Ciera Payton: A Star is Formed
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Ciera Payton is an experienced performer who is ready to command the spotlight with an effervescence and purpose all her own, and she wants you to see all that you can be.
I read an article recently that featured a quote from Jordan Peele, “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead.” He went on to say that this is something we’ve seen before and as he began to get more notoriety and privilege, he wanted to use that to get more black faces in leading roles.
The system in Hollywood is at a critical juncture. Old standards are starting to be questioned and new ideals are ready to step in and claim their place. Diversity in race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and gender all are beginning to take front stage causing new stories to be told, and new voices to be heard.
One of those voices is that of the lovely actress, writer, social activist and entrepreneur Ciera Payton.
When I was about 8 years old, my dad, he bought me a karaoke machine. That rocked my world! I sang all these Pocahontas songs, and I wouldn’t stop. They’d be like “okay Ciera…”
And you were like, “One more! Five more minutes!”
Ciera is an experienced performer who is ready to command the spotlight with an effervescence and purpose all her own. Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; she knew from a young age that she was born to entertain. A move to New Orleans in her youth only seemed to cement the deal.
I do feel like it’s a really big privilege to kind of be raised in a city that naturally fosters such creativity. Is that what sparked the bug for acting and entertainment in you?
Yeah. It’s hard not to want to be drawn to the arts when every year you dress up for Mardi Gras. We lived two or three blocks from the parade route and my Aunt Kim would have all these crazy wigs; so I’d dress up like the actress who did Alias.
Yes! I used to dress up like her and be a secret agent. It was so much fun. We had a lot of family members that were musicians as well so it was just natural to be around the arts. I think I just naturally gravitated towards it, too; because there were some challenges going on in my household, for me, writing or drawing or watching Disney movies and re-enacting them was a way to escape.
Her father saw her love for the arts early and when she started 5th grade, he was able to enroll her in McDonogh#15 Primary School for the Creative Arts in the French Quarter.
It was [between] Bourbon and Royal St. Going to school in the morning we would see all the drunken people from the night before on Bourbon St. But the school was an art school and so it was just part of their curriculum that you had to take up some type of art form. When I first went there I did visual art, and the next two years there I did clarinet. So I was really immersed in it.
Ciera also attended schools in Texas and Mississippi and noted that they were nothing like McDonogh#15, saying they were “very academic and straight-laced”.
But going into New Orleans it was like “Express Yourself! Do it with a horn, or do it with painting or do it with acting!”
Ciera always recognized the gem that New Orleans is and how it’s shaped the woman she’s become. She also gives a lot of credit to her support system of family. Her mother, father, grandmothers and other loved ones encouraged her to follow her path and more importantly her passion.
There were a lot of arts in my family and my mom always had a knack for fashion design. She actually went to school for computer engineering and I think for her, she wasn’t really happy doing the computer engineering stuff. So she was always like “follow your passion, do what really makes you happy”, because you don’t want to look back and regret you didn’t do it.
Ciera carried her love of the arts all the way to North Carolina where she spent her senior year in the North Carolina School of the Arts high school program before enrolling for her freshman year at the prestigious college.
Then, while on break before entering her sophomore year, disaster struck.
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina was not only an extremely deadly and destructive Cat-5 hurricane that caused catastrophic damage to Louisiana (particularly New Orleans), Texas, and Florida, but it was a storm that unearthed a lot of unease and racial tension throughout the country due to the way it was (or wasn’t) handled. I remember watching TV and trying to make calls to loved ones, but coming up with empty lines or interminable busy signals. Thousands were displaced all over the country as a cultural icon threatened to become a horrible version of Atlantis.
Ciera was there. We don’t talk a lot about the storm directly, but we do speak a lot about how it affected her desire to continue her passions. She and her family were able to relocate to disparate nearby friends and relatives and she went back to school with a single carry-on containing all of her worldly possessions, she knew she’d come to a crossroads.
After the ravages of Katrina and being displaced… what is the driving force that pushes you to continue pursuing acting, what is it that turns it from a like into a love for you?
You know, after Katrina, I had to take a bigger perspective, even just a step back. I had to evacuate to Baton Rouge where I stayed with a friend and her family until I rode back up to North Carolina to go back to school. The curriculum at North Carolina School of the Arts was very intense, almost like a bootcamp in a sense. I did get some compassion and empathy from some of the teachers, but my emotional state at the time, it just wasn’t conducive to the program. It was very ‘you gotta suck it up, you gotta keep going’. One of my academic professors actually failed me because I was a mess! I was a little catatonic and didn’t really know what was going on. I’d lost my home and my grandmother just passed away and these teachers were like ‘You gotta learn this Shakespeare monologue, you gotta do this scene, you gotta perform, now you gotta write a paper about Western thought!’ and I thought, ‘I gotta pause’.
