Grace Byers broke into television on Fox’s “Empire” in 2015 as the poised but conniving Anika Calhoun and then moved on to bring antagonistic comic character Reeva Payge to life on “The Gifted” in 2018. While she has been thrilled to be seen as a dramatic actor, she hopes to continue showcasing her range and avoid being labeled or typecast, so when the script for Tracy Oliver’s “Harlem” came her way, she was thrilled. In it, Byers plays Quinn, a woman who comes from a privileged background but is struggling to make her own way — and money.
Was it always the role of Quinn that you connected with when reading the script for “Harlem”?
I think it’s really interesting because I tend to play very affluent characters, which is really funny to me because we definitely did not have a lot growing up; I definitely struggled a lot financially, and so that’s actually the irony of it all. But I saw myself like, “Maybe Camille, maybe Quinn,” and so I actually asked them if I could read for both. When I went in the room and I read for Camille, as much as I had prepared for it, as much as I was excited about the idea of playing someone like Camille, it just didn’t connect with me in the room. And then as soon as I started reading Quinn, something happened in the room. I felt it, they felt it, and I said to myself, “Oh my God, I am hopelessly deeply in love with Quinn Joseph.”
Quinn benefits from having parents who can financially help her, even if it does come with another kind of cost. How did that affect how you connected with the character?
I feel like she’s very aware of her affluence and her proximity to financial privilege, but she’s determined to make it on her own. There is an acute understanding that this money does not belong to her and that probably growing up, her parents made it very clear to her that this was something that they have garnered and that it’s very important for her to be able to do this for herself. With all the characters, they’re all on this journey to pinpoint their identity, and I feel like Quinn has been so associated with her parents for so long that the importance of making it on her own is also going to be the top echelon of her finding her identity. I think that’s why she pursues it so deeply and passionately.
The relationship she has with her mother is prominent in the season, and it’s strained but also very relatable. How did working opposite Jasmine Guy change the mother-daughter dynamic you were imagining?
Jasmine is incredible. We have a blast together. The layers that she brought to Quinn’s mom, Patricia, they were just really amazing. And I think that it really informs a lot in the room. You could tell that there’s so much deep-seated — I don’t want to say animosity, but there’s definitely dissonance between the two of them. And I think there is a push-and-pull factor when the two of them get in the room because they’re a lot more similar than they would like to admit. I think that it’s really difficult for Patricia to see Quinn [as] very much like her when she was younger and then trying to steer her in an opposite direction. You do find out a little later on that the way that Patricia has had to negotiate and navigate her own relationship with money is very similar to Quinn’s.
What was the process like to find chemistry with someone like Jasmine or the other actors playing Quinn’s friends, who had these rich histories with each other, versus someone like Robert Ri’chard, whose character Quinn meets now and feels an instant connection?
One of the beautiful things about acting is that, for me, there’s just a vulnerability and a transparency and an openness that I have to every single character that comes along because the reality of it is that my character does not know where this relationship may go. With all four of the girls — [because] you meet us and we already know each other — you definitely see the history of that relationship and the way that we approach each other, but as an actor, I’m just as open with the girls as I might be with someone like Robert or Jasmine because I’m open to the magic that could be created between us.
Quinn has a brief romantic relationship with Robert’s character but then also finds herself attracted to a woman. Was the fluidity of her sexuality something you think she had been thinking about but not wanting to act on for awhile or something she really only now considered because it was about a particular person?
I think what’s so beautiful about her journey here is that Quinn is on a search for love. I think that because of her disjointed relationship with her mother and then her having so many failed relationships romantically, and then also her just really struggling in her own realm professionally, she’s just really looking for a place where she can be held — where she can be taken care of and she can be loved. I don’t think that she was thinking in terms of male or female. I think that there’s definitely an interest that she has primarily in men, but because her heart is so open and because she’s so ready to be loved and to love, that when an honest and genuine and deep connection occurred with somebody else, and it so happened to have been a woman, I think that’s when it even surprised her. Although it was scary for her and there might have been some judgment that she held for herself around that, I think the beautiful part in this series is that moment she has with her friends — particularly Camille, who was like, “Babe, no one is judging you, you need not judge yourself.” It just allowed her to give herself the permission to embrace the idea of love, in all forms, no matter what it may have looked like in her mind.
That idea of image and perception in the world she comes from is something she certainly struggles with when not being honest about who Robert’s character is, too.
It’s huge. I’m Caribbean American. I’m originally from the Cayman Islands. My mom is Caymanian, my dad is American, and so, growing up in the Cayman Islands and living the island life, I’m very in close touch with my Caymanian roots. And so [Tracy] was like, “I really want to lean on that history of yours and bring it into the colors of ‘Harlem’ because there is such a concentrated cultural amount of people here from the Caribbean.” I loved that idea. And so, Jasmine Guy is playing my mother who is Jamaican and then, although you never see him, my father is actually Caymanian. Especially in the Caribbean — and if you do come from a socioeconomic class that is of a higher one — presentation and the way that you show up in public is very, very important. It’s really important that you show that you come from a family that has, as we say back home, “some broughtupsy.” So, you have manners and you have a personality and an attitude that would make your family proud. And so, I think that that adds to the idea of presentation for Quinn because her mother is so caught up. I love the little nuggets that are placed in these scenarios between her and her mom, like when her mom is like starting to lose weight and she feels like she looks better — all these little things about her appearance and the way that she shows up or even the way that she advocates for Quinn to be there for Juani [Feliz]’s character as well, it’s just the ways in which presentation mean means so much to her. That is a cultural nod.
How do you want this role to change the perception of you for future work?
I think the goal would be to just be not labeled. [Laughs] That would be great. And that’s just my goal in life, especially being biracial and multicultural and being of Deaf parents. I think for so long, every time I showed up in the world people were just interested in, “What are you?” It was very difficult for people to understand how to perceive me or to know what lens to look at me through. And so, I’ve just been avoiding and shirking labels my whole life and it would be so lovely to just show up — whether it’s in the world or in the industry — just as as an island girl who just loves to do what she loves to do and is able to make a decent living while doing it and being happy and purposeful and passionate.