The Definition of Perseverance
The Definition of Perseverance: Ciera Payton Interview
by Evan Jackson
You may have seen actress Ciera Payton in such shows as The Mentalist, The Closer, and NCIS: Los Angeles or in Spike Lee’s 2013 film Old Boy. I noticed Ciera Payton on the hit USA show Graceland. I realized every one of her performances she brought the character to life, not simply reciting lines but, fleshing out her roles so the audience can relate to them. I wondered how she had developed a depth in these characters. When I finally met her I got my answer. See as an actor Ciera pulls that depth from her own well that is her life. Ciera is the living embodiment of perseverance, when the avenues were closed off to her early in her acting career, she made her own lane creating her one woman production Michael's Daughter. In the production she chronicles the letters from her father who was in jail, the advice he imparted to her and the history he was eager to share with her. Ciera made the organization of the same name to help kids of incarcerated parents have an outlet to express themselves, holding a play that was performed to the city. In midst of her journey as an actor she wrote the book Things To Do While on Unemployment: An Unemployed Actress’s Snapshot Guide To Life. In the book she highlights her tales as an actress finding work in Hollywood with tips for people in similar situations. Ciera allows herself to be vulnerable which helps her truly connect with any role she takes on; from there that is how her strength is defined. As far as her perseverance that is defined by the empowerment she derives from her own story. With creativity that naturally flows and an unstoppable will Ciera Payton is someone you’ll definitely want to know going forward.
You grew up in New Orleans, what impact do you think the city and the culture have had on your life?
A lot of people don’t realize this about New Orleans, but it is a city that prides itself on the arts. Once kids get to the age where they are walking they are expected to play horns and trumpets or you’re encouraged to paint or to draw. New Orleans is a musical city with the Jazz Festival, where we also have Mardi Gras. I think growing up in New Orleans you can’t help but to be influenced by the culture and the arts culture there. It’s everywhere- it’s in the food, the art galleries, the murals, and the music. Acting wasn’t a huge thing in New Orleans, but you had a lot of Community Theater and that’s how I got involved initially.
What led you to become an actor?
It was a couple things, when I was growing up in New Orleans with my dad, grandmother, and aunts they definitely nurtured me in an artistic way always encouraging me to express myself. The household was so dysfunctional, with the drugs and stuff like that. As a kid, I wrote plays to get my mind off of all that stuff that was going on. I gravitated towards acting a lot. When I was in 6th grade I played the clarinet and took visual arts classes. When I finally entered 8th grade I decided to try acting because the school that I switched to didn’t have music or a visual arts program, they had a drama program. I did that and stuck with it. There was something always in me to express myself, to be a different character, and to perform. I think it came out of a survival instinct as a kid so I took acting seriously when I was in the 8th grade.
Would you say that early desire for acting was a coping mechanism?
Yeah, that’s definitely what it was and I didn’t know this as a kid. I just knew my dad was smoking crack in the next room and I was like, well let me not pay attention to that and let me make this world over here.
When it comes to your one woman production Michael’s Daughter why did you choose the subject matter of your own life?
It initially started out when my dad was in prison and I was going over his prison letters, he had a lot of history, he was telling me about his life and I thought it was really intriguing. Stories on how he came to be- like my white grandmother was married to a white man, but had an affair with a black man and that’s how my dad came out. It was in the 60s and in the south; all of those things were fascinating to me. I started really taking that journey of writing it and make it about his life. It developed into this thing on how all this history affected me as a woman as oppose to just making his story because through the letters he was talking to me. I feel like the audience wanted to see who this Ciera was through those letters. When I started writing it, I had just moved out here to Los Angeles. I was dealing with the same challenges I think all actors go through with getting a job and gaining confidence in your work. I think I was trying to find a lot of answers within myself. I wanted to analyze what it means to me having a father that’s in prison or growing up with drugs and addiction and how has that impacted me and how can I heal and cope with all of that. It was weird because I said let me just put this all out on the table and look at it from a different perspective and then try to heal and grow from it. It still keeps developing because I’m still developing as a human being and a woman. When I perform it now, I find myself trying to change things or make this part better, highlight this, or take something out. I think now I’m itching to write a new piece because my dad is out of prison now. Him and I are starting to write a book now and I think that will be the next journey but we’ll see. It didn’t initially start off about me but it morphed into that.
