The 22-year-old rising star received rave reviews from Empire fans, making her one of their most popular breakout characters. We had the chance to speak to the new girl on Empire about her role as Nessa, Empire’s song about Black Lives Matter, and what’s next for her character on the show! Read the interview below.
Celebuzz: The third season of Empire began last month (Sept. 2016). When the show airs on Wednesday nights, who do you watch it with?
Sierra McClain: This Wednesday I actually got to watch it with my brother and sister. I was doing the after show for Empire so we all watched it together.
CB: You are part of R&B girl group McClain with your younger two sisters. How do they feel about your solo work on Empire? What advice would you give them about pursuing their careers in the music industry?
SM:I think they scream louder than I do! They get so excited. They are such an amazing support system. I think I would tell them to trust themselves and trust their gift. My sisters are extremely, extremely talented. I think that’s one thing I’m learning now that I’m on working a lot more on my own: I’m learning to trust myself. That’s been the main thing for me.
CB: When the spotlight shines on your character, Nessa, she sings “Need Freedom.” What does this song mean to you?
SM: I was honored that they allowed me to sing such a socially relevant song on a platform as huge as Empire. And I didn’t realize it until Jussie [Smollett] tweeted it during the premiere, but both performances of “Need Freedom” were taped exactly seven days afterPhilando Castile’s death, and the premiere of Empire aired just a few days after the death of Terence Crutcher, who both died at the hands of police brutality. Empire is doing a great thing by shedding a very necessary light through music and entertainment on these often neglected topics, and I’m just happy I was able to be a part of spreading the message, especially through a song as meaningful and powerful as “Need Freedom.”
CB: It was a very moving scene, so I’m sure you were honored to perform it.
SM: I was. It was emotional, for sure.
CB: You shared a heartwarming Instagram photo of yourself and Jussie Smollett on set. Does he give you any advice before shooting?
SM: He does. Jussie spoiled me when I got there and was the one who helped me when I got there. He was just so sweet like he knew me already and he didn’t have to be. He didn’t have to be! He was with me at the beginning. I was so glad somebody was able to capture that moment before I went on because it meant so much to me.
He took my hand and gave me so much advice, he told me, “Continue to be who you are and don’t let this affect anything, don’t let it change you. Do what you’re doing and trust yourself.” I was emotional in that moment, so I’m glad someone captured that, I love him so much. I’ve learned a lot from watching him not just on stage and filming, but just how he acts around other people. He is such an amazing spirit, he’s just a bundle of love.
CB: You get to work with a lot of musicians and actors on set. Who has been your favorite to work with so far?
SM: There are so many. First of all, Terrence Howard tops off the list. To be able to work with a vet, I feel, is a blessing in itself to learn from the hand that you’re being fed. I’ve actually made a friend in Serayah, too. Bre-Z is a whole lot of fun, Ta’Rhonda Jones, who plays Porsha, too. It’s so hard to pick. I keep telling my mother this is the perfect cast, everybody’s like a family. It’s absolutely amazing.
CB: Despite the drama that we see on TV, just from looking at the social media of the cast, you all seem like one big family.
SM: We really are. As you guys know now, I’m working with Trai Byers a lot more, he’s such a great actor and I’ve learned so much from doing that scene with him. It seems unreal, it really does, but I’m so happy to be a part of the cast.
CB: Empire fans are commenting on your performance of “Remember My Name,” saying that you remind them of Kelly Rowland on this track. How does that make you feel?
SM: Oh, well that’s a big compliment! Oh my goodness. You know what? I’ve gotten that before too, that’s so funny. Hey, Destiny’s Child was iconic. You know, singing with my sisters and being in a three-girl group that’s one of the biggest compliments we can receive, so it makes me feel real good.
CB: What musicians inspire you when you’re recording songs on Empire?
SM: You know what, for my first studio session I was super, super nervous, but my father is also an engineer and we used to record with him all the time. Everyone just makes me feel so comfortable. The Empire crew is phenomenal.
CB: Nessa shows she’s independent and strong on Empire. How does your own personality blend into your role?
SM: I think that with every role I try, to figure out, who is Nessa most like? What quality is she most like? And then I just try and build on that. She tends to be very guarded. She’s strong and baller. I’m able to identify a little bit with her. I think everyone has a little bit of that in them. Especially when they come into a situation to judge. That’s where I try to build on that so she can become her own entity. I think with each episode you see a little bit more of her and a little bit more about her,and she’s very strong. I think I was able to identify with her [Nessa] in that way.
CB: You have quickly become a fan favorite on the show. How does that make you feel?
SM: Am I a fan favorite?! I didn’t know! It makes me feel amazing, this is a show that my mother watched religiously before it was even a thought in my mind. It’s funny, she told me, because at first, I was like“Mom, I don’t know if I’m doing a good enough job!” Mom said, “Sierra, I’d tell you if you weren’t doing well because I wouldn’t let you mess up my favorite show!” [Laughs.] It was definitely good having her around. I feel blessed. God is so good, I’ve been trying to use my gift responsibly and I hope I have a lot more time on the show.
CB: Can you tell us anything of what’s to come next for Nessa on Empire?
SM: She is on a little bit of a roll. Without saying too much, I’m so excited to see how her character develops. she has some really strong people in her life. Shine (Xzibit) is a VERY strong figure in her life, and now Andre (Trai Byers) is this huge sort of political figure too. I’m very interested for everybody else to see how that affects Nessa’s time on Empire.
Empire airs on Wednesday nights at 9/8 Central on FOX.