Actress Ciera Payton on Hollywood, Heart-Ache and Loving NOLA
April 10, 2013
New Orleanians should get to know actress Ciera Payton. Not because she’s a beloved daughter of our great city; nor because poet Maya Angelou once told her ‘Everybody’s going to know your name one day, Ms. Payton.’ We should get to know the promising starlet because she represents the infinite possibilities that can arise from unfortunate circumstances. She has learned to transform personal trial into art- an art form she both discovered and embraced right here in the Crescent City.
Only 26, Payton has already made impressive strides as a working actress in Los Angeles, CA, the city she moved to nearly 3 years ago in pursuit of Hollywood stardom. To date, Payton has landed roles on several major network television shows like The Closer (TNT), Common Law(USA), NCIS (CBS), and most recently USA’s Graceland. Payton says she was very fortunate, after graduating from North Carolina School of the Arts in 2008, to score a prominent role opposite action star Steven Seagal in the film “Flight of Fury.”
Although Payton appears to be gaining momentum toward her dream, she concedes that her journey has been- and continues to be- filled with overwhelming obstacles. “This business is very very hard,” Payton says, but insists, “Every time I want to quit, something happens.” Something good that is. Payton believes that her relative success has been the result of consistent prayer coupled with a diligent work ethic.
“I’m still not at a place where I precisely want to be,” but says she is grateful because she gets plenty of work, and “good work,” she adds proudly.
The day-to-day struggle of weekly auditions are often accompanied by as many rejections, she says. Ironically, her drive and determination is rooted in a disappointing New Orleans upbringing- one that has pushed many youth, who have lived through similar circumstances, to horrific outcomes. Payton concedes that her overall story could have taken a very different turn.
“As a child I dealt with a lot of stuff,” Payton says. "Sometimes I wonder how I didn't end up addicted to drugs or alcohol."
Payton is the product of a broken home. And from ages 5 to 13, split time with her mother in Eastern New Orleans, but spent the majority in Central City with her father, Michael, who battled with drug addiction. Payton recalls a revolving door of people with ill-formed habits. The environment was often depressing and certainly not suitable for an only child, she says. She vividly remembers forcing herself to escape her surroundings by writing stories drawn from her imagination, and then acting them out with her toy dolls. “It was very dysfunctional, and what I would do at the time is escape into my own fantasy world,” she says.
“I think that’s why I gravitated toward acting,” she explains. “It allowed me to be something else and be somewhere else.”
Despite her father’s addiction, Payton says they have always shared a close relationship and firmly believes he did everything he could, within his limited capacity, to provide for her. Unfortunately, nothing could keep him from meeting a fate that befalls many who toil with addiction.
Upon entering high school, Payton was also enrolled at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) as the youngest student in her drama class. The same year, her father would be arrested and sent to Orleans Parish Prison. Helping to cope with the loss, Payton says NOCCA offered a sense of safety and stability, and that the staff treated her like family.
“I was able to confide in a lot of my teachers about what I was going through at home,” she says, adding that she also profited from intense and rigorous drama training which she still values today. “I think it shaped who I am, and I’ll always be forever grateful for that.”
“I also think that’s where I found my voice.”
Payton would later merge her strong theatre training with the pain of her father being imprisoned, yet again, in 2008. She reflects on the day she originally arrived to Los Angeles alone in a nearly-vacant apartment; no agent, and with very little money. Her only possession was box of unopened letters written to her by her father from prison which she had never bothered to read. “When he went to prison in 2008, I just kind of gave up on him because I couldn’t continue to go through that heart-ache anymore,” she says.
“I opened that box of all the letters and I was touched,” Payton says. “I cried and I laughed,” explaining that her father’s sincerity could be simultaneously piercing yet humorous. “He’s funny and at the same time has always been an open book with me,” she says. Payton realized that these letters could serve as a form of therapy, as well as, inspiration for others.
It was in the spirit of their written exchanges that Payton created a powerful one-woman stage-play titled “Michael’s Daughter,” which she has been performing since 2011 (most recently at the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival in March of this year).
There are many who have treaded similar paths to Payton who often choose to avoid such hurt. To the contrary, Payton is emboldened by it. She owns it all. Her past is intimately connected to everything she does and will do in the future, she believes. One of her goals is to return to New Orleans and re-engage young under-served girls with a project she was involved in during high school (in New Orleans) called “What Girls Know.” The program teaches the fundamentals of acting to young girls through a series of workshops.
“What we do with the girls is take from their life experiences and teach them a play, and the girls present the play to their families in a theatre setting,” she says. “If I were a kid (living in New Orleans) it would’ve been a program that I would have been in.”
“That’s my dream to do something like this in New Orleans,” she says, adding that she would also like to one day perform "Michaels Daughter" in her hometown. “I will never forget where I came from.”