Sierra McClain cherishes the position that she is in. As a former child actor, she relishes the love and support of her family, especially her sisters, with whom she began her career. From a Tyler Perry lead film to Disney and now Empire, McClain has kept busy and done a lot in her 23 years of life. As Nessa on Empire, she is all grown up and making waves on the hit TV show as the character fans love to hate. We can’t wait to see what she does next.
Sierra McClain loves working with her sisters as much as you love watching them together. Her first role was a background role in a movie called The Gospel that her sister China was in, but the role she most remembers having an impact on her life was Tyler Perry’s 2007 film Daddy’s Little Girls, where she co-starred as a character named Sierra with her sisters, China and Lauryn, opposite Idris Elba. For anyone unfamiliar with the film, Sierra was one of the three girls that Elba’s character, Monty, was fighting for sole custody of. The movie was an emotional one, a tear-jerker with a happy ending.
“I think that movie laid the foundation for every other job I did after that because we were so young, but it was actually very complex,” McClain said. “We were telling a very serious story so the content was very real and it was very emotional. It was a role that we could really sink our teeth into. I don’t think we realized how deep it was until we got older.”
The sisters didn’t work together again until 2011 in Disney’s A.N.T Farm, which was a less emotional role. McClain considered it a mini McClain sisters reunion as far as acting is concerned. She enjoyed the fact that they were having fun in the role and had the opportunity to sing together. She fondly stated that her sisters are her favorite co-stars. Since Daddy’s Little Girls, McClain said she has learned a lot.
She approaches acting differently now as she tries to learn from the people around her and how to trust herself. Because she started out so young, she was focused on knowing her lines and what the director wanted, thus making her roles about other people. Now, she is learning how to step into the shoes of whoever she is playing and create a real character. She now views acting as a collaboration between the actor, the writer, directors, and anyone else who is involved.
This is one of my favorite jobs because of the marriage between acting and singing.
Currently, McClain is starring on the hit Fox TV show Empire. McClain plays Nessa, the newest confident and bold recording artist signed to Empire Entertainment, the show’s record company founded by Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). For her fans who knew of her first as a child actor, this new role she is in has been a bit of an adjustment for them.
“It has been an adjustment, I will say that. Not just for the fans but even for my friends and family,” McClain said. “I get a lot of phone calls like, ‘What? Who is that I’m watching on screen?’ so it took some getting used to. I don’t think I got any super negative comments as far as the transition. I think everybody sort of embraced it. I feel like people can’t stand Nessa because the stuff she does is very controversial.”
McClain and her character share a love of music and that is one of the things McClain respects about her. There are many things Nessa does that McClain does not agree with and she said that sometimes it is difficult co-existing with her, but McClain understands Nessa has been through a lot. So, even though she may not always handle things correctly, McClain believes her decisions are based on her experiences and that even if she doesn’t always agree with the decisions she makes, Nessa stands up for what she believes in. The problem isn’t necessarily the character Tiana (played by Serayah), Mcclain said, but the fact that Nessa has the mentality of having to eliminate or step on whoever in order to get to the top.
“She has done some petty things, but it doesn’t come from a place of pettiness,” McClain explained. “She grew up around people who don’t necessarily play by the rules and they’ve kind of shown her by example that you have to do whatever it takes to get to the top. So, that’s the mindset that she’s adopted in the entertainment industry.”
Despite the actions of her character, McClain said the cast welcomed her to the show with open arms. During her first week on set, she said Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon, spoiled her from the moment she arrived at the table read and has been kind to her. She promised that everyone has been taking loving care of her on and off set. This treatment was something she didn’t expect walking into a hit TV show with veteran actors like Taraji P. Henson. She walked on nervous and wanting to make sure she kept up with everyone, but they embraced her and treated her like she was a part of the family.
Music is a universal language so to be able to incorporate that in telling somebody else’s story is beautiful.
What new fans of McClain might not know is she’s a triple threat. She’s a singer, an actor, and she plays various instruments, but don’t expect her to choose, even if music was her first love.
“It’s funny because I used to listen to China doing interviews all the time and she would say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t choose. I have such a hard time choosing.’ And in the beginning, I would be like, ‘Really, man? It’s easy for me; I would say music.’ But now it’s funny because I’m in her shoes and I don’t know which one I would choose,” McClain said. “Music was my first love. I grew up around it, but I have a newfound respect and love for acting.”
Who doesn’t love the best of both worlds? And because McClain enjoys both, it is fitting that she is on a show like Empire where she gets to do both in almost every single episode. In many ways, the music on the show is a character in and of itself. The music either moves the episode ahead or reflects the plot as a whole or individual character arc. The episodes’ songs are almost always available right after each episode ends, giving the actors and their characters the chance to live outside of the show, as well as in it. Empire, in many ways, has created a platform for the actors to become as big as the characters they play on TV in the realm of music.
“It’s a beautiful relationship between music and acting,” McClain said. “It tells somebody else’s story with songs driving everything. Music is a universal language so to be able to incorporate that in telling somebody else’s story is beautiful, especially when you’re so in love with music. This is one of my favorite jobs because of the marriage between acting and singing.”
When she wrapped her shooting for the show in Chicago in early March, she spent a lot of time talking to her family or having her mom come visit. When she wasn’t talking to her biological family, she was spending time with her Empire one. She laughed when retelling the story of how she would bother Ta’Rhonda Jones, who plays the role of Portia on Empire, and the fellow actress would cook for her. An admitted homebody, McClain said she tried to get out a lot and see the city on her days off.
Outside of the show, McClain has kept busy and is keeping hope alive that she and her sisters will work together again, though there are no set plans. They were doing music together for a long time and were signed, but then they began doing music individually. McClain would love to do a movie, a serious project or something “special” with them. Aside from planning new projects with her sisters, McClain was headed to film an unannounced project the day after this interview that she was very excited about. And although it may be awhile until we learn about it, we are very excited, too.
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Sierra McClain Talks Music, Acting, and ‘Empire’: Photographer: Quavondo, Stylist: Melissa Lynn Woodbury, Retouching: Katja de Bruijn, Hair: Lisa Deveaus, Makeup: Jorge Monroy. Necklace and Ring: Kat Ong, Top/Bottom Set: Paradise Ranch Designs