‘Empire’s’ Trai Byers on Andre’s Breakdown, Relationship With Jennifer Hudson

Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard

Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in the premiere episode of Empire on Jan. 7, 2015. 

Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the ninth episode of Empire’s first season, Unto the Breach.]

Since Empire’s pilot, the Fox hip-hop drama teased that the eldest Lyon son, Andre (Trai Byers), had an illness that kept Lucious (Terrence Howard) from handing over the keys to his kingdom. Save for a small physical stumble one night at his father’s club Laviticus, Andre seemed to have his bipolar disorder under control. A combination of his medication, doting wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) and clear-cut mission to get between younger brothers Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) combined to keep Andre focused and leveled. But that all changed Wednesday.

After Lucious’ “nay” vote rejected Andre from becoming interim CEO should the head of Empire Entertainment become incapacitated, that further drove home just how little the magnate respected his son and his decisions that was further exacerbated by admitting his disapproval of Andre’s marriage to a white woman. That’s when it seemed all Andre was working toward crumbled — setting him off on a downward spiral.

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First, he almost shot himself but then, in the next episode, he flushed his meds, which brought on his increasingly erratic behavior that included almost getting into a fist fight with his brothers while trapped in an elevator. It ended with him stomping around the Empire Entertainment boardroom, calling his father a murderer in front of those outside the family, and, eventually, getting restrained and sedated before being sent off on a 48-hour psychiatric hold.

“I don’t think that Andre wanted to have any signs of weakness; he didn’t want to accept the bipolar disorder,” Byers tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But at this point, it’s like ‘Who am I? My father doesn’t want me; my mother’s only concerned about Jamal; I don’t have anybody but my wife. This is who I am, so I’m going to be me, flaws and all.’ I like the analogy of cutting off your nose to spite your face because in accepting [the disorder] and going with the flow instead of treating it does that, but it’s also a great platform to showcase the disorder — one that I think we kind of sweep under the rug as a nation.”

Although the show put Andre’s disease on the back burner for more than the first half of the season, it’s now front and center of the Fox breakout drama. Here, THR talks with Byers about the complicated role and what it might take for Andre to regain control.

For so much of the first season of Empire you played Andre seemingly physically restrained in the way he carried himself. He seemed so together, and ultimately he was because he was on his meds. How much of that was intentional to show a greater juxtaposition in the moments he was off, and were there moments you wanted to hit more at what he goes through internally that you didn’t because it would have tipped the hand to what was to come?

Everything was a decision; there’s nothing there that’s by default at all. I didn’t get advance knowledge of where the character was going; we kind of went script by script, so with that, I trained for a long time. [Exec producer] Lee Daniels told me my character was bipolar and it would change the arc of the character from the time we did the pilot because then Andre was just depressed. They developed the disorder after we got picked up. It was about playing the subtleties and letting other things affect Andre. There were some episodes where we didn’t reference Andre’s disorder at all; it was about remembering and letting the emotions of being the odd man out, always forgotten, never really given the full credit due affect him; let that be the reason he was kind of wigging out but also having the underlying bipolar disorder be the foundation of what you saw.

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At the end of Unto the Breach, you really got to explode verbally and physically inside that boardroom. Talk a little bit about filming that scene — how much of it was your improv in order to keep the other actors in their characters’ minds of truly not knowing of what Andre is capable?

Every movement and every beat was not actually scripted, and it couldn’t be. I give major props to Terrence because I couldn’t have done it with out him — without him being as open and caring. We did that scene, and almost every single time the words changed. We’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle, and that’s what this is. Writer David Rambo did an amazing job scripting it as a launch pad, but we had to fuel it. We had to put a little extra something there to ultimately get where we needed to go and touch people and make this an unforgettable moment in television. It was a lot of improv. It was a moment of coming together and trusting each other.

Andre experienced both ends of the poles in Unto the Breach. What are the challenges of that kind of intense emotion switching on you as an actor?

I know some people who are bipolar: I have some members of my family who are bipolar, and I found two people that I put together to show both sides of the bipolar and the process. But when it came time to put the gun to my head and pull the trigger [in episode eight] or do what you saw in episode nine, I’ve never been in that position, so it was about giving away. I got on my knees and prayed, “God come with me because we’re going to go somewhere!” It’s all in the quest of telling the truth, so I let it go. 

Lucious has been vocal about not accepting Jamal’s homosexuality — something he did not choose. So when Andre learned he was bipolar, did he even tell his father? How much of Andre’s drive to keep his disease regulated is to keep it a secret?

What’s so interesting about Empire is there are levels that are unraveling and are yet to unravel as well. You can’t really determine the full story because you don’t have all of the information yet, going episode by episode. There’s a lot going on in regard to the family and in “I see myself in this son instead of this son,” and “He should have this in order to run that.” Cookie [Taraji P. Henson] is going hard for Jamal, and Lucious, in ways, is going hard for Hakeem, and Andre’s there keeping things afloat with regard to the IPO and the money and trying to keep everybody on time with what needs to be done and when it needs to be done but not really getting the kudos. As you continue to watch, in episode 10 and episode 11, it will make much more sense why this was necessary.

