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NUNN ON ONE: TELEVISION Trai Byers talks about 'Empire' and the film 'Selma'
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2015-02-04

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Andre Lyon roars to life as part of a three-brother clan in the new hit Fox show Empire. Actor Trai Byers is quickly climbing a ladder to success with this juicy role—and he is also in the historical film Selma.

Set in Selma, Alabama, the movie shows the racial tension in the South and depicts protests with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the center of the controversy. Byers is one of the stellar cast playing the outspoken James Forman.

The Lee Daniels-created soap opera Empire tells the story of Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, who tries to make it in the ever changing music business. Byers plays his bipolar son, Andre, whose brother Jamal is gay, and whose youngest brother, Hakeem, is spoiled by the rich lifestyle. When momma bear Cookie Lyon is released from prison, the sparks fly and the family drama explodes.

Windy City Times caught up to the young man with the budding career in between shooting this record-breaking series while in Chicago recently.

Windy City Times: Hi, Trai. Where are you from?

Trai Byers: I am originally from Kansas City. I went to school in Georgia. I live in LA now. I went to the Yale School of Drama from 2008 to 2011. I got my MFA with that school.

WCT: How long have you been acting?

Trai Byers: Since I was about 12. I did extra work like yourself. Ride with the Devil was the first thing I had ever done. Ang Lee talked to me and said some lovely things. My aunt's best friend was a PA [production assistant] in the film so the cast became cool with me, including Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire and Jewel.

I then did Remember the Titans, where I was a football extra and I did Boycott about Martin Luther King Jr.'s life for HBO.

After school I got out and did All My Children and 90210, then a couple of indie films. Now I have Empire and Selma. We are moving up!

WCT: Sounds like you paid your dues.

Trai Byers: I was in school for 10 years.

WCT: Talk about your role in Selma.

Trai Byers: I play James Forman. I am one of the executive officers of SNCC ( Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ). We have been in Selma for about two years, from '63 to '65, prior to King's arrival. We are invested in the Black consciousness, trying to get people to pass the literacy test so they can vote. We want them on juries so when Black people are convicted that group of their peers can look beyond the color line to say whether someone is innocent or guilty.

King comes in but our group doesn't take to that sort of civil rights. If I am correct James was not very keen on the one man movement where if one man dies then the movement dies.

WCT: So James was a real person.

Trai Byers: Yes—he passed away a few years ago. He was a very interesting guy.

WCT: Did you watch past clips of him?

Trai Byers: I saw a famous one where he said, "If we can't sit at the table then let's knock the legs off." He was talking about other leaders in the civil rights movement and his frustration with other organizations not being able to work together.

WCT: Was the movie filmed in Alabama?

Trai Byers: It was filmed in Atlanta, Selma and Montgomery.

WCT: How did you get the part?

Trai Byers: I auditioned. I had gotten the role in Empire then came back to L.A. and auditioned for the role of John Lewis. Thank God it went well, but they had their eyes on someone else for Lewis with Stephan James. They came back to me for James Forman. I guess it worked out. I got the call the day after we had been picked up for Empire as a series. Ava DuVernay, the director, called me and invited me to join the cast.

WCT: Harpo Productions is involved. Is Oprah Winfrey around this hotel and ready for an interview?

Trai Byers: Oprah is doing her thing out there making dreams come true. [Both laugh.]

WCT: The cast for Selma is amazing. Was there someone in particular who meant a lot to you?

Trai Byers: David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. I had some really good conversations with him just about life. He was a big brother to me on that film. He left an indelible mark on me as an artist. He reminded me of the importance of being an artist not just what is popular or looks good now. He taught me to elevate the material and not just fit in. I can't say enough about him. He's an amazing artist and human being.

WCT: I know Common is a great person in real life, and is in this film.

Trai Byers: He's my boy and from here too, right?

WCT: Yes. I liked speaking with Ledisi in the past.

Trai Byers: She's cool. I met her in the makeup trailer and she's very sweet.

WCT: She's playing Mahalia Jackson.

Trai Byers: Yes, she has a beautiful voice. I loved her song in the movie.