In one of your YouTube videos you said “All I have is my heart, my creativity, and my talent”.
What allows you to be so honest with your truth and able to channel that vulnerability into your performances?
I have spent a lot of my time in performing arts school. I was at a magnet school in middle school, I was in a performing arts school in high school and I did it as well in college. I spend a lot of my time developing my craft. One thing that I learned from developing my craft was you can’t just go up there and start reciting lines because it won’t be interesting. There are some people that can do that and they look beautiful doing it and they look handsome doing it, they can flex their muscles and smile and people will swoon over it. But I knew when I was going into the field of the arts it was initially was because of a survival mechanism, it was springing from my truth. So I can’t cheat myself and get up there and fabricate some mumbo jumbo. As an artist in general, you have to be open and you have to be a vessel for the character that you’re playing. If you’re going to eventually venture off into writing your own work you have to be a vessel for your family and for your ancestors. I think that is the only way to be, is to be truthful because you cheat yourself by not being that way if you call yourself and artist or an actor. I feel like me being open about my life, and not in a reality show way, but about being open and honest about my life that’s just really who I am. That’s how I was raised with my family not holding anything back and there’s no subject that’s too taboo to talk about. I have a portal, with the internet or my writing and I’m not going to go up there and say some BS, I’m going to tell the truth because ultimately we all have the same issue.
Was it difficult reliving some of those experiences through your performance?
When I was working with my director Faythallegra Claude I had a lot of moments when I stopped and started to cry. For me it was about coping and healing. It was me just cleaning out some stuff in my life and I had to address a lot of the issues to understand how they affected me and embracing all of that. It was difficult, there’s a part in the play where I go visit my dad in prison for the first time and those tears really do come from living that. Doing those things was hard and it was even harder when I had to leave whenever I visited him. It was a challenge and it makes me excited every time I’m doing it. After my performances I felt stronger and more vibrant.
What inspired you to begin your organization Michael’s Daughter Project?
It’s still in the very beginning stages. I’m still on the fence if I want to do a 501C3 or if I want to do a foundation. When I was sixteen years old in high school I was working with this summer program called What Girls Know in New Orleans started by Brenda Currin. She has this amazing platform working with inner city teenage girls having them write and create their own productions. I had been working with that for years. When I moved out here to LA I wasn’t able to be as involved. I would volunteer around LA at organizations that were similar. Whenever I would show or perform my one woman production I would have young adults come up to me afterwards and say they had someone that was in prison. I realized I wanted to figure out a way to combine education with the performing arts. I heard about a grant that the department of cultural affairs of the Los Angeles Department was giving out to bring more arts education to different areas in the community that are underserved. I applied for the grant and the pitch was on how I was going to use Michael’s Daughter and the experience I had working with kids to have them create their own work. I got the grant last summer and started the program which was a huge success. It was held at Casa Esperanza (a non-profit community center serving the Blythe Street Community) in Panorama City. We had about 24 students. For about five weeks we worked on creating material to perform for the city. I had a good time working on it. So this year I’m hoping to do it at the same place and try something a little different this time. It’s one of those things where kids need that outlet to express themselves and tell their stories because they don’t get that, especially with the arts being taken out of schools left and right. It’s a way for me to give them the same outlet that I had and keep them off the streets. I really want to cater to kids who have parents that are incarcerated and a lot of the kids I worked with last summer they did, it kind of happened that way. I was initially going for that, but it was such a challenge finding a community organization that had that specifically. When I ended up at that community center, a lot of kids were telling me that their parents were in jail or deported. We wrote about it, put it in a play, and the community loved it. The community center Casa Eperanaza loved it too, and wants to keep the program going.
When did you decide to write your book Things To Do While Unemployment: An Unemployed Actress’sSnapchat Guide?
