An accomplished actor, writer, social activist and entrepreneur, Ciera Payton is a well-respected pillar of the entertainment industry with an unwavering dedication to the arts while growing up in the city of New Orleans. I had the pleasure to catch up with Ciera as she shared her acting and entrepreneurial journey, her non-profit organization The Michael’s Daughter Foundation, and her latest role as Silvia in Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral.
“I look at each role I play, as a person ready to come to life. I don’t think of them as characters. I see them as humans that give me the task and opportunity to honor their lives and tell their stories.”- Ciera Payton
What inspired you to start acting? How did you get started?
CP: “My inspiration for acting started when I was about 6 years old. I just loved living in my imagination as a kid. I would pretend I was Ariel from the Little Mermaid or Pocahontas. My dad bought me a karaoke machine when I was 8 years old and that changed my world forever. I just wouldn’t put that microphone down.
I used to take my little story books and re-enact the stories while holding the microphone in my hand; being the narrator and all the characters. My Nanaw (the name I called my paternal grandmother) would prop up a chair and be my only audience member. She’d egg me on saying, “And what happened next Ciera?”
So the acting bug bit me pretty early on. When I was about 12 years old, I started taking it a bit more seriously. I was in the drama club at school and when summer vacation came around, I knew I wanted to keep myself artistically fed. I had heard from some classmates about the summer theater program N.O.R.D. Theater (New Orleans Recreational Department: Theater). They were auditioning for a community theater play and it was suggested that I auditioned.
I asked my mom and with her blessing, I was off to audition for Babes in Arms. I landed the role of Lana Turner which was pretty cool. That theater made such big splash in the New Orleans community due to its color blind casting. Being on that stage ignited a fire in me and I grew to be addicted to performing, which shocked most of my family members. They all knew me as a shy, quiet little girl, but when the lights were on me and I had lines to recite or a pose to strike, I felt so alive. So that’s where it all started.”
What do you love most about being an actress?
CP: “I look at all the characters I play as real human beings. The writers and producers are creating from a familiar place. They are creating characters based off people they knew or from someplace inside their minds, either consciously or sub-consciously. Acting, to me, is giving life to a character. It is somewhat spiritual to me. Figuring out how she moves, or how she talks, yet bringing my full self to her is such a delight.
I love figuring out the character and what the creatives are trying to say with any given script. I’m just there to come along and give a voice to the character and make them come to life. That is my favorite part about acting, creating a voice of a person and hoping that my moments on screen or on stage can evoke joy, excitement, pleasure and/or healing to those who are watching. “
Who are some actors you have worked with that made you want to grow as an actor?
CP: “When I was in college, I worked with Tony-Award Nominated actress Michele Shay. She is one of the most grounded and beautiful women I’ve ever known. She can give life, light, and love to everyone around her.
She directed me in our school’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. It was then that I learned that being an actress was bigger and greater than just saying lines and looking cute. It was about sharing your light for all to see and in return, having others see their life and their truth.
Michele taught me different breathing exercises and grounding tools to help me fully embody the character I was playing. It became my duty to ensure I was the best I could be. Since then, I’ve always treated my work as an actress as something sacred and not to be abused or disregarded. Even, if I’m on screen for 5 seconds, I want to ensure that my character is living her truth.
Other actors I’ve worked with that have inspired me greatly are The Rock and Tyler Perry. The Rock was such a joy to be around on the set of Ballers. He’s this huge man who takes up space but is such a ray of light. He’s so polite, kind, and funny as can be. Before he came on set, you could feel the stress of everyone ensuring that things were set up properly for the scene. It’s basic production stress. However, when The Rock entered on set, a calmness just came over the space. I was like, “How did he do that?” But as I observed, he greeted everyone, shook hands, and was engaging. I took note and have made it a point to be that way always.
And I couldn’t do this interview without mentioning Tyler Perry. What he has done and amassed has just been incredible! The first black man to own a movie studio. Literally coming from nothing and making more than just something. He’s such a hardworking man and is so generous. He treats everyone with the utmost respect and dignity. It was such a joy to be in his presence.
I’ve learned a lot from those three actors and am just inspired by them constantly. “
What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you first started your acting career?
CP: “When I was a senior in high school, I was working at an art museum. There, a movie starring Matthew McConaughey was filming. Something came over me to walk over and talk to him. So I did. I told him that I wanted to do what he does and asked if he had any advice to give me. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Keep going and don’t ever give up. Even when it gets hard. Keep going.” And just like that, I was shooed away by a set Production Assistant and Matthew was off to take his mark in front of the camera.