WCT: Many feel that Selma was snubbed for Oscar nominations.

Trai Byers: With people like David, he recognizes what the opportunity was and lets that be the trophy. He said to me one time that God told him he was going to play this part seven years ago. He held onto it and fought for it. As people came and went he remained taking this word from God. We have all, but in particular him, given this piece of history to the world. I want him to receive as many accolades as possible because he deserves it and his work is phenomenal. Being able to give a gift of that magnitude, I think, is an award in itself. I think he understands that.

WCT: Did you go to the Golden Globes?

Trai Byers: No; I was here working. This is my day off and I am here with you kickin' it.

WCT: I heard Snoop Dogg was in town shooting a scene for Empire.

Trai Byers: He was here a couple of days working a cameo on the show. We are getting people like Snoop Lion now! I wasn't there but I heard great things.

WCT: Because of the ratings, you are going to get all kinds of guest stars jumping on board.

Trai Byers: We got great ratings last night—10 million. We opened last week to 9 million, I think, but this week with DVR it came up to 13 million this week so we are up this week beyond last week. We are moving up!

WCT: The word of mouth is good.

Trai Byers: People are watching. I am sitting there as an actor and just want to do my art. I am in charge of Andre, who is bipolar. A lot of people will see that and will feel the character in the way they have been neglected and identify, which is the purpose. I have been really focused on how people will perceive it outside of the lessons we have to teach about homosexuality, about bipolar disorder, and about family disfunction.

To get those numbers I feel like the structure has been laid with our work. This news is just the icing on the cake.

WCT: What do you know about the creation of the show with those particular topics?

Trai Byers: Lee Daniels and Danny Strong had an idea early on and a lot of it is very close to Lee.

WCT: Being a gay man, [Daniels] has probably gone through some of the storyline.

Trai Byers: He has said publicly that he wore the red pumps going down the stairs and his dad put him in the trash can [things that happen to the gay brother on the show], so that is straight from his life. These are issues that are not necessarily recognized or talked about much in any community, be it Black or white, be it majorities or minorities. That is the gift we have to give, the truth. However much you hate it or love it, we are going to tell it to you!

WCT: Did you study bipolar people for the role?

Trai Byers: I did. I have a family member who is bipolar. A lot of the stuff I have been doing is taken from personal experience, which makes it so much more palpable for me and it is straight from the heart. I feel much more committed knowing somebody and more responsible to him and others like him.

WCT: I noticed from filming it that you don't really know how it is going to look on television when you are on set.

Trai Byers: That's because we are filming all over the place. We are doing one thing then you will come back a day or two later and we are doing something completely different. It is truly an ensemble piece with different things going on and different worlds that are meant to culminate into one. You won't get that from watching the filming but only by sitting down and watching it. We try to bring the worlds to an audience in one package.

WCT: It looks so slick. I didn't even know Timbaland was doing the music when I was dancing to his track in the club scene.

Trai Byers: Timbaland did a song last night called "No Apologies." I think it is one of my favorites.

WCT: Taraji P. Henson [as Cookie] has the best lines on the show but when she adds them in, sometimes I noticed her changing the words up.

Trai Byers: Yeah, it is a great collaboration between the actors and the writers. We are all trying to tell the truth. With this being a new show it is very important to tell the truth of what is going on in those worlds. It all goes together as far as the business world, the street, and the industry. I think it is all valid and people are bringing great points up.

WCT: I read you have something else coming up this year.

Trai Byers: Yes, Americons. It is a film about the housing-market crash in 2007. It centers around a football player named Jason Kelley, who doesn't play football anymore and works as a security guard. He is approached by someone who works at a mortgage company. He joins him and is selling loans. It is completely illegal but Jason brings in Theo Jones, played by yours truly, who is also a football player and basically almost costs him everything. It is like Jerry Maguire gone terribly wrong.

WCT: "Show me the money."

Trai Byers: Not "show me the money"—gimme the money back!

Empire rules on Fox every Wednesday at 8 p.m Central Time. March out to local movie theaters for Selma today.


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