It started in 2013. I tend to journal a lot, what’s on my mind and what’s going on. In the midst of all the dramatic stuff going on in my life, I would write that stuff down. Then I realized, it was hilarious, thinking only this would happen to me. Like when my car broke down, my driver’s license has expired, and I couldn’t get a rental car because my license was expired. Just stuff like that and sometimes I have to take a look back and say that my life sometimes it’s like a sitcom. I was reading back in my journal and as I was writing them, I thought they were so sad and stressful, but then reading those entries later on, I thought those things were hilarious. And all of those things were a direct link to being an unemployed actor. I started to take those entries from my journal and began putting them on my computer. Then thinking to myself, I should write a book about this. And really more so I wanted to write something that had advice to it because I would get people who would hit me up out the clear blue and ask me how to do this or do that. People who knew I was on unemployment asked for my advice when they got denied unemployment. I would say I did this and it worked for me. So I decided to put it in a book and I got a really good response from it. I’ve had people actually hit me up and say hey, I read your book and it helped me find a job. I wanted to take the challenge of writing a book and write something that was funny. I also wanted to teach myself how to self-publish.
What roles do you like playing the most?
For a moment I was auditioning a lot for dramatic roles and it’s always been a lot easier for me to tap into that type of stuff. But this pilot season I auditioned for a lot of sitcoms and usually comedy scares me because it is more technical. There is a certain way you have to deliver the lines to punch up the joke and it’s really intimidating. I got called back for a lot of things and had fun. I want to play characters that are true to life, whether they are wacky or funny or whether they are serious, stern, or sexy. I like it all and I’d like to keep doing that. I definitely would like to do more comedic roles because I have a lot of fun with them and I find myself being silly at times.
What is your dream role?
On my vision board I have Angela Davis, Lena Horne, Cleopatra, and Pam Grier. I think all these women’s lives are amazing and these are the parts I have in mind for myself. I guess the through line with all of them is that they were very powerful women who were sophisticated, strong, and sexy. I feel like I’m drawn to those types of woman roles. If there were a character created in that, not necessarily those women, I would love to play that. But also I’d love to portray the women mentioned in a biopic. That would be awesome! I think if there was a character that embodied that being tough, sexy, and powerful ultimately that’s the type of roles I want to play.
Do you think you’re drawn to those types of women and type of characters you would like to play because you see those qualities in yourself?
Yeah I think so. In college my classmates would say I was a strong black woman, I was the only black girl in the class, and I use to get so mad at them for saying that because I thought it was such a cliché saying. And I was like what the hell does that even mean? I cry, I fall, and I really didn’t understand why they were saying that all the time. Then I started to own that. I am strong, I am black, and I am a woman. I’ll take it however I interpret it. Strength is defined in so many different ways. My strength comes from my faith in God and having the ability to get up every morning and go out to pursue my dreams. That’s how I define strength and I think it’s more so perseverance. Just keep going, going and going and not letting those doors slammed in your face determine your destiny. I see that in characters and in other women and that’s what I’m drawn to because I can relate to that.
What are your future aspirations?
Within to two to three years I really see myself continuing to be an actor and becoming one of those actors who are not only among the elite but is considered one of the elite. An A list actor. I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit about me and have this passion to start a business. Honestly, I don’t know what it would be but I know I’m a creative person. I want to use that in the sense that I want to sell and develop goods for people. So I’m trying to sit down and hone in exactly what are my creative talents and how can I put that into a business. I would love to in the next couple years develop an app, learn how to marry content and technology together for actors and content creators. I want to continue writing my books and one day be a New York Times Best Seller. I want to do more movies, TV, and plays and still be able to self-generate my work and get paid for it. I also want to help out kids who have that passion in wanting to create and express themselves given their circumstances.
Where can people reach you?
People can reach me on cierapayton.com
The Runner starring Nicolas Cage and costarring Ciera Payton, will be in theaters fall 2015
The Real Husbands of Hollywood starring Kevin Hart, Ciera will we seen in an episode on the 4th season premiering fall 2015.