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Empire Post Mortem: Trai Byers on That Explosive Elevator Scene, Bipolar Stigma and Rhonda's 'Betrayal'

Trai Byers can almost guarantee you’d have been in tears if you’d been on set for the filming of this week’s pivotal Empire scene — in which his character Andre Lyon has a harrowing manic episode on a stalled elevator in front of his younger brothers Jamal and Hakeem.

“I’ll tell you happily that at the end of the scene, I hugged Jussie [Smollett] and Yazz [aka Bryshere Y. Gray] so hard. I’m crying. Jussie’s crying. Yazz was too cool for school, but we all felt it,” Byers says with a chuckle. “We went on a journey together. We expressed the love and the feelings that brothers should have — despite the situation that these brothers are in. It was such a beautiful moment.”

Andre’s breakdown in “Unto the Breach” is prompted by his decision to go off his medications. It’s exacerbated by his family’s Empire Entertainment coming under an all-out siege for its artists by main competitor Billy Baretti — who’s now getting support and intel from treacherous Anika, who up until last week was engaged to Andre’s (no-good cheating) father Lucious.

As the ailing Lucious continues to pit his sons against each other for the right to assume his throne, Andre spirals even deeper into despair, and by the end of the hour, after a violent outburst in the Empire conference room — and a very noisy accusation of murder against Lucious — he’s sedated against his will and put under a 48-hour psychiatric hold.

TVLine caught up with Byers to discuss the episode’s pivotal moments — and preview the marital woes, corporate scheming and reconnection with mercurial mother Cookie that lie ahead for Andre.

And if that’s not enough for you, at the end of this post we’ve got an exclusive video recap of “Unto the Breach” narrated by Ta’Rhonda Jones (the woman behind the endlessly entertaining Porsha).

TVLINE | Before we talk about “Unto the Breach,” I wanted to discuss last week’s episode, specifically with Lucious saying that he doesn’t feel Andre is part of the family — that he’s working against the family —because he’s married to this white woman. That shocked me, because Rhonda was in the room when Lucious announced his ALS, and it felt like she was a definite part of the family. Do you feel like Lucious does have a real problem with Andre and Rhonda’s relationship, or did he just try and pick the thing he thought would hurt his son the most because he felt betrayed by Andre and Vernon’s scheming?
I think he does have a problem with the relationship. Lucious, we have to remember, is very calculated and very calculating. That [disapproval] is something that he’s held onto for a while — and now he can play that card. It’s useful for him to play that card, especially when he’s been saving everything for Hakeem for the long haul. Jamal is starting to step up in ways that Lucious did not anticipate. And I don’t know that he ever envisioned Andre… in Episode One, the first conversation that we had with Andre and Lucious fighting, Lucious said, “Don’t you think the celebrity-driven brand should be driven by a celebrity?” He believes in that wholeheartedly.

But why wouldn’t Andre get the business? He’s the most able. He went to school for it. He brought his resources back. He’s the reason that they are successfully able to apply for an IPO to become a Fortune 500 Company. I feel like Andre’s always been different but useful: Keep him in the position that he’s at now, he’s like the forever CFO, while his brother rises above. It’s very selfish of Lucious. I don’t completely understand it, but in episodes to come, we may or may not learn another reason why Lucious doesn’t want Andre to be the head of the empire.

EmpireTVLINE | I also have to ask about the Russian roulette scene in Episode 8 — which was brief but intense and terrifying. I always feel like Andre’s the forgotten son in the family. In the early episodes, because he doesn’t have these musical moments, it’s easier to not focus on him.But the last few weeks, his story has really come to life — and that scene punctuated the pain he is experiencing. What was it like playing a scene where your character is so far on the edge, where he is actually contemplating suicide?
Man, it was cathartic. I’m saying it as the actor playing Andre —  so, not just in the doing, but in watching it as well. Andre is the forgotten son. Not only was he the forgotten son on the show, he was the forgotten son with the public as well — and people misjudged him. People continue to misjudge him based on the way that the edit comes out; they see him as this big villain. But he’s got a heart full of love — it’s just a broken heart and it’s flooded with the memories of his pain, of his trying to get himself together. And on top of that, he’s bipolar.