Michele Shay taught me to, “Create your own vehicle”. Create something that will keep you artistically and creatively engaged, especially during the times when things are slow. Don’t just sit around waiting for the phone to ring from your agent. Get up and create something to show them who you are.
Those are the two most valuable pieces of advice that I keep with me until this day and they have served me well.”
What motivated you to start your non-profit organization, The Michael Daughter’s Foundation?
CP: “With the advice given by my mentor Michele Shay and being inspired by Dr. Maya Angelou, I decided to write and create my very own one-woman show titled Michael’s Daughter. The play highlighted my struggles of stepping into woman-hood while having an incarcerated father. Growing up, my dad and I were very close. He was like a best friend to me. But it was no secret that he struggled with substance abuse. As a kid, I used to attend NA and AA meetings with him; sitting in the back playing with my Barbies, listening to stories of people hitting their rock bottom.
My father went to prison while I was in high school. He got out while I was in college and later ended up back in prison when I moved to LA. It was frustrating and heartbreaking. I was starting out in a new city trying my best to be focused and positive while auditioning and here I was grappling with my father’s struggles. I knew I had to come to terms with it all and forgive him. So I decided to use our prison letters and heal myself by telling our story.
I toured my play all around LA. I brought it to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and then to the United Solo Festival in New York. After every show, I’d have a number of people coming up to me expressing how my story mirrored theirs.
After one show, a young 17-year-old boy came to me and said he had recently been released from jail and that his daddy was in prison too. He told me how my story inspired him to write to his dad and forgive him.
Throughout my career as an actress, I’ve had to keep a number of side jobs. Most of which have been teaching artist jobs, serving kids in the Los Angeles inner cities. I’ve always had a love of working with our young people. They just teach me so much. And a large population of them, especially our black and latinx youth, have loved ones who are incarcerated. So after doing my one-woman show and working multiple teaching jobs as an arts educator, the lightbulb went off; I should create a program that serves youth dealing with incarcerated and/or drug-addicted parents and loved ones. That’s how the idea came to me. In 2013 I applied for and was granted funding from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Since then, the Michael’s Daughter Foundation has been going strong ever since. I love the work we do and it’s so beautiful to see the young people thrive. “
What did you want to be as a child?
CP: “Ha! When I was little I remember telling my Nanaw that I wanted to be on TV, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I was going to be the president of the United States. Two out of three ain’t bad. But hey, who knows, in 15 years or so, I can aim for the third.”
What are the most important factors in entrepreneurship?
CP: “Being an entrepreneur is tough. Long dedicated hours, lots of personal money and time invested. However, if you believe in yourself and what you are selling, seriously, the sky is the limit.
When starting Sincerely Cosmetics, I was terrified. I didn’t know much of what I was doing; spreadsheets, marketing, etc. But I sought out help and educated myself. Whenever I’d hear from a woman or see someone posting my lipstick on social media, I knew I was doing something right. I knew the stress and sacrifice was worth it. As an entrepreneur, you discover that there is a need or a want and then figure out how to serve that. And have faith. Those are the things that create a true entrepreneur. “
Name two great moments you’ve experienced as an actor.
CP: “My most memorable moment was when I was in college. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck my hometown of New Orleans, it was difficult to be in college studying acting. My family and I had lost our home and my grandmother (my maternal grandmother) had passed away. So I decided to take some time off of college. I went back to New Orleans and was considering pursuing a career in the medical field.
I was sitting at a restaurant with my brother when I got the call to audition for an upcoming Steven Seagal movie. This was one of my first auditions. So, I decided to go and audition for this action movie starring Steven Seagal. Well, I got a callback and had to audition in front of Mr. Seagal that same day. I wasn’t nervous but I remember not knowing what he thought about my performance. And so I just continued about my day.
Shortly after, I decided to return back to school to continue my studies. A few weeks went by and one day, I received a call from an unfamiliar number. I answered, and the person explained to me that they were from the production of the film and were wondering if I had a passport. I informed them that I did. And with that, I was told that I booked the female lead in a Steven Seagal action movie. My jaw was to the floor! So within a week I was boarding a plane to Romania and would be there for six weeks to film Flight of Fury.
