Earlier this year, the rumor mill had Trai Byers walking clean off of Fox's Empire. According to reports, Byers wasn't happy with the direction his character Andre Lyon has gone in, and felt that he could be doing more. The actor has already opened up about those rumors, pondering aloud to Entertainment Weekly, "How do we get to the truth but still keep it interesting and still fit into the world of Empire?," further admitting that he thought "that’s where the frustration lies."
But I didn't get that vibe from Byers at all during our recent conversation about season three of Empire, one that's reportedly set to be focusing more on Andre's story, going from the businessman in a family full of artists to losing his unborn baby and finding religion. While Emmy nominated stars like Taraji P. Henson could have you thinking the show is about individuals, Byers likes to point out that the show, at it's heart, is an ensemble piece, and is quick to remind me that the show is more about the family as a whole. The happily married (to Empire co-star Grace Gealey) 33-year-old Kansas City native spoke further on where the show is going, the hardest scenes he's had to film, and mixing his real-life Christian beliefs with his work.
How are you feeling going into season 3 of Empire?
First of all, I'm just grateful to have a job, brother. I think that some of our producers spoke in public and at length about what they felt the issues were [regarding] what they called the "sophomore slump." I'm just happy to say that those were their words. I'm very happy with this new season. We're telling as authentic a story as we were in season 1. If you ask me, I think this will be our best season to date.
I saw that some of the producers are saying if season 1 was Jamal's story and season 2 was Hakeem's story, season 3 is kind of where Andre really comes into his own. What are your thoughts going into this season with that focus on your character?
This show has always been an ensemble piece. Andre has been more of a catalyst for those who can't sing. He's been more of the example of those who are the odd man out or the black sheep of the family. I liken this one to the first season, but I think it's better based on where we're coming from and all of the stories we're telling, collectively. Do I feel I've been passed the ball? I always feel I've been passed the ball. Andre had some really good moments in season 1, really good moments in season 2, where you could see a man crumbling, a man trying to face himself whether it was with spirituality or family, trying to have a baby and see how that worked out and the turmoil that that caused.
I've seen that you've mentioned that you were Christian; was it interesting to have that side of your life brought into the show?
I am a Christian, and every project that I go into, I'm looking for God's voice. What's he trying to say through the character that I'm playing? Because that's what I represent. It doesn't have to be squeaky clean—in fact, I prefer it to be dark. But I don't think that we've seen that story of [a black man dealing with religion] on television. I was grateful to be among the first people to explore and see what was on that side, and see how the audience would respond.
There's talk that the Black Lives Matter movement will be a part of the storyline this year, with your character specifically. Can you talk about the importance of bringing that into the season at a time when it's still so relevant and in the headlines?
With respect to everything that's happening, with Philando and what's happened with brothers and sisters of the past, man, it's a heartbreaking thing, but again, it's a blessing to be able to show this on national television. It's our own way of saying, "Hey, this is wrong, and just because you're black doesn't mean that you're one way or another. We're all human beings."
One of the most powerful scenes in Empire was when Andre was in the studio with the gun to his head, with the look on your face when he pulled the trigger and it didn't go off. What are some of the more challenging scenes that you've had to tackle?
Scenes like that—the heavier scenes, like the boardroom, like the hospital, when we found out that the baby was gone. These scenes, only so much is written. We have to go further. I credit the team; I credit Fox for giving us the opportunity to go past what the script has put down and capture a moment of raw authenticity, emotions that don't have the barrier of the pen to the pad.
It's interesting to see how quickly Twitter has gravitated towards Empire. Was that always the plan going forward?
Brother, there was no plan. We didn't know that we were going to be embraced like this, man. We were scared that different things that we were doing at first were too extreme and that they wouldn't follow it. Seriously, I didn't know we were going to grow from episode to episode all throughout the first season. I think that as we saw what was happening, we gravitated towards opportunities that would help the show with regards to social media. I think that's a part of our process, even now, they're really big on social media in a way that they weren't before. It's a sign of the times—as technology expands and grows, we gotta grow with it.
We're currently in an awards season. Does it ever feel weird that the show's not been given, say, an Emmy nomination for Best Drama with all the support and acclaim that it's gotten from the people?
I look at it like it's an apple: we eat one bite at a time. A few years ago, we didn't even have a show that was anything like Empire, [we] didn't have a lot of representation for people of color on television. Would I like to see an embrace by the Academy, whether it's SAG, or the Golden Globes like last year, or the Emmys? Absolutely, but one bite at a time.