Duca dazzles in jazz singer role for FOX’s Empire

John Park, staff reporter

On a dimly lit nightclub stage, a band starts to play a soothing, jazzy tune. A couple measures in, a dulcet voice begins to sing a melody and creates an atmosphere that invites the club’s audience back to the swing era. This rich voice is coming from junior Antonio Duca.

This past summer, Duca bore a major step in his career when he played a role in the FOX television series, Empire.

According to Duca, he sings at a nightclub in Berwyn, Illinois, FitzGerald’s, once a month with the John Burnett Swing Orchestra. It was one of these performances that helped him land a spot on Empire. Rich Daniels, the musical director for the show, was at the club one night and Duca’s performance caught his eye.

“The band leader told me they were casting for a certain part in the Chicago area for a kind of person of my kind of style of a Frank Sinatra kind of thing,” Duca said. “So, he gave me a contact of a man named Rich Daniels, and I called and he said, ‘Well, kid, I saw what you did with the band. I liked it very much, so come down here and try out.’”

According to Duca, the idea of acting on a show made him nervous at first because with singing it was “just the stage and the music.” However, his familiarity with the role gave him confidence.

“I knew what the whole feel for the part they wanted was,” Duca said. “It was a singer in a nightclub, so it was right up my alley.”

At the audition site, Duca said he felt like an outsider because everyone else was well-trained. When his name was called, he walked into the room where there were three judges, one being the director of the show. He had to sing a song a capella, choosing “Stardust” by Nat King Cole.

“They said, ‘Alright now read this line,’ and I read it,” Duca said. “‘Now read it in an accent.’ Luckily my grandpa’s from Mexico, and my grandmother is from Colombia, so I’m used to that kind of accent. They found it kind of entertaining.”

Afterwards, according to Duca, he didn’t know what to expect but did not really care because he had nothing to lose from the experience. His grandfather, Frank Fernandez, also calmed him, telling him not to worry if they didn’t call him.

“You have to knock on a lot of doors and maybe one’s going to open,” Fernandez said. “As soon as I said that, the phone rang.”

According to Fernandez, when Duca was casted for the part, his whole family was surprised and excited for him. In August, Duca and Fernandez drove to the set, which was a bar, to shoot his scene. Duca says he was very unaccustomed to the constantly active environment.

“There’s these giant cameras on cranks and lifts that have tracks that move this way and that way,” Duca said. “They had this guy on me the entire time fixing my tie. It was kind of weird.”

Duca’s role was to sing a song and then introduce a character named Laura Calleros (played by Jamila Velazquez). According to Duca, he had already pre-recorded the song, so it was “no pressure,” but it was his first time, so he undoubtedly did make some mistakes. Duca says the crew had to do multiple takes in order to get different angles and camera positions.

“I remember I was so stupid one point,” Duca said. “I think it was the seventh take for my scene. One guy is just like, ‘Dude don’t look at the camera,’ so I was like ‘Whoops!’”

The shooting took about five hours, according to Duca, and once the episode aired, he and Fernandez were surprised at how many people had seen him on TV.

“It’s one of the best feelings that you can have, to be in that kind of a show, and have so many viewers: 15-18 million viewers,” Fernandez said. “Friends from different countries sent him congratulations, so we were in shock.”

As Duca was about to leave, director Danny Strong approached him, saying that he enjoyed working with Duca and that they could really use this act in the future. Although Duca is doubtful he will be called back, he says he grew through the experience. Acting in Empire gave him the assurance of knowing he can do greater things.

“I think by having that one positive encounter with that kind of situation, mentally, it’s nice,” Duca said. “It can make you go out there for more.”

One person that has been helping Duca “go out there for more” is Fernandez, who is also a musician that played in multiple bands, both in Chicago and in Mexico. Fernandez recognized Duca’s talent at a young age when Duca took a CD from his shelf and listened to it by himself.

“Later, he came back and he had the CD with him and he said, ‘Grandpa this is what I want to be the rest of my life,’” Fernandez said. “And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ […] He had a Frank Sinatra CD. He wanted to be like him and he wanted to do that the rest of his life.”

Ever since Duca had a big hit singing in an Italian restaurant three years ago, Fernandez has been a manager for his grandson, looking for places where he could sing with a big band. Although at first they were met with little success in their search, they eventually found a band that would play with him: the John Burnett Swing Orchestra.

“People hire me; they’re little private events,” Duca said. “That’s kind of what I do as a job right now, and I love it.”

In addition to such events, according to Fernandez, Duca also does a lot of charity work. Duca uses his singing to benefit the community, especially it’s elderly residents.

“Mainly, [where I sing] mostly are the nursing homes,” Duca said. “That’s because [for] the older people, it’s their music. So, they really get a kick out of that, that’s why I like to do it.”

Duca has grown to respect the musicians he works with and their passion for their job in all environments. Despite the importance of academics, and the challenges of becoming a singer, Duca has hopes for a musical future.

“The way I think of it, it’s been a success and it’s happened to people who have been less fortunate,” Duca said. “So, I think it’s worth a shot, and I think if you enjoy it, then what the [heck].”

However, one obstacle Duca has encountered is that people often associate him with simply imitating famous singers from the past. Instead, Duca wants to emphasize his uniqueness.

“People have labeled me as a Sinatra wannabe,” Duca said. “In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I want to be something unique, new, my own name. Maybe the songs are the same, but the message is mine and mine alone.”