There was a moment where Lucious did seem to know something was wrong with Andre, though. When they were trying to sign that rock star, Andre’s energy in the pitch could have been seen as passion if you didn’t know to look for signs of a mental break.

The beautiful thing about episode nine is that it is all in one day. Andre throws his medication away at the beginning of the day, as you saw, and this is all apart of bipolar — the highs and lows. You’ll have to watch episode 10 to see what Lucious is aware of and what he is not aware of, but ultimately in that scene, he should be scared; everybody should be scared! Nobody knows what is going to come out of Andre because he’s manic and he’s depressed. He’s going from zero to 100 in both directions, and you don’t know when he’s going to flip and turn — whether it’s passion, pain, love, hate, it’s all in there. Everybody should be afraid, especially Lucious.

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When Andre was in the elevator with his brothers, Jamal seemed to understand exactly what was happening, and even though it was a heartbreaking moment, it was also one of the only times we’ve seen all three of them be truly united. There was something very sweet and tender about it, as well. What was that like to film?

My head was going a hundred miles an hour. Andre’s not crazy, but he’s imbalanced, and the imbalance restrains or releases him. He’s a prisoner to the disorder and all that it does to him spiritually, mentally and physically. Jamal was able to tap into that with the memories of being kids. I think that if Andre was crazy, he would have torn them apart, but because he loves his family, he’s trying to manage all of these things. Sometimes that’s lost on the public, but he does love his family. He loves, and he’s in pain, and the bipolar disorder is making him so imbalanced that he can’t really tell up from down, so it’s just lucky for the people in the elevator that it’s not turned upside down.

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Andre has been there for his father and in many ways has seemed to live for his father. Have we seen the breaking point in their relationship? Will Andre be making some decisions in the coming episodes that show him if not going against his father the way Anika (Grace Gealey) has then at least starting to make decisions for himself?

Betrayal does so many different things to people. We’ve got to put ourselves in their shoes — Anika’s as well! There’s a lot of betrayal going on at the hands of Lucious, who’s the bad guy! Andre has felt betrayed, but now it has been manifested in front of his eyes in a way that nobody could have foretold. Had he not been mentally unstable, he probably would have buried things even deeper, and that’s unfortunate. But who signed him away — who put him into the mental institution? Why wasn’t it done earlier?

Well, Rhonda warned him she would do that if he didn’t take his meds, so he had to know that was a possibility.

But that’s his wife, and there was so much going on. She’s going to say what she’s going to say to keep him [minding] his p’s and q’s, but there’s a love there. This was Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and she knows what his situation is better than anybody knows what his situation is — not only his medication but also the betrayal and the pain. What’s the bedside conversations they had? What’s the pillow talk? I can guarantee you it’s hurtful.

Are there repercussions from outing his father as a murderer?

Lucious is very calculating, and I think that if Andre had been anyone else, he probably would have been killed. (Laughs.) So you’re dealing with the fact that it’s family, but also, how much is anyone going to believe what this man says? Lucious thinks he’s crazy, you know what I mean?

Jennifer Hudson is coming on in episode 10 to play a music therapist Andre starts working with. What is their dynamic like?

She brings a purity with her as an actress into the role of Michelle that connects with the purity of Andre. Her light shines onto his light, and her light combines with his light, and it showcases the Andre that he can potentially be in a way that steps away from the needs of Empire Entertainment. It’s a beautiful thing [because] it seems that Andre could have gone any way but went the way of the family, which kind of buried him, and there’s so much more potential there. What can he do? He doesn’t have to be a part of that world. I think that’s encouraging, and she will encourage.

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It’s been said before that Andre is not musical, but will she bring out some hidden talents?

Andre, unfortunately, can’t sing! I can sing, and I sing well, but as far as Andre is concerned, he’s trying to work on himself. He’s a part of a musical family, and that’s how they get down, but the musical therapy thing, it’s a very new thing as far as I’m concerned.

Do you ever feel left out because you want to be able to incorporate your own musical talent but can’t?

It fuels me with the character of Andre because music is the thing that brings everybody together, as you saw in episode eight in the studio, and having my natural gift suppressed helps me to emphasize more with Andre being left out. So I’m not upset about that at all! It helps to tell the truth. He’s kind of the straight man, and it kind of forces him into that position, and to be isolated like that on purpose as the actor helps me play a better Andre.

What do you think Andre needs most right now?

Medical help, first and foremost! (Laughs.) He needs to even out. But ultimately, he needs a rediscovery of himself [too] — outside of the business, outside of his father, outside of the family. If he had gone off individually, independently, and made his own way, it would have been much more healthy than coming back to this machine that wants to use him and put people on top of him. So he needs that now.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. How do you want to see the Lyon family rally to help Andre? Let your voices be heard in the comments below, and come back next week for more Empire postmortem coverage.

This article originally appeared in THR.com.