Working on Madea’s Family Funeral was another incredible moment in my life. Before booking the role, I was going through the common actor challenges; looking for work, scraping pennies to get by. I literally was in a space where I was asking God if this was even meant to be. Things had gotten pretty tight. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay rent or even go grocery shopping. I got so desperate that I was on my way to apply for social services help. I just didn’t know what else to do. I hopped in my car, checked to see if I had enough gas to make it across Los Angeles, and was about to pull off when my phone started ringing. It was my agent. I answered and he goes, “Tyler Perry wants you!!!”
I was speechless. All I could say was, “Wow!” Then he proceeded to give me the details about my departure and shooting dates; I’d be leaving in two days to start filming the following week in Atlanta. When I got off the phone, I cried tears of joy. Parked my car and went back inside my apartment and started dancing!
While working on set for Madea’s Family Funeral, it was the most fun I’ve ever had! Mr. Perry made all the actors and crew feel so appreciated and valued. I loved that about working with him. And the cast, we became family. Quin Walters, who plays Renee, is like a long lost sister that I’ve never had. It was such a joyful time. We had a blast and I will forever cherish that moment in my life. “
Has a mistake ever led you to success?
CP: “Wow, that’s a great question. I suppose all of my mistakes are learning lessons and with that lies success. As long as I learn from them then I will garner them as a success.
Thinking over the span of my career thus far, there have definitely been moments where I wanted a role so badly. I’d work super hard and stress out over getting the role. Then I’d hear that I didn’t book it. I would get so emotional and upset over it. But then time goes by and I would totally forget about it. Then I’d hear the project didn’t go forward or see the finished product and know that it wasn’t for me. Being happy for the actress who got the role and having faith that what’s for me is for me, are things that I consider a success.
Some of the main mistakes I’ve made in life was not being true to myself or my talent. I would read a script or audition sides and stay up late at night trying to create myself to be what I thought the casting director or what the producers wanted to see. Instead of just being myself and bringing myself to the role.
When I auditioned for this Lifetime movie called Midnight Bayou I was a bit shocked to see the character breakdown: Effie – mid-20’s southern belle, blonde hair, blue eyes, caucasian….
I saw that breakdown and was like “They want me to audition?!?” It was impossible to try to transform myself into something I wasn’t, so I decided to just go in with my curly brown hair, brown eyes, and who I am and just play the role.
And wouldn’t you know, I booked it.”
What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in your career?
CP: “Pursuing a career in acting, for me, has always required a lot of focus and discipline. That was something I learned when I was attending the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts during high school. Our teachers informed us that the program was to instill skill and discipline. They told us that we wouldn’t have time to partake in extra-curricular activities in school such as attending dances or being a cheerleader. It was a very strict program that required long hours and dedication to the craft.
That discipline has stuck with me. I sacrificed having a social life as a teenager and even as an adult. I haven’t been able to attend most of my friends’ special events due to a job booking or a major audition. I even missed my little brother’s graduation from high school because I had to fly off to be on set. Being there and supporting people and living a comfortable stable life are all amongst the things I have sacrificed to be an actress. I’m grateful to those who understand the sacrifices and love me no matter what. I’m also grateful to those who have always lent a helping hand and words of encouragement during those time of sacrifice. Without that and those people, I would have many regrets, but I don’t, because we all know that the sacrifice is always for the greater good. “
About Ciera Payton
After Hurricane Katrina, Ciera and her family relocated to North Carolina where she graduated with a B.F.A. from the North Carolina School of the Arts. While still enrolled in school, Ciera landed the female lead role opposite Steven Seagal in Flight of Fury. Since her breakout role, she has shared screen time with many talented artists including Viola Davis, Nicholas Cage, Kevin Hart and Josh Brolin. Past credits include USA Network’s Graceland, Bad Teacher on CBS, Spike Lee’s Oldboy, and First, a new web series acquired by the Issa Rae Network. She also recently performed her one-woman show, Michael’s Daughter as part of the Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festival. The piece details her compelling journey from growing up in New Orleans to her present success in Los Angeles through a series of letters with her incarcerated father, Michael.
While dedicated to her acting career, Ciera also manages to find time to engage with her local community. Her dedication to arts education in underserved communities led her to create the Michael’s Daughter Project, an annual theater and media arts summer camp for youth in Panorama City. Ciera teaches and empowers the youth to share their stories through creative writing, theater performance and short film production.
In addition to her creative endeavors, Ciera is the owner of Sincerely Cosmetics, an all natural mineral-based cosmetic company which caters to health-conscious women who have sensitive skin. In the little free time she has, Ciera enjoys sewing, painting, cooking and most importantly: dancing! She continues to have an unwavering commitment to always be her best, challenge the limits of everything she does, while always remaining true to her creative motivations.