Actor Trai Byers stars in a hugely popular TV series and plays a big part in one of this year’s best picture nominees.
But there’s a role the KCK-born actor really, really wants: that of his favorite singer, the charismatic Sam Cooke.
“I would play the mess out of Sam Cooke,” he says. “I might win an award for that one.”
With his impressive body of work so far, Byers may someday get a chance.
A virtual unknown a year ago, the 31-year-old Kansas native stars in Fox’s Wednesday night TV ratings leader “Empire” and also co-stars in the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma.”
Breakthrough year? Calling that an understatement doesn’t begin to cover it.
Kevin Willmott, acclaimed director of “C.S.A.: Confederate States of America” who directed Byers in his civil rights film “Jayhawkers,” saw it coming.
“I always knew if given the right role, he would blow up,” the University of Kansas film professor says. “Trai has earned his success, and it isn’t overnight. He has been at this a long time. He’s worked hard and stayed with it.”
Byers was born in 1983 in Kansas City, Kan. His father was in the Air Force, so his family moved every few years to other states, always alternating with a return to KCK.
“Most of my family is still there,” he says. “When I think of Kansas, I think of family.”
After a year of high school, Byers relocated to Georgia. He returned in 2004 to earn a communications degree at KU. After time at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles, he attended the Yale School of Drama.
He used that time to hone what he calls his natural acting ability. And he learned to use all the tools in his acting toolbox.
“One thing I learned particularly at Yale was how to work with others,” Byers says. “Having studied so long trying to master myself, the biggest challenge was learning about the other person’s work.”
He landed his first professional role as Mookie on the final season of the soap opera “All My Children” in 2011.
“I think Spike Lee and I are the only people unfortunate enough in dramatic history to be called Mookie,” he says, referring to Lee’s character in “Do the Right Thing.”
Byers came back to Lawrence in 2012 to work on Willmott’s “Jayhawkers.” The period drama focuses on how the influence of KU basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain helped integrate then-segregated Lawrence. Byers plays Nathan Davis, a real-life jazz musician who befriended Chamberlain.
“Trai brought intelligence and intensity to the role,” Willmott says.
From Nathan Davis to his character in Fox’s “Empire” and his desire to someday play Sam Cooke, music seems to be a unifying theme in Byers’ roles. What style does he prefer?
“I’m an old soul,” he says. “I love big band, Motown, R&B, gospel. I’m not big on rap.”
Byers attended D.D. Eisenhower Middle School in KCK with another future star: singer Janelle Monae.
Byers says he’d love to catch up with Monae; he hasn’t seen her since she moved to Atlanta. She’s just the type of performer who might make a guest appearance on “Empire.” The surprise hit is developing a reputation for recruiting renowned musicians: Courtney Love and Macy Gray have recently been added as recurring characters.
Byers plays Andre Lyon, one of a trio of sons of recording kingpin Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his estranged wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson).
Andre is the most business-savvy of the Lyon brothers, but he has been diagnosed as bipolar. Youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is a fame-hungry, womanizing rapper. Middle child Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is a singer/songwriter who despises the corporate music biz.
Byers says his own personality is a blend of the brothers.
“I have the loyalty of Andre, the artistic soulfulness of Jamal,” he says, “and I’m nothing at all like Hakeem.”
Entertainment Weekly and others have praised “Empire.” Two weeks ago, only “The Big Bang Theory” and the Grammys had more broadcast network viewers. The show has been carrying Wednesday nights, with more viewers than “Modern Family,” “American Idol” and “Criminal Minds.”
Byers is not surprised the hourlong drama is connecting with audiences.
“There’s intrigue in the mysterious world of those involved in hip-hop at the higher level, those like Jay-Z, Puffy, 50 Cent,” he says. “You get to look into a family who has the money, who has the influence. But you see these are people just like you, with regard to how they live their lives and the dysfunction in their unit.”
Byers credits the show’s success to the guiding hand of its acclaimed creator.
“Lee Daniels pushes boundaries,” Byers says. “If you’ve seen ‘Precious’ or ‘The Butler’ or ‘Monster’s Ball,’ he wanted to do the same thing with this show. In order (for the network) to get him to play, they had to do things his way. There is always compromise and give-and-take, but ultimately it had to be his show. He can shock people in an audacious way. He can set trends.”
Daniels offers high praise for Byers as well.
“He’s like working with Denzel Washington,” Daniels said in an email. “Pure genius.”
While “Empire” has been a commercial and critical slam dunk, “Selma” has been accompanied by awards-season controversy.
The film netted two Oscar nominations: original song (by Common and John Legend) and the coveted best picture, but no directing nomination for Ava DuVernay and no acting nomination for David Oyelowo, who plays King.
“David and I connected very heavily; we’re both very Christian,” Byers says. “I know that he’s the kind of guy who’s not happy about the snub, but he knew the gift was in giving the film. People didn’t have Martin Luther King Jr. on the big screen. To see who the man was behind the icon, that gift is much more valuable to David than any award could be.”
In “Selma,” Byers portrays James Forman, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His character begins to question whether King’s peaceful tactics offer the right approach.
The role was eye-opening, considering the legacy of Alabama’s civil rights brutalities. This was especially true while shooting scenes on the actual Edmund Pettus Bridge where the march in Selma began — a location named after a Confederate general who was a grand dragon in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
“We had a couple hundred extras with us when we were up against the police officers and National Guard,” he says. “As we were crossing the bridge, it felt like thousands. Going over this river, I wondered how many bodies were in there. We don’t know. We’ll never know. But we were representing these people. Spiritual is the word I would use to describe it.”
Come Sunday, Byers would love to be watching the Oscars from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, yet he isn’t sure he can swing an invite. He says he’ll probably gather with his “Empire” castmates for an informal watch party.
Only eight months ago he was attending a cast party thrown by fellow actor and producer Oprah Winfrey to celebrate wrapping the “Selma” shoot in the film’s namesake city.
“She rented out some woman’s house,” he says. “Kicked these people out of their own home — of course, they left gladly because it was Oprah.”
Byers brought his sister, Brandy, to the party.
“Everywhere Brandy goes, everybody loves Brandy,” he says. “They love her more than they love me.”
Naturally, Sis wanted a photo with Oprah, which led to a perfect Oprah moment, Byers says.
“I’m taking their picture and Oprah says, ‘Get into the light, baby. What’s wrong with you? Get into the light,’” Byers says. “I take the picture and finally get it right.
“Oprah looks at it and says, ‘That’s fine. Stay in the light, young man. Always stay in the light.’”
Where to watch
“Empire” airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox. “Selma” is now in theaters.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A KANSAS CITIAN?
We’ve pitted Trai Byers of “Selma” against other KC celebs in our annual alternative Oscar poll. (Other categories: talking animals, WWII movies, etc.) Here’s his competition. Chris Cooper in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Rob Riggle in “Dumb and Dumber To,” Jason Sudeikis in “Horrible Bosses 2” and Paul Rudd in “They Came Together.”
Click here to vote. Deadline is noon Tuesday. We’ll publish the results later this week, before the real Academy Awards are announced.