Shea Coulee & Scott Studenberg
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‘Empire’s Latest Breakout Is Black, Trans, and Talented AF

Empire

When Fox’s Empire premiered just days after the New Year in 2015, it made waves. The King Lear-meets-Dynasty-but-make-it-hip-hop television show from Lee Daniels was a ratings smash, reasserting the star powers of Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. But it was also major for centering an LGBTQ+ storyline. Fast forward to its sixth and final season, now airing, the series is having an impact once more, this time focusing on a new trans character played by Alexandra Grey

“This is something that I had never got to see,” she tells Out, “a black trans woman or trans character really stepping into something on primetime TV? I think that is wonderful.” 

(Though obviously shows like Pose and American Horror Story have Black trans women at the forefront helping to change the visibility conversation, they are on premium cable networks. Having Black trans characters on broadcast television is still a newly charted territory for which Daniels must also be given credit as he previously championed with Amiyah Scott on the now-cancelled Star.)

For those living under a rock for the last four years, Empire follows the melodramatic life of the Lyon’s, hip-hop’s first family led by Cookie (Henson) and Lucious (Howard) who run Empire Records. Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), Andre (Trai Byers), and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are their sons, each who have their own musical aspirations. Smollett played Jamal, the family’s gay son who, when younger, was put into a trash can by Lucious when he was foundplaying in Cookie’s clothes. This happening, and Lucious’ onoging homophobia, haunts the family throughout the show.

But growth is in the air this season. Insert Grey’s Melody Barnes, a new character who, pre-transition, was signed to Empire records by Lucious and Cookie. But when she revealed her true self to Lucious, the transphobia leapt out and he wouldn’t let her perform. We meet her years later as the background singer and vocal coach of a new up-and-coming artist, but her talent is still begging for the spotlight. 

Ahead of the show’s mid-season finale Tuesday night, which promises to be a breakout moment for the character, Out spoke with Grey about landing the role and working with Henson and Howard. The actress and singer also discussed a landmark year for her career which included roles on How To Get Away With Murder, Chicago Med, and the Transparent movie-musical finale. 

Talk to me about landing the role. 

It was very unexpected. I got a call from my agent and he told me that, Empire was casting and they were looking for a trans actress and singer for the final season. And obviously I jumped at the opportunity because I was like, "Hello, trans actress and singer here!" That's how I first heard about it, a few months ago.

It was a pretty thorough audition [process]. There were three scenes and I had to sing 16 bars of a song. In the audition, a lot of it was Chaka Khan-themed, so I sang Chaka Khan's “Through the Fire.”I really wanted to just choose something that showcased my style of singing and what I can do, because 16 bars is tough. After that, it was an agonizing two weeks of not knowing if I got it or not, and usually my mental process after I leave an audition, I just leave it. I don't want to think about it again. I’ve already forgotten about the role, but I couldn’t forget about this one. It was like it was meant to be for me. About a week and a half in, we got a call saying that I was the choice from the producers, but now there's network approval and testing and things like that. All of my friends were like, "Bitch, we know you got it." But I was just like, "Nope. [Not] until the ink is dry.” They called that next day and I was so overwhelmed and just so excited about the role. I still can't believe it.

You’ve been acting for some time and performing separately in these L.A. streets at the LGBT Center and other places. How does it feel to have a role that combines both of those skills into one for you?

I'm like a little kid in a candy store every time I step on set because this was always a dream of mine. When Empire first came out, I was trying to get on that show. They had video contests and all this stuff and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, I would love to be on something like a Glee." I never got to really do that and so now that I'm on the show — and a lot of times when, in my experience, getting cast in trans roles that are recurring, they usually just bring you back once or twice and that's it and you don't really have much of a storyline. With this, I've been so overwhelmed with how much they've infiltrated Melody into the season. And also that they've really made her an artist, and that she has songs and she's performing and she's got to be on the label. I love getting to sing and to act at the same time because that is just so fun for me.

I haven’t watched Empire in some time, but I had to watch to support you and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised that it was so clear that they approached Melody’s story with care. 

I'm so grateful to you that you want to do this and talk about it, because I do feel like the moment is not being celebrated enough. It's not about me and wanting any recognition for myself, but more so for the fact that this is one of the biggest Black shows on television. It has an audience of predominantly African American viewership and they're putting a trans storyline front and center and it's not a storyline based off of sex work or violence or anything like that. It's just showing this character as a super talented, dope ass musician-artist-writer. And they’ve got the two main leads chasing after her talent. That was so shocking for me when I was reading the script and they just keep getting better. And so for me, I think that it is such a great moment because of the fact of [being trans] not being so [widely] accepted in the Black community. For a show to take a risk like this and to not give viewers maybe what they are used to seeing, I think is amazing.


