We had the good fortune of connecting with Ciera Payton and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ciera, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk-taking is one of the scariest, most liberating things one could ever do. And here’s the secret, you’ll be challenged to take risks all of your life, so get comfortable with taking the leap and taking the risk, but always do it with faith; knowing that everything will work out for you in the end.
I took my first major risk when I set out to be an actor (I prefer using the term actor instead of actress because I feel I can play many different types of roles that aren’t only limited to female roles). When I was 16 years old, I took becoming an actor very seriously. I was already enrolled in a performing arts high school in New Orleans; New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). And acting was something I knew I was good at and that I could see myself pursuing. So, with the advice and guidance from one of my teachers, I applied to The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) for their high school drama program, which would be a more immersive arts training program and provide me with more tools to learn and hone my craft. However, getting into that school meant leaving my friends, family, and my hometown of New Orleans to spend my senior year of high school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was scary to think about, but I knew deep down that it was the best path for what I wanted to do. I was accepted and soon I was packing up and entering campus for my senior year of high school at UNCSA.
From there on, I was immersed in the studies of theater and dramatic arts as I continued my studies throughout college at UNCSA. It was very hard work and sometimes I thought about quitting. But if I hadn’t taken that risk, I don’t think I would have gone on to pursue acting and doing what I love to do. Making that leap, as scary as it was, really helped to shape the trajectory of my life and career and I’m still continuing to make those kinds of leaps in my life in order to grow and elevate as an artist, entrepreneur, and woman every day.
So from my perspective, taking risks that allow you to grow and become better are a necessity and shouldn’t be avoided. Again, have faith, plan as much as you can, and allow God to handle the rest. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
As an actor, I love being able to breathe life into characters and create versions of people that we may encounter every day. I believe all of our journeys are so unique and so getting the chance to step into someone else’s shoes and display that life from my perspective is simply a delight.
As I mentioned earlier, I took the leap to get into acting while I was in high school. Those were pivotal years for me and so I needed to find something that would enable me to strengthen and hone my voice as a young woman. When I was in my junior year of college that’s when I learned the real power of acting. I discovered that it was beyond just saying lines and dressing up. I learned that this craft has the power to invoke empathy, compassion, and most of all heal.
During my junior year of college, I was directed by the incomparable Michele Shay (just look her up, she’s a powerhouse and has changed so many lives with her work). She directed me in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. I was so enjoying the process and the rehearsals, but my work (and the whole cast as well) was all surface level. We were merely going through the motions of playing characters and having fun just saying August Wilson’s lines.
One of the main themes in the play is remembering our ancestors. Michele walked us through an exercise that helped us to visualize and honor the stories of our immediate ancestors (grandmothers, parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) and also our distant ancestors, those who were brought here and enslaved. It was such a profound experience for me, that it made me vow to myself to not only play the surface of a character but to actually see them as a whole person who has a voice that needs to be shared. In doing so, I was able to find my voice.
I think that’s what makes my work so sacred. I try to honor every role I step into with that much dignity and respect, whether it be Lilly Winthrop on Tyler Perry’s The Oval or Wendy in Wendy Williams: The Movie. I try to bring some light and life to the audience at home watching and intend for them to have peace, joy, and healing, through my entertaining of them. I see my work as a service to not only those who watch but to those who hire me as well.
I would say I professionally started on my career path in 2005. After hurricane Katrina hit, I was entering my sophomore year of college. My family and I lost our home and family matriarch. I had evacuated New Orleans the day before the storm hit. My family was away at the time, on vacation in Mississippi, so I was home alone with a friend and we packed up and went to Baton Rouge to stay at another friend’s campus apartment. Little did we know all that was to come. When I finally made it safely to school, about two weeks later, I was questioning a lot if acting was something I should be doing. I saw my city falling apart on the news, had lost communication with my family, and my dearest grandmother was slipping away due to no electricity and an array of medical needs that weren’t able to be met during that time.
Becoming an actor and trying to get on stage or on TV and films just felt weird to me then. I soon slipped into some form of depression. My grades were falling off and soon I just felt like I should throw in the towel and try to apply for nursing school and then eventually set out to be a pediatrician. I applied to some universities back at home and then around February 2006, I decided to leave school for a week (or forever) and head down to New Orleans to visit some of my family members.
While I was there, an agent called and asked me to audition for a role in an upcoming Steven Seagal movie. I declined and continued hanging out with my older brother as we delighted in some New Orleans Po-boys. My phone kept ringing and it was the agent nearly begging me to go to the audition. My brother was like, “Sis you should go, you never know what could happen.”
I went to the audition, then was told that callbacks were later that day. I went to the callbacks and did the scenes that were given to me. Then Steven Seagal sat in and I auditioned for him. It was all so surreal and yet I wasn’t afraid. Something about being in that room, doing that audition just felt right.
Months later I got a call asking if I had a passport and that I had booked the movie. And next thing I knew I was on an airplane headed to Romania to play CIA Agent Jessia in Flight of Fury. My character was a badass woman who had no choice but to be strong and brave, all while sticking to the mission of rescuing her team. It was my very first time on a movie set, but it felt so natural and I knew that I was in alignment with what I was supposed to be doing. So that’s how I got my start.
