Bryshere Gray is grabbing a lot of television fans’ attention for playing the self-absorbed, bad boy rapper Hakeem Lyon on the family drama Empire. While Gray’s turn as Hakeem is his first run at acting, the young triple threat performer has been building his personal brand in the real music world as Hip Hop artist Yazz The Greatest.
Before appearing on the small screen with Academy Award nominated actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, Yazz was rocking stages at Jay Z’s “Made In America” festival and Power 99’s “Powerhouse” concert in his hometown of Philadelphia. So it seemed to be a perfect fit for Gray to be cast as the rising rap star on producer/director Lee Daniels’ new Fox series.
The opportunity to try his hand at acting ironically allowed Gray to log in studio time with one of the most accomplished music producers in pop culture history. Timbaland was selected to help craft the original music for Empire which means the 20 year industry veteran oversees recordings by Gray, Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon), and others.
AllHipHop.com caught up with Bryshere Gray to get his thoughts on working with Empire‘s celebrated cast and crew, his transition from music to TV, and how he manages to stay grounded despite the breakout success of the show.
[ALSO READ: “Empire” Renewed For Second Season On Fox]
How did you first get involved in making music?
I’m from West Philadelphia, and I was an artist first. I was rapping and doing a lot of performances. I was giving back to the community by doing free high school tours. I started getting noticed by the big bosses in the music industry, so I got with the right people.
I met my manager Charlie Mack, and he told me about the audition for [the role of] Hakeem. When he told me about it, I wasn’t focused on acting. I was just focused on performing and letting people hear my music. But I did the audition full-out, and Lee Daniels loved it. He flew me to L.A., from there it’s history.
This is your first acting role. What was your mindset going into this process especially knowing you would be working alongside Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard?
When I auditioned for the role I had the chance to audition with Terrence and Taraji in person. It was a crazy experience to be working alongside these Oscar nominated actors. Me being such a baby in the acting game, starting with those seasoned actors was mind-blowing.
When I was in the room I was like, “Okay, calm down. I’m gonna just bring it.” And I brought it. Terrence took me to the side and said, “You’re killing this. But I need you to get deeper. If you get deeper, you’re going to be Hakeem.” From there I did another take, and I was even better.
Since you’ve been working on the show have they given you any pointers?
Yeah, Terrence always gives me tips and stuff I could use to make Hakeem a well-rounded character. And Taraji always makes sure I’m comfortable. Hakeem is very disrespectful to [Taraji’s character] Cookie. He says all these mean things to her, but Taraji makes it comfortable to get in character.
Speaking of the dynamics between those two characters. One of the most talked about scenes was the one where Cookie beat Hakeem with a broom. What was it like filming that scene?
Come on man, I’m getting beat with a broom. [laughs] Everybody went through being defiant to their parents growing up and not appreciating the things their parents work hard to get for them. That’s just an example of a spoiled brat getting beat by his mom.
How did you manage that shot on set? That was pretty intense.
That was actually my first scene ever in life. So like I said, she made it very comfortable for me to say “b***h” to her, because it was love there. This is my first time working with her, and I’m calling her a b***h. It was kind of hectic. On one take I actually got hit in the head with the broomstick. That scene was very intense.
You also get to work closely with Timbaland. What is that experience like for you?
It’s Timbaland. He worked with Aaliyah to Jay Z to Beyoncé, and now he’s working with Yazz and Jussie Smollett. I’m playing with Michael Jordan right now. I’m just watching. I’m learning. I’m soaking it in.
There are some big names that are going to be guest starring on the series. As a fan of music, if you could pick any stars that you would like to see appear on the show who would you choose?
I would like to see Taylor Swift. I would like to see the beautiful Halle Berry.
There have been rumors going around that Foxy Brown will be making an appearance. Do you have any information about that?
I’m not sure about Foxy Brown being on Empire.
Who are some the artists that are getting the most play on your playlists right now?
I’m listening to a lot of Michael Jackson and The Beatles right now.
Is there a particular reason why you’ve gone back to those eras?
It’s just those eras are inspiring me to create so much of my work right now. That type of music is sparking my ambition.
Are you planning on releasing your own album?
Yeah, I plan on dropping some music in a couple of months in the middle of 2015. It’ll be available on iTunes.
What about more touring or festivals?
Yeah, we have a little surprise for you. That’s going to come out very soon.
So could it be like a Glee situation where the cast goes on tour?
Maybe, we gotta let the world decide.
With the success of the show, what keeps you grounded at this point?
I go to church every Sunday. I stay talking to my family, and I just keep good people around me. You can’t have people around you just because you have a new situation going on or they just want something out of the relationship. I have people that are constantly giving me great advice, that consistently have my back. They don’t worry about what I’m bringing in. That’s the type of people I keep around me.
Empire airs Wednesdays 9/8 Central on Fox. To view past episodes visit fox.com.
Watch the Empire season preview below.