For Serayah McNeill, this past year has been remarkable. McNeill was studying theater at a community college when a high school friend reached out to her about a role his casting director stepmom was trying to fill. This audition was for a character named Tiana and the show was Fox’s Empire. McNeill landed the part and began to film her first onscreen role. After its debut, the show was a critical success, breaking records by being the first series in 23 years to grow in viewers for five consecutive weeks. The soundtrack was a Billboard hit, charting at number one. This thrusted McNeill into the spotlight. Since then, she’s starred alongside Taylor Swift—and a number of other influential female artists—in Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video, and she’s also a musician in her own right. With a mixtape of her own set for release later this summer, McNeill is showing the world her own musical voice, and she’s just getting started.
Cliché: When you first heard about Empire, what were your thoughts?
Serayah McNeill: I hadn’t heard about it, but when I got the audition, I was like, “This is so awesome.” It was the perfect role for me, because I already sang and that kind of stuff. This was my first onscreen role, and it was the right kind of breakout role for me.
What drew you to the character Tiana?
I automatically knew that she was so edgy and bold, and I was going to have to bring that out of myself as much as I could.
Were you nervous about having your first onscreen role on the show?
Yes. I was really, really nervous. It was my first role, and especially being on set with everyone and knowing who was already cast, I just hoped that I’d do well. I tried to learn everything I could all at once.
What do you hope for Tiana in the upcoming season?
I really hope to learn more—and for the viewers to see more—of Tiana’s personal struggle and where she comes from, what she deals with, and why she is the way she is.
Do you have a favorite song from the show so far?
Yes! “You’re So Beautiful” is one of my favorites. I heard it in the studio when I recorded my part in the live version. It grew on me, and by the time we did the actual scene in the episode, I absolutely loved it.
Now, you just turned 20, so happy birthday!
Thank you so much!
Of course! So that means you were 19 when the show took off. Were you still in school during the filming then?
At the time, I was going to a community college here in Los Angeles in the valley and had a job at H&M. So that’s what I was doing, but I was always acting and singing as much as I could.
Were you pursuing acting as a major?
I was a theater major.
Did you put school on hold for now?
I did put it on hold, but I really can’t wait to go back and finish my classes. I’m really interested in theater and the director side of it. It’s been one of my passions, aside from acting.
Aside from Empire, you were also in Taylor Swift’s highly-anticipated video for “Bad Blood.” What thoughts ran through your head when you became a part of the project?
My first thought was that it was going to be absolutely epic, not just because of the cast that was in it, but because it was just so fun and just so cinematic. I had been saying that the next role I wanted to have was going to be an action character that got to be badass, so that was just amazing.
To pick your name, “Dilemma,” for the video, I read that you settled on it after seeing the word in a thesaurus. Was that the first place you went to when you heard that you got to pick a name?
Yes. I do that a lot with songwriting, so I had to decide what I wanted to be and then saw what word fit me. There were words that came up that were too long and stuff like that. When I picked Dilemma, it was perfect, and when I told Taylor, she loved it.
How was it filming the video?
It was so cool! It was a smooth process and just so fun seeing everyone do their own “Bad Blood” piece, because everyone had their own character. It was so cool to see that.
Were the costumes put together before you got there, or did you get to choose your look?
Mine was pretty put together when I got there, but I had plenty of options of what kind of bondage look I wanted to have. I love that type of thing, and it flowed nicely with my character.
You’re releasing your own mixtape this summer, so where do you draw inspiration for your own music?
Most of my inspiration for my tone and writing style is going back and listening to music from the past. It’s where I draw inspiration for my music stylistically and rhythmically.
Who do you consider some of your influences?
Definitely the ‘90s, which would include people like Missy Elliot. I love Timbaland [also the executive producer of music on Empire] and people like Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans—Bad Boy Records in general is amazing. And then people like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke are some of my very favorites. I can go on and on, but I’m into the blues and soul and pop and R&B. I get so many influences from everyone, even from Paramore and Colbie Caillat. I love music in general and getting to create and evolve it.
Who would you love to collaborate with in the future?
I would love to collaborate with some rappers, like Jeremih. He’s one of my favorites right now.
Everything took off pretty fast after Empire, so what do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I love to come home and chill with my friends and go to Malibu or the canyon. My favorite thing to do now that it’s summer is go shopping and see what I find by rummaging through things.
In terms of what’s next for you, you’ve got the mixtape and show, but do you have anything else going on?
Definitely auditions for film and music. I’m really hoping that within this next season, I can have music come out of my own and complete a film.
Read more Music Interviews on ClicheMag.com
Photo credit: Alex J Hudson
Serayah interview “Building Her Empire” originally appeared in Cliché Magazine’s Aug/Sept 2015 issue