Ciera recognized that she needed to heal even before she fully realized she was grieving. She decided to go back home the upcoming weekend to clear her head and decide what her next move would be. During a meal with her brother, Ciera received a call from an agent that would change her life.
She asked Ciera if she was in New Orleans and if so to go to an address for an audition. Steven Seagal was in town casting for a movie and she wanted Ciera to read for it. Ciera was resistant at first, telling her agent she wasn’t sure if acting was what she wanted to even be doing.
While Ciera knew that she enjoyed acting, and knew she was good at it and loved being on stage, she also felt that Katrina caused her to rethink her priorities. She began to think about her greater purpose in the wake of the loss of her home and loved ones. She knew then that she wanted something more, but hadn’t quite settled on what that ‘more’ was. She decided to go to the audition.
I hung up the phone and I didn’t move. About an hour passed and she called me like “Ciera please, they’re waiting.” and I said, “okay, I’ll go”.
An hour later she was auditioning and then asked to return the same day when Steven Seagal would be there. She found herself amazingly cool, calm and collected when it came time to audition for him.
At that point a different perspective was shifting on what it means to be an actor for me and what acting means [in general].
After the audition Ciera followed her intuition to go back to school and two weeks later she got a call asking her a very unexpected question: “Do you have a passport?”
Less than a week later she was on a plane to Romania to shoot the lead female role opposite Steven Seagal in the action-thriller, Flight of Fury.
I was gone for about six weeks, I learned a lot and it helped me to step into my own and find my strength. I’d never shot a movie, I’d never even been on a movie set before and now I’m shooting guns and knife fighting! On a weird, maybe spiritual level, that was what the doctor ordered to get me through what I was going through at the time. I was almost in a catatonic state and grieving, trying to heal and didn’t know who I was or anything; and now to be front and center, you’re being a bad-ass, you’re being a tough woman, this is part of who you are.
It kind of reinvigorated you.
Yes, and I definitely wanted to continue pursuing [acting]. What started to become clear to me over the next year is that acting really helped in healing me; but also, I look at it as a way to bring characters to life and to pay respect to their stories. Whoever comes and watches and experiences it they can see themselves in it and find their strength and find their voice and heal through it. I really look at it now as a sacred thing.
After being the lead in a feature film, Ciera was certainly off to a great start. She’s had her ups and downs in her career, but a chance encounter ended up with Ciera gaining a grandmother and mentor in Dr. Maya Angelou.
Dr. Maya Angelou, she just rocked my world. I read her book when I was 12, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. She’s just like, a big inspiration to me.
During her freshman year, while completing an assignment for class, Ciera performed Yolanda Adam’s rendition of Still I Rise which was based off of Dr. Angelou’s poem. Upon explaining to the teacher how much she looked up to Maya Angelou, the teacher responded with, “You should try and meet her.”
Oh yeah, sure!
Yeah, right? I’d love to meet her one day! But then she said, “Oh no, no, she teaches not too far from here. She teaches at Wake Forest University”, and I’m like, ‘What?!’
Did you run out of the room immediately?
*laughs* Pretty much! Actually, that day I started researching and trying to get in touch with her office.
Ciera spent the rest of her time in school writing letters, calling Dr. Angelou’s office and doing whatever she could to take the class. She received no response.
During her senior year she performed the August Wilson play Gem of the Ocean in a performance that rocked Winston-Salem, NC. They’d never seen a play like that and people came from all over. Dr. Angelou was invited, but unable to attend; however, the weekend the play closed, Ciera (as the plus one of her school’s Chancellor) was invited to an event at Dr. Maya Angelou’s house.
Filled with the who’s who of academia and high society, Ciera got a glimpse of a group of amazing people. While wandering around, she saw Dr. Angelou sitting by herself in the living room. While we spoke, I brought up the musical Hamilton and how this would be the moment ‘I am not throwing away my… shot!’ would start playing. She laughed and agreed.
I said, ‘I’m going to go over there!’ and ended up talking to her. We were there, probably something like two hours just talking. I mentioned to her that’d I’d been writing to her, trying everything to take her class and she told me that she doesn’t let just anyone in her class – that I had to be a Wake Forest student – and she doesn’t let anyone audit her class.
And I look her dead in her eye and I say, “Well I wanna take your class. I’m going to take your class.” And she just smiled. Then she called one of her assistants over and said, “Give her information on how to take my class.”
As soon as Ciera went home she drafted an email and held Dr. Angelou to her word. She took that class and formed a lasting relationship with her new honorary “grandmother” that ended up spanning years and garnering connections with Tyler Perry. This connection got her a small part originally in Madea’s Goes to Jail and later she ended up with a larger part in Perry’s latest offering, Madea’s Family Funeral.
