Ciera Payton makes being an actress looks easy. But, she’s very open and honest about life behind the scenes. She says it not all glitz and glamour. She even wrote a book to prove it, her writing debut entitled, Things To Do While On Unemployment. But, let’s rewind it back a little bit. This beautiful New Orleans native is an actress, director, author and philanthropist. Her journey began after receiving a phone call while having lunch with her brother. She received a phone call to audition for Steven Seagal’s Flight of Fury. Although she was two hours late, she still got the part!! Yes—there she was a month later filming in Romania. She’s been featured in films like Tyler Perry’s, Madea Goes To Jail in 2009, Dear White People and much more. Not bad, huh? She also has four film projects that will be released this year, including a film with Nicholas Cage called, The Runner.
That’s quite impressive but, this is just the beginning. Read the full interview to find out more about Ciera Payton.
Parlé Magazine: Hello Ciera! Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview. I read that you are from New Orleans, Louisiana. How cool is that? I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Can you tell me about your life growing up in New Orleans?
Ciera: Yeah! I grew up pretty much in the third ward of New Orleans. I moved around a lot as a kid but, I would say really when I was 7 years old that’s when I settled into New Orleans and I lived in the third ward. It was cool. There was definitely a lot of culture there. I would catch the street car to go to school in the morning and I would go and get beignets after school. My dad was a bus boy at a restaurant; French Quarter so I got to hang out just off of Bourbon Street every day after school so I always saw crazy stuff. It was definitely not an average upbringing because New Orleans has this whole life to it. I played in the school band, I did the acting classes, but I would say my upbringing in New Orleans was a little challenging because my family on my dad’s side (because that’s who I was living with)—they all had different vices as far as substance abuse goes. That was just something I dealt with on a regular basis. My father was in and out of jail. It was definitely a loving household; very creative environment but it still had that underbelly of dysfunction with it. I think that’s why I gravitated so much toward being creative. But growing up in New Orleans was pretty dope and I liked it a lot. I don’t think I would trade that in for the world because it was really cool.
Parlé: Tyler Perry said that being from New Orleans, he could walk down Bourbon Street and see every kind of person, hear every kind of music and see every kind of situation represented. He said he could not have had a better background to grow up in to tell stories. My question to you is; do you feel in any way that you have the talent you do because of your own personal experiences?
Ciera: Yes, definitely. New Orleans is that weird kind of city because it’s so old. People don’t realize that so it has all of these different cultural influences and it’s something about New Orleans like—we’ll just never let that go. What I like about New Orleans is that, people are just way more open-minded there and people will speak their mind. They don’t hold any punches back there. People will keep it real with you but, also it’s a music city; it’s a creative city; it’s a cultural city. I think had I grown up in California or Connecticut or North Carolina—I definitely would not have been exposed to anything like that. I think growing up in a city like that had enabled me to be free and not afraid to speak my opinion and I’m not afraid to express myself. I think that’s more than any child could ask for—the good stuff of it.
Parlé: There was a point in your life where you almost gave up on your dreams. You were going through a lot and life got complicated. Can you reflect on that moment and tell us a little more about it?
Ciera: There were a couple times in my life but, more notably around Hurricane Katrina. It was a really weird time. I had just enrolled into college to enter into my sophomore year. The hurricane had happened. My family and I had actually separated. My mom was in Mississippi at the time and I was home by myself. To make a long story short, I ended up evacuating to Baton Rouge and I stayed at LSU campus and I was out of contact with my family for about ten days. I stayed with a friend of mine and her family. I couldn’t get in contact with my family at all. I knew that they were bringing in people from the city and also from Mississippi to the Tiger Stadium and so I was like, ‘If anything, let me just go over there to at least see if I could register my name so Red Cross could let my family know I’m looking for them.’ It was crazy. I just remember being there and there were so many people in despair. It was the first time in a really long time that I felt like it was something more to life than trying to be an actor and trying to chase your dreams. I remember seeing people look like they had just gotten out of the water. I was a volunteer and they stuck me in the medical ward. I had to watch over the elderly people; basically if they passed away just making sure they passed away peacefully. And then, my school had gotten in touch with me through email and they wired me some money to drive up to college. I remember when I got there, everybody was so normal. I thought it was silly. I felt like I had just come out of this war zone and now I was in this suburban community and there was just no reality check. That’s when it just really hit me. I really did think about it for a minute. I thought about leaving school and getting into nursing. I think I was just shell shocked. It was crazy because after that I eventually went off to audition for a movie and ended up getting the part. It was definitely a spiritual moment in my life, from being so down to getting back up and having God tell me, ‘This is what you’re meant to do.’
Parlé: Let’s switch to more pleasant times. What was going on in your mind while not only auditioning for Steven Seagal’s Flight of Fury but to less than a month later actually filming for it in Romania?
Ciera: The whole time I kept thinking, “Is this really happening?” I seriously thought it was a joke. It was weird because there was another part of me too that was like ‘this is going to happen.’ It was weird. I was definitely trying to be as humble as possible but still in awe knowing what I had just gone through. I was chilling in a restaurant with my brother and got the phone call. And the funny thing about it is, I was two hours late for the audition. I was procrastinating because I felt like ‘I’m not doing this. I’m giving up on acting and I’m going to do something else.’ I just remember the agent calling me because I was two hours late and asking me where I was because they were waiting for me. I remember going in there and auditioning and thinking, ‘This is insane’ (laughs).
Parlé: I can only imagine. That was a big look for you. Another great look, you’re the Associate Director of an organization: What Girls Know. Can you tell us more about that?
