VERGE MEETS: CIERA PAYTON

We were very lucky to have an amazing chat with one of the most exciting actresses to grace our screens, Ciera Payton. From appearing in some of our favourite shows, such as NCIS, The Walking Dead and Graceland to a brand new role of Sylvia in Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral, there’s no limit to what she’s about to achieve this year! We got some incredible advice on how to get into acting and we also got to hear some of the crazy adventures she had along the way!

Can you tell us about your journey into acting; how did you know it was your calling?

I was naturally drawn to performing and acting. I was a bit of a shy kid growing up and liked to stay to myself. But I can remember when I started coming out my shell a little bit. I would be on the playground with the other kids at school re-enacting movies or characters from TV shows. At home, when I lived with my dad, Nanaw (my name for my paternal grandmother) and my aunts, I was the only child. So to keep myself entertained, I’d make plays or re-enact Disney’s Pocahontas and the Little Mermaid. My dad saw something in that and bought me a karaoke machine which I just couldn’t put down.

When I got to middle school, I auditioned for a play about the Trojan War. I played Greek Goddess Athena. When the lights came on I walked out, and I had to strike a pose, all of a sudden something came over me. It was electrifying, and I knew there was something there. I had found a purpose, my voice.

From New Orleans to big Hollywood screens, what was it like leaving home to chase your dreams?

It felt natural. I actually left home when I was about 16 years old. I had to graduate early from my performing arts high school in New Orleans (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts/NOCCA). That put me in an interesting position graduating as a junior in high school. There was still one credit I had to complete before going to college, so I had two options presented to me; stay in New Orleans and find an internship somewhere or go to another performing arts school until I prep for college. I chose to apply and audition for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. They had a senior year high school program for students interested in studying Drama. I got in and at age 16, I was packing up to go stay at the dorms on campus in Winston-Salem, NC. I ended up staying there for college as well.

I remember not feeling afraid. I was ready to go out there and go for it. After college, I moved to New York with one of my classmates and we rocked it out in Queens. It was challenging. Rent was expensive. I worked as a waitress in many restaurants and night lounges. But I kept auditioning and navigated the no’s until I landed an Off-Broadway play titled Savannah Black and Blue. I received my first New York Times write up which caught the eye of a casting director in LA. He was casting for a show in which I was invited to audition for. So I came out to LA to try out. I didn’t get the part however, but I knew LA was where I wanted to be. So I stayed. And I haven’t looked back.

You’ve had an incredible career so far and have worked alongside some of our favorites; including Kevin Hart, Viola Davis and Nicholas Cage. What is it like on set with some of Hollywood’s finest?

After I picked up my jaw off the floor from total shock and awe of being in their presence, I took it as an opportunity to observe and just watch. So much of being an actor goes beyond what you do on screen. It’s about what you’re doing before you get on set. And once you’re on set, how you treat the cast and crew. What are you offering to the project?

Watching and working with those stars was extremely eye opening. They were courteous, polite, and warm to be around. Kevin Hart is the ultimate jokester and keeps everyone laughing. Viola is grounded and is just as beautiful inside as she is out. Nick was beyond kind and respectful. He made sure I was well taken care of and ok while on set. The Rock was just a ray of light and so positive to be around. Working with then taught me so much. Their kindness and consideration is something that stays with me, and I aim to bring that light with me everywhere I go and especially on set.

Do you ever get nervous and, if so, can you walk us through some tips to stay focused?

Yes I do get nervous. And sometimes it shocks me. I’ll look at my hands and be like, “Why are you shaking, guys, STOP!” But I’ve learned to give in to it and acknowledge it. Also, breathing is very important. When I’m nervous, it’s a reminder that I’m not breathing or grounded. So I’ll take deep breaths and massage my legs a bit to ensure that I’m grounding myself. If time permits, I’ll meditate for 10 minutes before I go on set. I keep essential oils on me as well. They’re great for calming the nerves.

What’s your craziest story so far, any random experiences on set?

Meeting Madea for the first time in person was pretty amazing. Being from New Orleans and knowing women who are sassy like Madea brought back some kind of nostalgia for me. When she came out I just went over and just hugged her so tight. There was like a comfort there, as if I was hugging my grandmother. It was so funny for me because for a second I forgot that under the hair and makeup was Tyler Perry. And he kind of stiffened up and was like “Ummm hello there. Ha!!!

But with that, the most memorable experience was arriving on set that day to hear Mr. Perry announce to the cast that we will be getting calls from our agents soon. We were all a buzz wondering what was going on. After we wrapped, I had some missed calls from my agent. So I call him back and he’s just elated! He goes, “Well Mr. Perry really enjoyed working with you thus far that he decided to double your rate!” It wasn’t only just me, but the whole cast as well. I literally cried tears of joy. It was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me while working on a project. Mr. Perry made us feel very appreciated and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Tell us about your role in Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral- what was your favourite moment whilst filming and working alongside the cast?