With that said, when it was time to go into the recording booth [where the Russian roulette scene occurs], first of all I had no idea how to play that scene. I’m a Christian. I prayed. I said, “God, I don’t know how to do this. I’ve done all my research. I have people in my family that are bipolar. I know these people. I’ve seen them, but I’d never put a gun to my head. I’ve never had a breakdown like that.” So, you go in, and it’s half reckless abandon, but I did feel so cathartic in that moment. I tapped into emotions that I didn’t even know that I had. Watching what happens to Andre and playing that part, stepping in those shoes, I couldn’t help but feel upset. I was in that recording booth with Andre. I was in that shower scene with Andre. And it just felt like a great sense of catharsis and unpredictability. It was freeing as an actor.

TVLINE | This week’s episode starts with Andre dumping his meds in the toilet — and it’s so shocking because he’s somebody who’s on the brink of controlling this empire. What do you see as his motivation in that moment?
Andre has been searching for identity for a long time. He came back from school and brought all these resources, and he’s the oldest son in this dysfunctional family. His mother’s in jail. His brothers are doing all the work musically — and they’re in their own world. His father is trying to run this business and living his life the way that he lives it. Andre was trying to force his way into this life, fresh from school, and to be used over and over and over and over again really hurts him. Now, he’s rocked by this information that he’s in contention with his brothers for the role of CEO at Empire. At the point when Lucious tells him in Episode 8 that he’s not going to get the company — “I knew when you brought that white woman that I couldn’t trust you” —  the way that I played it, it becomes about freedom. “This is who I am. I didn’t want to accept this part of me, but nobody’s going to fortify me or be there for me in any way. So, this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Boom. I’m going to go about life the way that I’m going to go about life. I don’t need medication.” He just walks into the day fully himself — but ironically, he’s fully not himself.

TVLINE | This week’s pivotal moment is that elevator scene. Can you walk me through how it came to be?
We didn’t really work it out together ahead of time. What we did, the brothers, we sang “Lean on Me.” We kept singing it. We kept singing it, and that was the best thing to do — because you can’t lose the love. Love is what kept that elevator intact and if it had not been for love, Andre would have ripped through both of them.

So you have love, but at the same time, there are so many mixed emotions. There’s so much history that they have. It’s beautiful that Jamal remembered a song to calm Andre down from his [episode]. Andre is going a mile a minute. Not even a mile, a hundred miles a minute. The love is there, but the hurt is there, but the pain is there, but the excitement is there. It’s the height of mania and it’s the lowest point of depression and it’s failure. It’s one of those scenes, again, where we relied on one another. It’s in the face and in the eyes. We’re so tight-knit, the cast, and we love each other. Jussie and Yazz, those are my brothers.

Everything that’s happened from the beginning of the series to this point is expressed [in that scene], but you find something different, and you find softness, too. “You’re the oldest brother. It’s your responsibility to take care of them — and now you’re tearing them apart. Wait a minute. Hold on. If you don’t do it, they could take what’s yours.” I mean, these thoughts are going in my head — and at the same time you’re seeing the faces of Lucious and Cookie and her being taken away and you don’t know if you’ll ever see her again. At some point, you just act like you don’t have a mother. You don’t have a father. You don’t have brothers. It’s just you there by yourself with your wife and Uncle Vernon. It’s hurtful.

The picture, [the group hug], that you see at the end of the elevator scene, is where we should have been, where we could have been, maybe one day we’ll be, but ultimately, it’s all up in the air. Still, the love is there. I think that’s what’s meant to showcase.