And your character is being used in a way to show Lucious’ growth. We all remember the trash can from season one.

I thought it was so special when I read that scene and it instantly made me think of that moment where he threw Jamal in the trash can. To see his character interacting with me in such a way of being sympathetic, in a way it almost felt Melody was his child. It was so special to see that reuniting. And they could have left it at him seeing me perform and that be it, but to have him come up and address me as who I am and to look me in my eye, I just think it was so special. The writing is spectacular.

What has the music side of everything been like?

Oh, it's fantastic. They have you come in and you'll go and work with these amazing producers and engineers and Jeff Morrow who's the vocal god and always challenges me to push and to go further. And so the recording is great. We usually record [the music] a few days before [the scene] and then you'll get the final mix [to learn it] to shoot it. I never thought I'd be lip syncing for my life to my own music, but it's so much fun. 

The midseason finale is Tuesday night, and I hear there’s a big moment for you and your character. What tea can you spill without getting fired? 

The good thing is that although Melody is involved in the season, she's not quite infiltrated in the main plot so, I don't think anything that I'm saying will give anything away. But [a major music award show] is happening this episode and Melody does have a big performance there. It's almost like a big coming out thing to the entire world as an artist. It's really such a huge special moment, I think even more than the last performance that I had. Because this is now me, Melody, showing the world who I am and stepping outside of Lucious. 

The show has allowed you the chance to share scenes with some heavyweights. How has it been working Black woman to Black woman with Taraji?

Honestly, on this show, I get to work with so many dope black actresses who I’ve respected for years. I mean Gabby Sidibe is on the show, Tasha Smith, Nicole Ari Parker. And so it's really groundbreaking [for me]. And with Taraji, she's so dynamic to watch so it's just wonderful. And actually, this episode we're shooting currently, she's directing and I mean she's the bomb. Terrence is great too. I actually think I've gotten a lot closer to Terrence because he's just more out there. Like he never hangs around his trailer; he's always mingling with everyone. So he's been so wonderful to work with and I think I tweeted the other day like, "Taraji's directing me. Terrence is acting opposite me. This shit is crazy."

Yesterday when we were on set, he came up to me and he said, "You are really doing some amazing work." And I was like, “Oh my gosh, thank you, Mr. Number One on the call sheet.” And so it's just wonderful and we just give lots of hugs and laughter. And I never thought I would ever be embraced this way and this is the first time that I really felt, outside of Transparent, like really a part of the family [on a set]. 

2019 has been a good year for you. You mentioned Transparent, but you were also on How To Get Away With Murder and you also filmed a movie, Gossamer Folds, where you’re the lead that’s slated for next year. 

My God, I have not stopped working in 2019. God has been so amazing [but] I want people to know that I almost gave up, baby. Literally before I booked Gossamer in November of last year, and we shot up until maybe January of this year, I was ready to give up. I was done. I felt I had zero talent and I had zero dollars in my account. I was crying all the way up until the day that I found out I got the movie. I had not really worked on television in over three years and it had just been tough. People had just been seeing me on Instagram or on a red carpet because I'm trying to keep myself relevant. And so literally God has shown me how good He is, because after I made the made the decision to not give up and choose to stay in the game and trust that what I have is special and that the right people will want me, and those opportunities will come for me… that's when I booked that movie. And literally, I have not heard “no” since. It's just been a whirlwind. 

I went back to Transparent, we shot all of January and February. I went back to Chicago Med to shoot. I've shot my first campaign this year with Absolut and then I worked a Hyundai commercial with [NBA player] Reggie Bullock. I even got to audition for Broadway... and I didn't get it but the confidence that it gave me — it was like I needed to fall in love with this again, with the art again. The director sent me this long email saying how much she admired what I brought to that audition and that she thought I was really, really special. And who would have ever thought that less than two weeks later, I would end up hearing about Empire and then working on that show. So everything happens for a reason and I didn't get that because I was meant to get Empire And I couldn't have done both. So, when you really step back and look at the blessings in your life, there's no reason to ever feel like, “Oh, I didn't get that,” because something else is better for you.

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