Building His Career, and Empire: Trai Byers Finds Passion, Path in Acting

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Trai Byers, the Yale-trained grad currently starring on Fox's surprise hit Empire, which has dominated ratings for seven straight weeks, is having a moment. With the one-two punch of a featured role in the Oscar-nominated Selma and now a high-profile turn as the CFO and eldest son of Terrence Howard’s hip-hop mogul in the smash show, the young star is on the cusp of a huge career.

It’s happening.

A winning mix of looks, charisma, confidence and, yes, skill set, Byers cultivated his passion for acting at the prestigious Yale School of Drama, the alma matter of Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Angela Bassett and last year’s Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o. 

I caught up with Trai Byers recently to chat about his recent successes and trajectory, his early passion for acting and his future career.  A genuine, enthusiastic and engaging young guy, Byers will have the career that he wishes, and just like Empire, there seems to be no ceiling.

How does this moment feel for you?

This is a very exciting moment. I'm feeling great. The movie is amazing. It's relevant for right now, and it's always good when we look at something and hold ourselves accountable—not that we did anything to add to the issue, but to learn the lessons so that we don't repeat it. Ferguson is a really good example. 

Empire You’re what they called a classically trained actor.

I was at school for 10 years, and I graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2011 and hit the ground running. Things were kind of building with All My Children, 90210 and Jayhawkers, the Wilt Chamberlain film. And then it went blank for a while. I had my time to grow and to get with myself. Navigating that time was more hands off than destiny filled, but at the same time, keeping hope alive and keeping my ears open. 

What was going through your mind at that time?

Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do? I'm doing this for a long time; it's part of the testimony. What am I supposed to do with my life? Am I in the right place? Am I doing this because I want to do it or because this is a calling that I happen to believe in? I asked that, and then Empire came up. And after Empire, Selma. There are other things that may not happen in the future, but it's all just kind of going along those lines.

How early did you know that you wanted to do this?

As a baby; as early as I can recall. I was born in Kansas City and my father was in the military, so I traveled all over the place; all over the world from Kansas City to the Philippines. My mother has a picture of me—I think I was about five years old—smiling in a little Hawaiian T-shirt and jacket. Before I could put two and two together as to what it was, I think the first moment I became aware of this as a career and something I could actually do was seeing Malcolm X when I was 12 years old. It was just a larger than life thing.  That's the destiny part as well.

Empire

And then you decided you wanted to study acting in college.

I didn't want to go to school at all. I was auditioning for Antwone Fisher out of high school. I loved the script. It was Derek Luke. And coincidentally, Derek is working with us on Empire and he's an amazing guy and actor with a tender heart. So I didn't want to go to school at all, and I ended up going because I didn't get Antwone Fisher.  

But I had some heat. People were saying some good things about me. And then I disappeared for 10 years, man. Now I'm back! I was at school for a long time. It was so necessary for the growth. One thing kind of led to another, from Andrew College to the University of Kansas to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles.  

What was the most important thing you learned at Yale?

How to deal with other people. Interesting, right? How to work with other people in general; like being in my space. I was a good actor, and I went to Yale thinking I'd do my thing and go home. I would become like a sponge and then go home. But I was there in class from 8am to 3pm, then did production work from 3:30pm to about 9pm, and if I was in the cabaret I would be there from about 10pm until 2am. I had many days like that. It took over my life in a way that I wasn't prepared for, and in a way that I struggled through because I wanted to have my space as an artist and as a man. But I was in it for three years with these people, and ultimately it taught me about how I work with people, which would serve me on Empire and in Selma.  

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It must have been quite valuable to be a part of Selma’s ensemble. It’s the human part that makes the movie work, not just the historical events.

Oh man! They are fantastic. David Oyelowo, Oprah, Tessa Thompson, Carmen Ejogo, Common—it was an amazing group of people. I think it was cast perfectly. I'm so happy that they're not the most known names so you can get past the celebrity in a really great way for the story. It's such an interesting ensemble. Other than just the Martin Luther King story, for me as a man and outside of my art, being a part of it made me appreciate him more. I learned about the opposition not only outside in race and culture, but also inside him, and how he was able to deal with that and persevere and make the progress that he did with people. Some of the more interesting moments for me were those I spent just watching the personal scenes between King in Coretta. Those are not in the textbooks. Nobody wanted to make a textbook movie, you know what I mean?

What direction do you want to take your career?  I would think you could make huge budget action movies with ease, if you so choose.

I want to do things that are meaningful to me, where I can continue to grow and learn and develop myself not just as an actor, but also as a man and a human being. In the projects I choose, I want to keep discovering the world and myself. That’s so important to me.

So no Marvel superhero movies in your future, then?

Yes! Look at these muscles! I didn’t get these for nothing! 

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