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'Empire's' Bryshere Gray On Kissing Naomi Campbell, Rapping With Timbaland And Landing His First Acting Role Opposite Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

by Danica Daniel   Mar 18, 2015 19:53 PM EDT

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Bryshere Gray, aka Yazz the Greatest, drip-dropped his way into becoming a household name after landing a plum role on Fox's Empire arguably the hottest show of the new 2015 season. As bad boy rapper Hakeem Lyon, the 21-year-old Phildelphia native dazzles as he vies for his father's (Terrence Howard) attention in a quest to inherit the Empire. When's he's not battling his brother Jamal (Jussie Smollet), Hakeem finds just enough time to woo the ladies: Mainly his much older secret lover played by 44-year-old Naomi Campbell. Here, Gray talks on "conquering" the small screen, filming steamy bathtub scenes with a certain supermodel and what to expect from Season 2 of Empire.

Danica Daniel: Hey Yazz!
Bryshere Gray: Hey Danica. Boo Boo Kitty!!!

[Laughs] I know right. When I heard there was a character named Anika on the show I knew sooner or later someone would call me Boo Boo Kitty. Thank you so much for talking to Music Times. It's kind of surreal. I hear that voice every week on Fox.
BG: Oh stop it. It's nice to talk to you and hear that nice voice.

You're on the hottest new show of the season. Ask anybody, it's non-disputable. How does it feel?
It feels good. Just to work with Lee Daniels, he's phenomenal at what he does, he's so passionate with acting.

Not bad for your first acting role.
Working with Terrence [Howard] and Taraji [P. Henson], they are the best leading actors you can have and learn from. So I'm just honored to be working with those two.

How did you land the role as Hakeem Lyon?
I heard about the audition for Empire when I was around 20 and from there, I did an audition, I sent it in, and they flew me to LA. When I got to LA, I did an audition process like 8 to 9 times with Terrence and Taraji and I was like, "oh goodness, we've got the whole family here." I pulled it together. Terrence, he'd seen that I was a little nervous; he took me to the side and gave me a little pep talk. We did the process and from there, I got the role as Hakeem.

And you had a record deal before you got on Empire?
I can't say what label, but I was signed and I had to get released out of my deal to do Empire, because I was so committed to the acting role. I was so ready.

(Bryshere Gray with his onscreen lover Camilla, played by Naomi Campbell, on Empire. Photo: Courtesy of Winnie Lam/SONY Music)

It's one thing to get a role on a hit show opposite Terrence and Taraji, but it's another to find out that your love interest is Naomi Campbell. Tell me about the moment you opened the script and realized, "Oh, so I'm going to be making out with a supermodel today.
Naomi, she's amazing. She's a phenomenal actress and model. I grew up watching Naomi in videos and seeing her do her thing. So being able to work with her now on Empire is amazing.

One of the first scenes you shot with Naomi was a sexy hot tub scene. Were you nervous?
I mean that's the similarity between Hakeem and Yazz. I don't lack with the ladies. I made it comfortable. We just having a good time. We just created reality. That's what we did. Five minutes before we shot, we really created reality.

What does it mean to "create reality?"
Just having a conversation about, we just met that day, so we had to act like we knew each other for years.

Hakeem has another love interest on the show, his Empire label mate Tianna. Would you ever date somebody that you're working with?
No, you don't do that. You don't do that.

Are there any other similarities or differences between "Yazz the Greatest" and Hakeem besides not lacking with the ladies?
BG: Musically it's equivalent. The music side [of Hakeem] is Yazz. But personality wise, Hakeem has a huge heart. He don't care what you do, what you like, he's still going to love you. And that's the same thing with me. Everything else, with the explosiveness of Hakeem with him being a spoiled brat, that's not me.

Is Hakeem's character inspired by any current rappers? Perhaps a mix of Nelly and Kanye West?
We don't have conversations about that. Before we perform, me and Jussie [Smollett] will be back stage and we'll just do what we do. They don't give us direction on how to perform like, "We want you to put your arm up in the air like this." No! We do it ourselves, so it's Jussie Smollett and it's Yazz when we perform.

Before Empire you were writing all your own lyrics. The music that you perform on Empire is not. Is it more difficult performing stuff that you haven't penned?
On Empire I collaborate with Timbaland and Jim Beanz together. We collectively make great music and it's fun. It's amazing working with Timbaland, somebody that's worked with Michael Jackson. My favorite singer of all time and now he's working with me.

Hakeem loves duets with his brother Jamal but who would Yazz want to work with?
In real life, there's a lot of great artists out there. I would love to work with anybody.The music that I make is well rounded. I make all types of music. It could be rock, it could be hip-hop, it could be R&B.

Everybody on the show is always talking about who should inherit the Empire. Who do you think Lucious should leave his empire to?
I think Lucious should give the empire to his Cookie.

That's what I think honestly. I don't know why there's so much debate. Just give it to Cookie.
Yeah, of course, but she had felonies so he can't give it to her. Otherwise, he should give it to Cookie for sure.

How do you split your time between acting and now working on music? Is it 50/50? Do you feel like you enjoy acting more?
I enjoy acting. I like acting and I love rapping. Rapping was my first passion, but now I'm falling in love with acting too. The process is basically acting classes, recording sessions all day. We're having a great time. We're getting ready for season two, it's exciting.

Do you have a favorite song on the Empire soundtrack? Literally, all of my coworkers have been just running around the office singing "Drip Drop" for weeks. When I first heard it I was like "Drip Drop," what the hell? But it's catchy.
The songs are complex. It's TV, so we gotta be mindful that we can't, we gotta spread a positive message, but we can't be objective doing it. So it's catchy songs, it's catchy, fun songs that make you feel good. I know they make you feel good.

What would you like to see happen with Hakeem in season two?
I can't tell you, but in time, you'll see when the season comes to the finale. It's time for Hakeem to be a man, and if he don't man up, he's going to drop the ball.

Empire stars (L-R) Trai Byers, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray as The Lyon Family (Photo: Courtesy of Winnie Lam/SONY Music.)Obviously Empire is about a family. How is your relationship off-screen with your TV family?
When I need a good word, I go to Trai. He's seriously knowledgeable. I'll go give him some great words in trade. Jussie can cook his butt off. We'll go over our lines and we'll write songs, eat a lot of food. Taraji is the same way. Me and Jussie will go over Taraji's house, eat all her food up, because that's how we are. We're like a true family and it's fun. It's fun to try to create real-life bonds within a small amount of time.

What does the future hold for Yazz the Greatest? The Empire soundtrack is in stores. And chance of an album with your name on it?
I'm working on an album as well. I started rapping when I was 16 and I just fell in love with how people were responding when I was performing my songs. I just kept doing what I was doing and then I started performing at big events, stadiums and I just walked myself on to Empire. It was like wow, I'm doing my thing and I'm still young. I'm 21, so my story's still being written.

Empire's two-hour season finale airs tonight on Wednesday, March 18, at 8 p.m. EST on Fox. Watch a scene from the finale below as Gray and Smollett perform "Who I Am" on the last episode of the season titled, "Die But Once."

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