‘Empire’ Star Trai Byers Talks Mo’Nique-Cookie Debate and Why Andre Isn’t a Villain

“What Taraji [P. Henson] is doing with this role is unparalleled,” the actor tells TheWrap

When it comes to the claims that Mo’Nique could’ve played his TV mom on Fox’s “Empire,” star Trai Byers remains open to the possibilities while still giving props to Taraji P. Henson.

“We all get our opportunities, what Taraji is doing with this role is unparalleled and it’s unique because she’s doing it,” Byers, who plays eldest son Andre, told TheWrap.

“I’m sure that if Mo’Nique were doing it, it would be in a unique Mo’Nique way. We could never tell what her version is, because we don’t see it. But what Taraji is doing is magnificent and certainly the reason that we’re still on the air, so kudos.”

On last week’s episode, Andre made a move to be named Empire’s backup president if something were to happen to his father, which would set him up for actually taking the position when his father dies. But Lucious (Terrence Howard) would ultimately vote against him, which would send Andre into a bipolar tailspin.

TheWrap: Is Andre going to start taking his pills or are we going to see him blow?
Trai Byers: Andre’s story is really beginning to start now and going deeper into the bipolar disorder and we’re using this platform to showcase bipolar disorder and show it in very extreme forms. So, I would say expect it to get more extreme.

Clearly, the stress at “Empire” isn’t helping him and I know that Lucious’ nemesis (Billy Baretti) is going to return on the next episode. What can you tell us about the challenges that not only Andre, but the entire family is going to face next?
Yeah, I mean there’s a whole lot going on as you can see with regard to the competition, with regard to what’s going on on the inside and that’s what makes ‘Empire’ so compelling: So many different layers, so many different plots.

The biggest problem, I think, Lucious represents ‘Empire,’ he’s No. 1 and having to deal with Billy Baretti coming back with a vengeance, having to deal with Jamal just coming out and Andre being bi-polar, you know he’s is supposed to be his right hand man as CFO. So, Billy Baretti makes things very complicated.

Is it wrong to characterize Andre as a villain?
Absolutely. Andre is the oldest son. You’ve got to put yourself in his shoes. We need to be a little bit more empathetic in regards to these characters in order to get everything that we’re putting on your plate. Andre has given life to the empire, Andre went away, educated himself came back used those resources to build Empire, to help build Empire to become a Fortune 500 company and then he’s rocked with the news that he might have to give up his birthright to somebody else. How would you feel? In addition to that, having his mother taken away and have to pull himself up by the boot straps and having his father be biased in the family between the brothers, he’s got bipolar disorder, it’s a lot.

Clearly, a lot of the show has to do with music and Andre isn’t talented in that way. Do you have a musical background? Do you ever feel left out from that part of the show?
I do have musical background, I sing. But with regard to Andre, Andre is the straight guy. You got to have the jokester, you got to have the straight guy. There’s always going to be that dynamic, in order to bring about the dynamics in the characters. The brothers have more pizzazz, no doubt, but you need somebody who’s more drama-based in a family that’s all about glitz and glamour. I feel as though not being able to sing as Trai for Andre makes me more empathetic and I think it helps me to play being on the outside, it helps me to play Andre better. I hope that the audience gets that and can have some sense of empathy for his being left out.

Can you give us a hint as to what Estelle sort of brings to the show, she plays a character named Delphine?
I know she does a duet with Jamal and it’s beautiful, my man. I got the chance to hear it. We bring a lot of guest artists on our show that are just bringing their flavor. She brings authenticity to it, she’s a real artist in the business and we certainly respect and love her. She’s bringing the Estelle flavor from the UK.

I’ve talked to executive producers about the unprecedented ratings for this show, but I haven’t really talked to the talent about it. Do you guys talk about the ratings? What are those conversations like?
We are happy as artists. We’re happy that America embraced us and they continue to embrace us and word of mouth is spreading, because we have something to offer. Yes, we get to stay on the air, we get a second season, but also ultimately we’re able to speak to America and they’re listening. We share in that message and we share in that love, so everybody’s crazy about it, especially Taraji, she’s over the moon. She’s worked very hard in her career to get to this point to where people are seeing what she can do and man, she’s blowing them away. We’re all doing our best to be true to our characters and hopefully America continues to feel us and support us.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.