TVLINE | What has it been like as an actor to really showcase the depths of bipolar disorder — in this particular episode in such an intense and sometimes frightening way?
It’s a beautiful thing, my friend. Bipolar disorder is so swept under the rug, as a nation and I think especially by black people. It’s not our culture to go get therapy. “Give them medicine for what?” We put people in court, put them in court again, versus really paying attention to what it is they are going through. This show is a platform for not only bipolar people, but people with ALS. We need to pay attention to each other. We are our brother’s keepers. We are our sister’s keepers. Beyond the big old personalities, the memes, the tweets and all that social media jazz, underneath all of that, we’re talking about homosexuality. We’re talking about the truth of homosexuality and homophobia. We’re talking about dysfunctional families, and bipolar disorder and ALS. We’re talking about it in a serious manner, so it’s our responsibility to get it right. Hopefully, we did.

EmpireTVLINE The other big scene in this episode takes place in the conference room. Andre is fully and clearly off his meds — but in some ways is being very, very honest. I love the line when he says to Lucious, “You pick the one who knows you’re a murderer.” How did you feel when you got the script and you saw that particular line? You play his mood and his mode very differently than the elevator scene — in a way that makes you feel like Andre no longer has the moorings of his family. 
There’s a different energy with different people. Andre expects a lot from Lucious based on what Andre gives to Lucious and gives to the company. Right after the elevator scene, he gets physical with Malcom, Derek Luke’s character, so he’s snapped from one situation and then put into another. He’s still off his medication and he still has beef with people, particularly with Lucious, who has announced his disdain for him and his wife, his lifestyle, what he holds dear, what he thinks is important. He’s completely thrown it down. “What do I do to get the company? Ah, I can’t have the company anymore, but what if I do it like this?” His mind is moving. He can’t control himself, and then he’s frustrated with himself, and then his father comes in. “Oh! You’re the reason I’m frustrated. You beep-beep.”

It explodes all at once… the love is still there, but there is something that is overpowering it, and it’s betrayal. It’s love mixed with betrayal mixed with “you owe me,” mixed with “I could kill you right now. I could kill you right now.” It’s a recipe for disaster with no medication all day.

As far as that [murderer] line, I don’t know. I knew that I would have to improv that scene — and for the most part Terrence and I improvised it. We did that scene time and time again — every time a different way, with different words, and sometimes different actions. Kudos to Terrence. I couldn’t have done it without him. He was willing to let me do what I did to him. He could’ve made a fuss about it, been a diva actor, which he’s not, and said “No, no. I have to get my blows in.” But he knew the importance of the moment. Ultimately, I looked at that script and I knew that we would have to embellish upon it. Embellish we did, and David Rambo, the writer [for the episode], was there in support of us. He gave us the launch pad and we had to fuel it with our own gas, man. It took us where it took us.

TVLINE | I thought it was super cold that Lucious makes Rhonda sign the papers for the 48-hour psychiatric hold. Here he is, in control of the moment, and then when a signature is needed, Lucious is all, “Oh, his wife’s over there.”
Therein lies the rub. Wait ’til you get to Episode 10, and see how we deal with that.

TVLINE | Is that going to blow up Andre and Rhonda’s marriage?
I’ll say this: Nobody likes betrayal — especially Andre. So, when Rhonda signs him over, it’s a sign of betrayal to him and he does not like it at all. You’re going to have to see what happens in Episode 10, my friend.

TVLINE | OK, one final question: I feel like the one person we haven’t seen Andre connect with in a big way is his mother Cookie.
Thank you! I appreciate that you paid attention. That’s great. I’m sorry, I’m just happy about you noticing that.

TVLINE | I’m hungry for that to happen. Will we see that?
The relationship is very strained with Andre and Cookie. Cookie, she recognizes Andre as picking himself up by the boot straps and getting educated — and she feels a certain way about not being a part of that. And he feels like he’s abandoned, basically, by his mother when she goes away and he has to fend for himself. That’s a hard pill to swallow and something to get over. They’re working on it. There might be something to look forward in the future involving the two of them while they’re working through their issues as mother and son.