From there I’ve played many awesome roles and have worked with so many amazing artists in this business. Now of course this journey hasn’t been easy. I’ve had some fun and exciting times. And I’ve had some challenging times, which I’m so grateful for; for those times have truly shaped me and made me a better artist and human.
The biggest challenges for me have been getting out of my own way and believing in myself. Sometimes the rejection is very hard to handle and can leave me feeling emotionally paralyzed. But I find ways to pick myself up and remind myself that as long as I’m still here, I have purpose and meaning no matter what happens or what anyone says. So I enjoy it all, the ups, the downs, and the in-betweens.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Oh wow, I love this question! A customary visit to the beach is a must! I would start our first day cruising up the PCH and finding a secluded beach spot to layout at. Or I may steal them away to La Jolla beach. I know it’s not LA but the 2-hour drive is so worth it! Down there we’d check out some local shops and then dine out at some of the best restaurants. However, back here in L.A. I’d take them on some cool hiking trails in Santa Clarita Valley such as Agua Dolce. I’d also take them over to the Japanese Garden in Woodland Hills.
For some more zen time, I’d swing them over to a yoga class or have them take a reiki session with me. I’m sure we’d find ourselves at a park or on the beach just meditating and charging our crystals or maybe finding ourselves at a crystal shop digging for meaningful stones.
As for food, one of our first stops would be Lotus Vegan in North Hollywood. Then H.O.P.E. in Studio City, Cafe Gratitude in Larchmont, and lastly Au Lac in Downtown. These are seriously the best Vegan restaurants in Los Angeles and so I have to shout them out.
Other than the beach, I’d take them to some outdoor concerts or festivities that are usually happening downtown thanks to the Grand Performances Concert Series. Or I’d take them to the Hollywood Bowl to listen to some really cool performances or a live orchestra performance of film soundtracks.
I’d get really creative and do a mixture of typical touristy things mixed with some fun local things. But no matter what, I’ll be sure that they have a blast!
Thanks for having me Voyage LA!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I definitely had some great mentors along my journey. In 7th grade, there was Mrs. Oliver, who just had a heart of gold. She was and still is so beautiful (she reminded me of Halle Berry). She was always there encouraging me and letting me know that everything will be alright. There were some challenging things going on in my life at that time and I remember one day after class, Mrs. Oliver handed me a book called, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. I read it and it helped me to put some things in perspective.
Then there was Ms. Janet Shea at NOCCA who kept telling me to channel all that I was feeling into my acting. The challenges going on at home and being a teenager really took their toll on me and sometimes Ms. Shea would stop me in the hallway, give me a hug, and say, “Remember, this too shall pass.”
Later in my high school years, my father ended up incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses and so my Aunt Kathy gifted me some books by Dr. Maya Angelou. She encouraged me to read her books and use them as fuel to find my strength. Fast forward to years later in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I would have the honor of meeting Dr. Angelou and spending time with her at her home. Dr. Angelou became somewhat of a surrogate grandmother of mine and those times with her are memories I’ll cherish forever!
So there are lots of mentors, friends, family members who played huge roles in helping me stay the course, exercise my faith and believe in myself.
Presently, and most notably, I would like to shout out The Michael’s Daughter Foundation team. Singer and Writer Charise Sowell and Associate Artistic Director of CTG, Tyrone Davis are the founding board members of The Michael’s Daughter Foundation. Our organization’s mission is to provide art programs, resources, and emergency assistance to youth and families impacted by mass incarceration, a subject dear to my heart.
Charise and Tyrone have been so invaluable in ensuring that we create an organization that will help to uplift our communities and empower youth to thrive despite some extremely challenging circumstances. Charise is always thinking outside of the box which is so helpful with this process. It can be an extremely intimidating process of creating an organization but her insight and creative thinking, makes it feel less scary.
Tyrone has years of working with and managing educational departments for some of our state’s most prominent theaters. He brings his expertise in creating arts educational programs for inner-city youth in such innovative ways that I feel confident that we will create an organization that will shift our communities for the better. We’re all excited and looking forward to announcing the official launch of The Michael’s Daughter Foundation, real soon!
Also, I would like to add that I love this question because I’m in the midst of curating an online blog called The In Trive (www.theintrive.com), which stands for The Inspired Thriving Tribe. There, I share things, places, and people who are thriving and who inspire me. In doing so, I hope to create an all-inclusive tribe for people seeking inspiration, advice, and lifestyle resources. It’s been really fun putting this together and I hope people are able to take a lot from it. So shout out to The In Trive!
Main photo Alex Stone Photography Hair – Kim Epps Makeup – Desiree Diggs Photo #1 (sitting with tan jacket) Emily Sandifer Photography Hair – Matilde Campos Makeup – Carissa Ferreri Wardrobe – Jessica Paster Photo #5 Emily Sandifer Photography Hair – Matilde Campos Makeup – Carissa Ferreri Wardrobe – Jessica Paster All other photos are from me: working with kids of The Michael’s Daughter Foundation, on set of The Oval, and post photoshoot with the Wendy Williams: The Movie team