One of Bodden Town’s own will soon star alongside actors Terrence Howard and Gabourey Sidibe in “Empire,” a 20th Century Fox family TV drama series based around a hip hop label owner looking to groom one of his children to take over the company.
Grace Gealey’s moment in the spotlight is well earned, as it has taken years of schooling and hard work for her to win a place on such a prestigious cast list.
In high school, Gealey was taught drama by Nasaria Suckoo Chollette, whom, along with Henry Muttoo, she credits with bringing some “realism” to her passion. Suckoo Chollette expanded Gealey’s dramatic parameters by introducing her to various aspects of theater, including improvisation, design, cold reading and scene study.
“I learned the importance of language, movement and instincts. I was encouraged to embrace my ideas and inclinations and run with them,” says 29-year-old Gealey.
While studying for a bachelor’s in theater arts at the University of South Florida, she came under the tutelage of Fanni Green-Lemons, a woman Gealey praises as one of the greatest acting teachers she has ever known, and who became an irreplaceable presence in her life.
“She taught me that vulnerability was a medallion of strength, that owning myself was a great celebration and that the best gift I could bring to any work of art, was myself.”
Her master’s of fine arts in acting at the University of California-Irvine also allowed her to learn from such stimulating thespians as Robert Cohen and Richard Brestoff, and Gealey never forgets those who helped her hone her craft.
“I’m grateful to the many people I’ve encountered both in school and professionally, and I have many shoulders on which I stand,” she says.
The reality of her chosen career hit home once she moved to New York, and the inconsistency of roles and difficulty of breaking into the industry led her, like most aspiring actors, to other kinds of jobs.
“The underlying fear that shakes every actor at some point in their career is the possibility of being a ‘starving artist,’” she says. “Unless you’re just plain lucky, or rich, survival jobs are a necessary sacrifice in order to combat that fear and provide yourself with some level of quality of life.”
At one point, she juggled three jobs in order to cover living expenses as well as the classes, travel and photographs necessary for her to bolster her career chances.
“I was getting in a few doors, but obtaining acting gigs was difficult. I networked when I could, sometimes doing smaller acting gigs for free in order to make a substantial connection,” she says.
Winning the coveted role of Mimi Márquez in “Rent” in Chicago in 2012 was the beginning of a more constant theater presence, including in “Elemeno Pea” in Minneapolis, and “The Misanthrope” and “Tartuffe” in Chicago, where Gealey moved to last year and is still based.
Interests outside of theater
Gealey’s artistic talents are not restricted to those of the dramatic kind.
“I do a few painting orders a month, which allows me to employ focus and creativity in an entirely new way,” she says.
Ballroom dancing lessons, food and movies take up the rest of her free time. This varied and busy lifestyle seems apt when Gealey shares that one of her favorite acting teachers emphasized that in order to become a multidimensional, well-rounded actor, she must “live life fully and feel things deeply,” – advice she has taken seriously.
During her time with Suckoo Chollette, Gealey was exposed to a variety of poetry and plays, including works by Louise Bennett, Maya Angelou and Federico Garcia Lorca. This depth of theatrical exposure in her years as a student is mirrored by the range she has so far achieved in her roles as a young adult.
Her favorite role to date has been in Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” as Célimène, who Gealey says was “a bit of a tyrant, and to play her was exhausting, yet devilishly fun.” Her performance prompted Chicago Theater Beat to note her “true star quality in this role” – not surprising given her enthusiasm about the play.
“The impact of language and its significance in the French 16th century was intriguing to learn. I was swept away in Moliere’s rhyming couplets, clever wit and animated characters,” she says.
The journey to ‘Empire’
Gealey’s first audition for “Empire” led to a screen test with Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels, a producer and director of movies that include “The Butler,” “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball,” and in Gealey’s words: “a powerhouse of a director and a brilliant, gracious human being.”
Gealey’s grateful and appreciative nature is evident in the fact that even teetering on the biggest break of her career thus far, she remembers thinking “even if nothing came of it, I would hold on to that experience for the rest of my life because it had impacted me that much.”
Something did come of it, and Gealey will now be adding the role of Anika Gibbons, the girlfriend of Terrence Howard’s character and head of A&R for the record label, to her character roster, acting alongside a talented cast. “I’m honored to be surrounded by a tour de force cast who inspire me every time I’m on set,” says Gealey. “The talent abounds in the room and I soak up as much as I can.”
Her sister Faith Gealey-Brown, a speech language pathologist with the Health Services Authority, says the family was not shocked when she focused on a career in theater. Her little sister has always been a character, and Faith remembers her playing dress up, imitating voices and planning skits and performances.
“In our house, our voice mail was often the source of practice for different characters. I remember my grandmother loved listening to our home’s voice mail to listen to the character of the week,” she says.
Grace’s mother Cheryl McCoy-Gealey is understandably proud of her daughter. “I encouraged her to focus on God, follow her heart and go forward,” she says. “Finally, she is standing in the path towards success by being who she is.”
In addition to the rigid schedule of grad school, Gealey credits her mother for her everlasting lessons. “Sacrifice is a common concept for her, and her work ethic has permanently infused my spirit.”
It seems unlikely that Gealey’s down-to-earth nature will be spoiled by the bright lights of acting meccas in the States. When asked how she stays grounded, she says, “I make time every day to connect with God. It’s an absolute must. He’s the reason why I am here and has paved the path that I am currently on. Humility and gratitude abound in me when I connect with Him daily and it’s the primary thing that keeps me rooted.”
Gealey will start shooting “Empire” later this year, with plans for the show to premiere around February 2015.
What Faith most admires of her sister in this journey is the fact that she has remained true to her roots. “People who know Grace, know that she has not changed – she is still the little Bodden Town girl, full of songs, jokes and a hearty laugh. As the saying goes, you have to know where you come from to know where you are going, and her deep-rooted sense of self will ensure that she will go far.”