I play Sylvia, the older sister, who is also Madea’s niece. I’m the voice of reason and the person who tries to keep the family together. I would say I’m very grounded and loving to my family members. However, I do have toughness about me. I will put people in line and keep them in check.

The cast and I had a great time! We really became a family during the time we were filming. Courtney Burrell and I would be on the side singing 90’s RnB songs between takes. Quin Walters and I would be dancing up a storm. We just had a blast. It was great fun!

You’ve expressed your love for tons of inspiring activities like boxing, Muay Thai and belly dancing! What’s your favourite way to relax when not on set?

I love being active. Muay Thai and Boxing not only keep me in shape but they both keep me going mentally. While I’m doing the combos, I’m reminded about my dream and how to fight for them. After I leave a session, I just feel more in my body. Belly dancing and just dancing in general keeps me in flow. I feel so feminine and free when I’m moving to music. I literally start my mornings playing music and dancing around my house. It just feels so good. Other than that, I just love being in nature. Visiting the beach or hiking keeps me connected to nature and puts all of this [my dreams, what I’m trying to accomplish] in perspective. When I’m hiking or looking at the ocean, I’m reminded of how small I am in this massive universe and to appreciate every moment presented.

Connecting with the youth and spreading positive messages is an important part of your journey, especially using the creative arts as an outlet. Tell us why this resonates with you personally.

When I was in middle and high school, I experienced a lot of challenges; some typical and not so typical. My father, whom is dear to my heart, had some struggles and was in and out of prison during those times. Some of my family members struggled with substance abuse, and I was subjected to that on a daily basis. Trying to cope with that while developing into a pre-teen/teenager was chaotic. Singing on my karaoke machine and performing in school plays became a safe haven.

When I was 16, I was hired as a teaching assistant for a summer program titled What Girls Know. I assisted Brenda Currin (Founder of What Girls Know) in teaching theater arts to young at-risk girls. They came from group homes and foster homes. Teaching them about acting and performing arts opened their minds. I bonded with those girls because they had similar backgrounds to me. And it was there that I discovered the power of arts education; how it inspires young minds, instills confidence, and empowers.

Over the years, being an actress tasked with coping with my father’s and family struggles, the magic of art kept me going. When I did my one woman show Michael’s Daughter which highlighted my life having a father incarcerated, I would get numerous people coming up to me after my show expressing how my story mirrored theirs. I toured my show to different schools, and students who were ashamed of their parents’ and loved ones’ incarceration would come up to me and express their gratitude. That’s when I knew it was important to gift young people the opportunity to use art as a healthy coping mechanism rather than falling into the same statistics as their loved ones. If it wasn’t for theater, good mentors, and the magic that art gifted, I would probably be another statistic. So working with youth is my way of being a beacon of light in their world. Someone there to say, “Hey, if I can do it, so can you!”. And I adore working with my students. They’re so bright and intelligent. They keep me grounded and humble. I learn so much from them.

We know you’re a foodie! Can you give us a few of your favorite dishes to add to our menus?

As a vegan and gluten-free foodie, I’m always looking for new recipes to try. My favorite dish to make is my amazing quinoa bowl! I add avocados, walnuts, beets, artichoke, tomatoes, green onions, and cilantro in and mix in some homemade dressing, and it’s so delicious.

Coming from the south and being vegan and gluten-free for about 2 years now, it’s always fun to experiment and try modifications to the dishes that I grew up on. One of my other favorite dishes to make is my No-Shrimp Creole. Instead of shrimp I use Portobello or oyster mushrooms. It’s sooooo tasty. I can literally eat it every day! Ha!

We’re so excited for the eleventh installment of Madea! Can you share some of your favourite Madea moments?

My favorite Madea moment was the funeral scene. When we were filming it, Madea just kept the jokes rolling and I literally couldn’t keep a straight face. I had to scrunch up my face to make me look like I was sad or mourning since it was a funeral. But I had tears in my eyes from laughing at all the antics. It was hilarious.

There’s this viral clip that I’ve seen of Madea going around, giving Christian Key’s character in a stage play some advice on relationships. Madea is basically saying “If someone treats you like crap and doesn’t want to be with you, just let them go.” I remember seeing that after a little heartbreak and I had a good old laugh. The way the advice was delivered was enough to get anyone to move on and brush off their shoulders. Thanks Madea!

Do you have any advice for young people getting into acting or creative industries?

If you want to be an actor or a performing artist, congratulations! You’ve been bitten by the bug! But know that it will require hard work, determination and sacrifice. I wasn’t able to have much of a social life. Doing the work and studying my lines for an audition or role superseded going out or attending functions. I missed my little brother’s graduation due to a job and that was hard. But I had to go after the dream that was placed in my heart. And those who truly love and support me understand that. This work requires focus and a blinded faith that things will work out; always. You do your part and let God do the rest.

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