emotionally and spiritually pinpoint the pattern that kept leading me to the same dead-ends and bouts of depression. Once I fully digested the fact that I was enough, simply because God had given me life, my atmosphere shifted. When you realize that the spiritual DNA running through your veins is directly from God, you walk, breathe, speak, act and love differently. You operate in the truth that you never have to earn your value from anyone or anything because you were born worthy. You live in the certainty that because you have God, you have priceless worth – because your value lies in Him.
Imagista: Your new book I AM ENOUGH is coming out on March 6th. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this?
Grace Byers: It all goes back to identity. At a young age, all children are in the process of experiencing life and understanding who they are in the midst of trials, joy, pain, laughter, shock, friendships and hurt. Too often, we don’t realize the lasting impacts of the mindsets children latch on to early on in life. This is normally influenced by school, friends, family, religious organizations and society. If these mindsets are consistently built around positivity, self-worth, self-love, confidence and compassion towards others, then the remnants of these will more than likely remain as children grow into their adolescent years and well into adulthood. The foundation of a child’s thoughts should be tempered with progressive, affirmative and constructive bricks that will help them build as they grow. A common form of influence we have on children as they shape their minds, is through words. This book, filled with positive, powerful words of affirmation, is meant to help inspire self-confidence and self-love in any child who may read it. Maybe it will stop a bully in their tracks. Maybe it will help redefine identity for a child who has been bullied. Maybe it will put a smile on a student’s face after a difficult day at school. Or maybe, this book will become something special to be shared between a parent and their child each night. No matter what niche it fills, I hope it holds a child’s heart closely and inspires them to know that they are loved, born with a purpose and more than enough.
Imagista: Have you always wanted to share this story?
Grace Byers: I believe that we all go through things in life in order to somehow share aspects of them with others so that we can all connect, relate to, understand, motivate, encourage, uplift and inspire. If snippets of my story accomplish none of these, my hope is that, at the very least, someone somewhere will feel a nudge of love knowing that they are not alone.
Imagista: If you could give your child/younger self one piece of advice what would it be?
Grace Byers: You are enough.
Imagista: Can you tell us one thing about you that we can’t find on google?
Grace Byers: Give me 9 hours of sleep. Exactly 9. If I have 8, I’ll function on a basic level. If I have 10, I’ll feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. But 9? I’ll wake up fresher than a pack of tic tacs. The grass will be greener, the sky will be bluer….Cloud ‘9’ is a real thing in the Byers’ household and hubby knows it!
Dress by Manfredonia.
T-shirt and dress by Carvoe. Boots by Guess.
Blouse and pants by Victoria Hayes. Earrings by Cornelia Webb.
Team Credits and Social Media Links
Grace on Instagram: @ladygracebyers
Styled by Wendy McNett @wendymcnett
Photography by Sergio Kurhajec @sergiokurhajec
Hair by Ursula Stephen @ursulastephen
Make up by Joanna Simkin @joannasimkin