'Empire' actor calls Metro Detroit home

Mekeisha Madden Toby
Special to The Detroit News

Antoine McKay won't be denied.

Even when Lucious (star Terrence Howard) killed his character Bunkie in the pilot of Fox's hit hop-hop soap "Empire," the Metro Detroit native appeared throughout the first season in flashbacks and as a ghost in the finale.

"Thankfully, they continued to use me," said McKay, 44, a graduate of Wayne Memorial High School in Wayne. He also studied theater at Eastern Michigan University.

"Playing a ghost was so Shakespearean. That was a great day because I was working with Mario Van Peebles (who directed the episode) and it was just Mario, Taraji P. Henson, Terrance and I. It was fun. Starting from the first take, it just grew and grew."

Like the scene, McKay's career has continued to blossom since his days as a Second City Detroit and Second City Chicago mainstage cast member. Acting credits include small parts on "Detroit 1-8-7," "Prison Break" "ER," and in movies such as "The Weatherman." He's also appeared in commercials for Bing and American Airlines.

Looking back, McKay said he knew his Second City Detroit days were special and that costars like Keegan-Michael Key were going to have household names.

"It was a special, anointed time. I really, really looked at it that way," said McKay, who now lives in Chicago with his wife and six kids. "Keegan came out of that group, I did, Nyima Funk. Her husband, Josh Funk, writes for numerous TV shows. Marc Evan Jackson is on 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine.' I knew they were gonna make it because they're smart and funny.

"It's crazy to see because even then I just kind of knew something was going to happen. I'm not saying I know the secret of success, necessarily, but I knew."

Pam Cardell Cato attended EMU with McKay and she, too, had a hunch her former classmate would go far. McKay also taught an improvisation class at the college in 2000.

"Even as a student, he was charismatic. You were just drawn to him," said Cardell Cato, the assistant managing director for the University's Department of Communication. "It's fun seeing him as Bunkie. I'm happy he landed on such a successful show. He's such a kind and talented person, and it's great to see that it happened for him."

No word yet on if McKay will be back for season two of "Empire," which hasn't been given a definite premiere date but could return as soon as this fall. He's hopeful but said if it doesn't happen, he's grateful for the time he had.

"That was one of the most professional and inclusive casts I have ever worked with," McKay said. "There was no fighting and people weren't cussing each other out. No dissension. I've been on sets like that before, but this wasn't one of them. They really are like a family."

McKay said he also enjoyed working with John Singleton and Debbie Allen, both of whom directed episodes.

"These are directors I watched growing up," McKay said. "My sister's a dancer. We watched 'Fame' faithfully. Debbie Allen was huge to us. I remember the day I was sitting in makeup and she walked in the door. You realize people are people as you go along through this. But when she walked in the door, there was a little geek out. I was squeezing the chair like, 'Oh my gosh.' It was really cool. It was great working with her, and she was so gracious."

In April, McKay will return to Detroit to shoot a movie. In the meantime, he can be seen in the indie film "Resurrecting McGinn(s)" and on the Netflix series "Sense8" from the Wachowskis ("The Matrix" movies), which debuts in June.

Most of all, McKay said he's proud to be able to return to the city where it all started.

"My mom passed away last year, and I shot the pilot for 'Empire' a month before she passed. She knew I was on the show and that was great," McKay said, "but I haven't been back since then and it will be nice to be back home."

"There is something about Detroit," he added. "You carry it around with you no matter where you live. The food. The music festivals. Lafayette Coney Island is going to be one of my first stops."

Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.