Grace Byers Searches for Lasting Love in Harlem

Photographed by Cibelle Levi

The actress Grace Byers may have gotten her start in theater, starring in productions like Rent in New York City and Tartuffe in Chicago, but it was through a television show with a rabid fan base that she became a household name. On the Fox drama Empire, Byers played the cunning debutante-turned-record label exec Anika Calhoun. Now, the 37-year-old Cayman Islands native is taking on her next project, which she says couldn’t be further from Anika and her Empire universe. In the new Amazon Prime comedy series Harlem, out December 3, Byers plays Quinn, one of four female friends living in New York City in their early 20s. During a Zoom call with W, Byers describes Quinn is “an optimistic, hopeless romantic, an artist.”

“She’s deeply passionate about the idea of connection and love,” she adds. “Whether that’s with family, whether that’s with friends, whether that’s in professional or personal, romantic relationships—that is where she is really in need and in search of right now.”

As the sheltered trust fund baby of the group, Quinn must find herself outside the influence of her well-to-do parents. Although Byers grew up with different means, she still feels a profound closeness to Quinn’s sweet qualities—particularly her unwavering beliefs in true love. Below, the actress describes her creative process when acting versus writing children’s books (another great passion of hers) and why Quinn is just like The Golden Girls character Rose Nylund.

After your first read of the Harlem script, did you know that you wanted to play Quinn?

It was really interesting, because I identified more with Camille (played by Meagan Good) at first. But [the show’s creator] Tracy Oliver made it very clear to me that she saw some qualities in me as a person that could be translated to the bubbly, very forthright, honest, and earnest part of Quinn. I had asked them if I could read for Camille as well, but when I got into the room and started auditioning as Camille, I didn’t feel the sparks. As much as I had rehearsed it and was prepared and felt great, the connection with Camille didn’t happen. I was beside myself to find that as soon as I opened my mouth for Quinn, all of a sudden, the creative juices started flowing. I was shocked. [Tracy] was like, “We saw what you felt.”

Was that the first time that had ever happened to you during a read?

No, it’s not the first time, but it’s been a while since I felt that. Coming from a theater background, I was used to feeling that more. Film and television are very different than theater—in theater, you pick up a character, start to craft them, and every single night you create the arc of that character from beginning to end. Whereas with television and film, there are a lot of people who can pick and choose which takes they want and amalgamate that character, even if that’s not what I had in mind.

What was the impetus behind writing your children’s books, I Am Enough, and I Believe I Can?

I am very proudly an artist. I feel a lot of things very deeply; and as I feel those things, I love to create extensions and expansions of them through the art I create. Growing up, I was really into poetry, singing, dancing, performing on stage, and painting. I really had to think about what it was that I wanted to stand behind, purpose-wise, when it came to putting together the words for the books.

What did you want to stand behind?

Love. Although the inception of it was to stand as an anti-bullying book, I wanted to put more focus on the idea of a self-love book, because I truly believe that when we invest in loving ourselves, then we can impart that love to other people. That can make waves and change big aspects of this world. And I think it’s another reason why I love Quinn, because it’s important for her to find the purest love. And she’s willing to look wherever she can, which is a strength and a bit of a setback for her sometimes.

Let’s get into the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning and what is the first thing you read?

The time that I wake up in the morning depends on whether or not I’m working, but it’s between 7 and 8:30 AM. The first thing I read is an affirmation and a devotion, because I think it’s really important that, when you start your day—especially as an empath—you be intentional about what you want to consume.

Do you say the same affirmation on a daily or weekly basis or do you switch it up?

I actually change it up every day. There’s an app I’m using right now called the I Am app, and I love it. You can schedule when you get affirmations throughout the day, and it asks you the categories of what you want to focus on. So I actually consume three or four affirmations a day. No matter what I’m doing, even if I’m in the middle of a conversation, I’m like, “Hold up.” I will read it and consume it and actually make a commitment to say it out loud so that it’s not just a passing thought.

Where do you get your news?

From Apple News. But I’ve had to mute that as well. I really make an effort to pick certain days of the week to sit and understand what’s going on in the world, but I definitely can’t do it every day.

What books are on your bedside table?

I’m halfway through The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi. I just finished her novel The Henna Artist, which was incredible. And I just picked up another book called Setting Boundaries and Finding Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. It’s about being intentional about what you allow and how you express what you need when it comes to the boundaries in your life.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt.

You do it year round, even when it’s not Christmas?

I do. Because, Eartha Kitt.

What was the last thing that you Googled on your phone?

I’m not even gonna lie: I Googled med spa options in Kansas City. I really wanted to go get microneedling done before the Harlem red carpet premiere next week. And I love skincare, especially anything that’s not invasive. Microneedling brings out the natural qualities and aspects of your own skin. If you’ve never done it before, you’ve got to try it.

What TV shows are you binge-watching right now?

I am unashamed to say that I am binge-watching The Golden Girls. I am obsessed. It’s kind of on par [with Harlem] because of the whole idea of four women being best friends and the dynamics between them. I had always loved seeing episodes of The Golden Girls here and there, but I had never sat and watched all the seasons. They are now my friends, and I go to sleep every night watching them.

Who do you think is the Quinn of Golden Girls?

I totally feel that there’s a similarity between Rose and Quinn. Quinn definitely has a lot of sheltered moments throughout the season that you’ll see—she’s like, “Really? What? Huh?,” and everyone gets it but her. She’s not daft or anything, but she’s just a little sheltered, and doesn’t catch on as quickly. And she just loves life with open arms, which Rose Nylund, played by Betty White, does such an amazing job showing us.