Monday 21 October 2019

Grace Byers' great Irish Epiphany - Empire star to perform in Druid play

As she prepares to star in a Druid play, Empire star Grace Byers speaks to Donal Lynch about life with deaf parents and meeting her husband

Grace Byers
Grace Byers
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It almost feels a little surreal seeing an actress of Grace Byers' fame in a dingy rehearsal space off Leeson Street, Dublin. After the ratings behemoths of Empire - in which she played villainess Anika Calhoun - and The Gifted, the Cayman Islands-born actress is one of the hottest properties in Hollywood.

Her megawatt smile seems out of place in these less than salubrious surroundings. But the 34-year-old has been drawn across the pond, like several small screen stars before her (Christopher Meloni and David Schwimmer come to mind) by the opportunity to star in a new play, Epiphany, by American playwright Brian Watkins, which will be directed by Garry Hynes - and they are rehearsing the play on the day we meet.

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It's an intensely psychological piece which takes its inspiration from James Joyce's The Dead, and like Watkins' previous work, Wyoming, deals with the questions posed by the arrival of a guest to a house.

"The characters in the play are normal people coming together, doing normal things and you're a fly on the wall, and then there is a big OMG! moment near the end," Byers explains. "When I read the script I was so taken with it. Also I had always wanted to come to Ireland. There are Connollys and Flahertys in my family tree."

Byers, who looks very like a young Halle Berry, was born in the US but grew up in the Cayman Islands. Her parents split up when she was a toddler and she was raised by her mother, Cheryl, who, like Grace's father, is deaf.

"Growing up there was interesting because there isn't a large deaf population," she recalls. "She was a single mom and being a deaf parent it all led to us (she and her sister) being bullied. Eventually you look around and realise other people's mothers can hear, that was a sort of surprising thing to me."

Author Andrew Solomon says disability in a child can bring a parent closer to that child, but Grace says that, initially at least, it did not work the other way round for her.

"Being quite honest with you I felt a separation with her - I felt her association with me made me different and I didn't want to be different at that young age. When we would go to church there would be singing and she'd sign along with it and I would feel like: why is she signing so much. It was my teenage years before I really appreciated the fact that she was so unapologetic for who she was."

When Grace was a child, her mother trained to become an accountant and the actress says she had a fairly middle-class upbringing. Her father had by then gone back to live in the US, in Pennsylvania, but her mother used to always tell her that she had his smile. As an adult she finally got to meet him again.

"He looked more aged than the pictures," she recalls. "There was a strange sense of feeling like I knew him. I think looking back this had something to do with their deafness. When two speaking spouses describe each other they'll use words but with my mother she was conveying a kind of physicality, using her sign language, and when we met him we couldn't believe how spot on she was; she had described his whole energy and body and the way he would sit just perfectly."

She says she bore no ill will toward him or her mother about the split. "As adults, my sister and I realise that there were differences between our mother and father, and that's okay and it doesn't mean that we can't have a really great relationship with both of them. He was very excited and very willing and we reconnected completely with that side of the family; I see them every year now and it's just really lovely."

As a child Byers had a theatrical streak but she knew of no actress who had ever made it from the Cayman Islands. Because her father was American, she was able to apply to study theatre in American universities, but she says that her looks made it difficult for her to be taken fully seriously. "I auditioned for a prestigious school and the person who auditioned me was literally like 'she needs to do something in TV or film because she's too beautiful'. It was one of those things it was almost like an insult."

Undaunted, she studied theatre at the University of South Florida in Tampa and did a post-grad in California. The early years of her career are filled mostly with theatre credits - she starred in Rent and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof among other works - but it was only with her casting on Fox's big budget music-industry drama Empire that she began to get a taste of stardom.

"Getting cast you never knew it was like getting a ticket aboard a rocket ship. I wasn't able to fully comprehend the immense, gargantuan hit it was - every week it was getting millions more viewers. Someone said to me you're not going to be able to ride the subway soon, but still I was amazed by how quickly that happened. Within weeks I was taking cabs. For me it was also different because I'm playing a villain. They totally conflated me with her, like "oh you're that girl..."

She met her husband, Trai Byers, on the set of the show and initially they decided to keep their relationship quiet.

"I loved working with my husband. We had to do quite a few scenes together and we were enemies on the show. When we have our lines onset we just kind of click into character. People didn't know initially that there was anything between us, and we're not the kind of people who date where we work so there was a lot of resistance initially to letting people know. We wanted to explore it together first. We were together for about six weeks by the time people knew."

Grace also worked alongside Jussie Smollett and tweeted her support for the actor after he said he was beaten up by a couple of MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters in January in Chicago.

Prosecutors charged the actor with 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. Smollett maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty. On March 26, the state's attorney's office suddenly dropped the charges after Smollett agreed to forfeit his $10,000 bail and perform community service. The case is now being given a second look by a special prosecutor in Chicago. It was also recently announced that the next season of the show would be the last.

Byers doesn't care to touch the subject of Smollett but she does have plenty to say generally - and there is clearly a lot more to her than 'beautiful actress'.

She's written a highly successful children's book called I Am Enough which deals with her own childhood experiences.

"I spoke to a literary agent and he said to me sometimes with your own story you don't understand that you have the nuggets of gold in there to help other people," she explains. "I called the book that because we constantly have to listen to messages from industries who make billions of dollars out of telling us what they think we lack. That's toxic for kids and I wanted to tell them everything I wish I knew."

'Epiphany' is at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, on July 12 and 13 and at Town Hall Theatre, Galway, from July 17-27, as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. giaf.ie

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