Ciera: Yeah. What Girls Know was founded and created by Brenda Currin. She’s a New York state actor, writer and director. Fourteen years ago, she started the program in New York. She basically wanted to create a platform for teenage girls to enable them to share their stories and write and create plays, put them onstage to perform them. I know the very first year she did it, she did it at Madison Square Garden, which is amazing. Then she brought it down to New Orleans. She hired me as an assistant. About a year later, she promoted me to Associate Director. So, we worked in New Orleans for quite some time, basically doing the whole model of getting a group of teenage girls together and working with them for six weeks, teaching them acting, theatre and writing skills; creating a play and performing it to the city. Over the last couple of years; especially since [Hurricane] Katrina, our funds dried up. We would try to do it whenever we could but, it used to be a summer program. But recently, I started to create my own summer program here in Los Angeles. So, it’s molded in so many different things and Brenda and I; we still work with each other a lot. She planning on coming this summer out here to LA to help me with my summer camp so, it’s been a really great partnership.
Parlé: Can you elaborate on your one-woman show, Michael’s Daughter?
Ciera: I wrote it about four years ago here in Los Angeles and it was based on the prison letters I used to receive from my dad. I had $200 in my pocket. I started working in this restaurant making $60-$80 per week, sleeping on friends’ couches and everything. The struggle was real. The only thing I had to put a smile on my face and to motivate me were the letters that my dad was sending me. My dad is a very animated type of person. He’s very detailed in his letters. He writes poetry. I’m reading these stories he’s telling me about my family’s history. It just kind of explained a lot of how my dad lived the life that he lived and the decisions that he made to end up in prison. I wanted to tell this story so I took the letters and where I was in my life at that time and just started writing it and made it into a one woman show. More so than anything, I wanted to do something that could make me feel creatively fulfilled while I was on the pursuit of trying to get parts. I started performing it in Los Angeles and people really gravitated towards it. I had people of all colors, shades, coming to me and telling me about their story and how it spoke to them. One of the guys that did the light for the play when I first did it; I had never met him before. After he saw the first run of the play, he came to me and said, “Do not pay me for this. This is my offering to you. I’m going to donate my services to you because my mom’s in prison.” He was just a straight up regular white guy from San Diego. You would never think that his mom was in prison. So, it was definitely an eye opening experience for me. And for my father and I; it was definitely a healing experience. He just got out of prison last month for good behavior. He got out a year early. I haven’t seen him yet so I’m going down to New Orleans to see him and that should be interesting. He wants to see the play up on its feet. I’m trying to get that up there to San Francisco in March. He’s going to fly out to come see it so, it should be a very interesting experience having my dad in the audience.
Parlé: Ciera, you and I have something else in common. You’re an author. You have a hilarious self-published book out entitled, Things To Do While On Unemployment. You said, “My inspiration sprang from my experience being an actress living in Los Angeles while trying to figure out the unemployment system, a harsh reality that most entertainers face while pursuing their career. I would often journal about my struggles and experiences. One day I was reading my journal and reading these stories to myself and realized how funny they were, so I decided to share my story in hopes to give advice and laughs!” There’s also the new reality show, Hollywood Divas that shows the realness of what actors go through. Sometimes people may think landing roles are easy but through shows like that and books like yours, we all get to see the reality of it all.
Ciera: It’s funny because with social media we have the visual of how we want people to think our lives are. I don’t know where people were getting these thoughts from. For a really long time, people would say, ‘I saw you book this, I saw you on tv and I saw you book this and that.’ I would be like, ‘I just filed for unemployment.’ It’s totally different. I haven’t seen Hollywood Divas and I’m kind of glad that I haven’t seen it, especially with this book because I’m actually thinking about doing a part 2 to it. That’s to be determined. But, I don’t want to try and take their stories. But, it’s (my book) basically a reality of what entertainers in Hollywood go through. And it’s so interesting because I do have friends who are doing bigger things and making a lot of money. I’ve been told in the past that I over share by writing that book. I used to blog and people would tell me that I over share. I would be like, ‘No. I’m just trying to keep it real because I think that’s the problem with our generation nowadays. There’s a journey that goes along with everything. So many stories are left untold because people don’t want to share the dirty side of it or the non glamorous side of it. I think that people need to know that it’s not all glitz and glamour.
Parlé: For the aspiring actors out there; you have sessions to help them out. Can you let them know about that?
Ciera: Friends of mine are always hitting me up to help them out with auditions. It’s funny because when I work on my auditions, there are some things that I miss in the dialogue and when I go back and look at it. I’m like, ‘Dang, why didn’t I pick that up?’ So, I like helping other actors because I do think that when I’m on the outside of it, I can see the difference. It’s been really cool and lately, I’ve been getting a lot of actors ask me to help with their auditions and film of their auditions. I have two friends that booked parts off of me helping them. I like doing it. I like seeing people win. I think we’re all in this together.
Parlé: Also, what is your best advice on networking in any industry?
Ciera: I think in New York and LA people are so image based. They present themselves in a way for people to approach them rather than having to approach people. You’re just not going to win like that if you just sit in the corner and try to look cool. When I go to certain places at certain times, I see people literally sticking their nose up because of what people are wearing or what their hair looks like. You don’t know; that could be an executive of some movie network or something. You just never know. I go to script writer’s meeting and social media events. You just have to be open to meeting people. And just passing out business cards is seriously a turn off. Talk, be personable and then hand them the card.
Parlé: Is there anything else you would like for everyone to know?
Ciera: I think that whatever dream you have, just go for it. It’s definitely a journey so you have to really embrace the journey of it.