Until 2015, the idea of a girl from Bodden Town making a splash in Hollywood might have sounded like a fantasy. But that’s exactly what Grace Byers has done. Today, viewers across the globe know Byers as Anika Calhoun, the talented head of A&R and ex-wife of Lucious Lyon on the hit TV series “Empire.” But Byers spent her early life as Grace Gealey, surrounded by family in the Cayman neighbourhoods of East End and Bodden Town.
“My grandparents had their home in Bodden Town; and my mother, sister and I lived in Lower Valley, so we were constantly spending time between the two houses,” Byers recalls. “Bodden Town is such an amazing district. It’s still my personal haven whenever I go home.”
An acting career seemed to always be in the cards for Byers, as she went from performing at her church and at Cayman National Cultural Foundation’s Children’s Festival of the Arts every year as a child, to pursuing theatre arts whilst studying at university. She worked survival jobs and auditioned weekly before finally making the move to Chicago. Four months later, she’d landed a starring role in “Empire.”
“Bodden Town is such an amazing district. It’s still my personal haven whenever I go home.”
“What initially drew me to [Anika] was her fierce and powerful essence,” Byers remembers. “She was always an audacious, unwavering character because she is extremely smart and very good at what she does. Over the years, we’ve been able to see many different colours of her (most qualities, not so redeeming); but I will always have a soft spot for her because in order to play her, I have to look at her with insightful eyes and find what makes her understandable and relatable — ultimately, what makes her human.”
Through four seasons, Byers’ character has seen plenty of ups and downs. But behind the scenes, Byers’ story on set has been far sweeter. Byers met her husband, Trai Byers, through the show; he plays Andre Lyon, Lucious’ oldest son.
“What a bonus to work with that phenomenal man,” Byers says. “Anyone who gets a chance to see Trai’s work process is always in for a master class. In a scene (and in life), he’s the most giving person who always listens intently and responds honestly. I don’t think there’s a greater compliment to give to an actor. When I had the chance to work intensely with him for the first time in episode 301, I was in awe of how remarkable he was in action. I always saw the results of his work but never really got a chance to create with him, which was the most extraordinary experience. On top of that, I’m married to this kind and loving soul. I hit the jackpot! But,” she adds with a wink, “so did he.”
Byers has also kept those Caymanian values from her childhood — responsibility, accountability, proactivity — close to her heart. “I’m moved by raising awareness about local deaf communities, particularly bridging the communication gap and finding ways to help the hearing community better understand the deaf community,” she says. She’s also been an anti-bullying activist, supporting and sharing progressive strategies to help kids and teens find empowerment and confidence.
“These causes inspire me personally, as I am a CODA (child of deaf adults) and was also bullied growing up, largely due to this factor,” she confides. “With the forum I have, my desire is to help, inspire, encourage, educate and uplift in any way I can.”
And as her star grows brighter, Byers says she’s proud to represent the Cayman Islands to the rest of the world.
“Our culture, our way of life and the way we are precedes us no matter where we go. We represent our country by the way we speak, the way we treat people and the way we show up in the world each and every day. Everyone knows that the biggest point of pride and the greatest asset we have in the Cayman Islands is our people. It’s why our hashtag #CaymanKind is so monumental. We pride ourselves in always representing our country in the kindest, most loving way possible. It continues to move me. What a country. What a people. I’m so immensely proud to be Caymanian.”
“Our culture, our way of life and the way we are precedes us no matter where we go. We represent our country by the way we speak, the way we treat people and the way we show up in the world each and every day.”
Follow Grace Byers on Twitter and Instagram @ladygracebyers. Debuting in 2015, “Empire” is now in its fourth season.
Author: Ciara Ebanks