Ciera has had the honor and privilege to share the screen with many A-list stars including Viola Davis, Nicholas Cage, Kevin Hart and Josh Brolin. Past credits include USA Network’s Graceland, CBS’ Bad Teacher, Spike Lee’s OLDBOY, and First, a new web series acquired by the Issa Rae Network.
When she’s not acting, Ciera likes to teach acting and film-making to the next generation. She primarily works with children who have incarcerated parents, those in the foster system as well as juvenile offenders and this time her inspiration comes from her own story.
After Ciera moved to LA she felt alone and isolated. She had little to her name and one day in an effort to seek out comfort, she looked to a little shoe box filled with a lot of big letters. Ciera’s father Michael was incarcerated for 7 years and during that time wrote Ciera constantly. She couldn’t bring herself to read them then, but in her time of need she found they resonated with her.
He just began to tell his story, what kind of made his choices and what influenced his choices. He was a kid from the ‘60s and born out of an interracial affair. The KKK would burn crosses on my grandmother’s front yard and chased my grandfather out of town. It was just this bizarre history that I just didn’t know.
Ciera then looked at her father who was the black sheep of his family and seemingly unwanted, and decided that he deserved to be heard. She began writing his story and putting it in a play format calling it Michael’s Daughter. Soon she found that she was implementing herself into the piece.
All of those things influenced how I was raised and how I have developed into a woman. Then the big part for me was “What is the core of this story?” and I felt the core for me was forgiveness.
Michael had to do a lot of forgiving towards his upbringing and his parents and Ciera had to do the same. But at the end of the day his story is not just about the struggle, but the triumph as well. The Michael that Ciera paints is a three dimensional being: Father, son, addict, artist, human.
People are people and they make mistakes, but you still love them.
There’s a lot of heart and humor in Michael’s Daughter and the one-woman play has been well received in multiple performances across the country.
Ciera’s was most surprised to learn how relatable the play was.
So many people related to it! They have families in prison that they’re ashamed of and when I did my show, it took the shame off of it. It humanized these people.
That is a very real stigma, it’s very easy to have two sets of statistic: ‘This percentage of people are unlawfully imprisoned and have been failed by the system’, and then ‘Oh, you know someone in prison? Well they must be bad’. They live in the same sphere, but are contradicting. It’s something that’s so ingrained into the zeitgeist, it’s hard to separate it out. I really find it commendable to just show that humanity. Anyone can write a book, but I love the performance aspect of it because people are able to relate to it on a universal level.
At the end of the day, that’s my dad. And he’s not a bad person at all, he was just on drugs. I think that’s a big problem in society too, that judgement. We have a lot of people that are locked up unlawfully and unfairly, but the stigma is still there.
Ciera was invited to host a workshop teaching juvenile offenders art and playwriting by the American Conservatory Theater. The response was so powerful that she decided to reform the concept and create an annual media arts camp that’s funded by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. She teaches acting and directing to help children create their own plays and films. She wanted to give them a platform to talk about their lives and be heard.
I asked them, “When was the last time you watched a movie or TV show with someone that looked like you or someone you could relate to?” and almost all the time no hands are raised. They don’t watch media that has characters that look like them. That’s why I try to give them the opportunity and really instill in them that they define themselves.
And that there are other ways to express themselves without violence or lashing out where they can still be heard.
Ciera still runs the summer camp in addition to her acting roles. You can see her next in the season finale of Being Mary Jane on BET, and she’ll be Jamila Hawkins in She’s Gotta Have It, a Spike Lee Joint on Netflix. I asked her what kind of roles she’d like to do next.
Anything that highlights a strong female; whether it’s in the corporate room or out in the field kicking butt, that’s what I love. Women in a position of power who don’t have to play by the men’s rules.
Ciera credits the matriarchs in her life for her devotion and reliance on the female spirit.
My Nana Carol and Grandma Sarah – she’s the one who passed during Katrina – were very resilient women who got knocked down physically and mentally a lot throughout their lives, but they always got back up and kept a nice calmness about them. You never knew they were having a bad day because they always kept a smile on their face and kept going. I learned that strength from them at a very young age.
If there’s something you want, go after it. Keep going after it.
Well, Ciera certainly shows no signs of stopping. An actress, philanthropist and also the creator and founder of Sincerely Cosmetics, she’s constantly looking for ways to serve the underserved.
Whether I’m an extra or have one-line or I’m handing someone coffee, I don’t wanna just throw that away, I wanna honor that. I’ve been a waitress for ten years, I know what that’s like. I wanna bring life to every character that I do and not just make it about ‘Look how great I am, look at how I can articulate these lines’. I want to portray real people.
Ciera Payton strives to be the best you can see.
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