Exclusive: Rising Star Sierra McClain On ‘Empire,’ Carving Out Her Own Identity, & Putting Those Stunning Vocals To Work

As Empire Entertainment’s newest soul singer, Nessa has been stealing hearts, starting drama, and paving her own path on FOX’s hit series Empire.

For actress Sierra McClain, the role has been a dream come true. Though she got her start as an actress in Tyler Perry’s 2007 film, Daddy’s Little Girls with her sisters China and Lauryn, it has been McClain’s breakout role as Nessa, that has propelled her forward as an up and coming talent in Hollywood.

With only a half a season under her belt, McClain’s Nessa has already pitted brothers Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) against one another. She’s also set her sights on sabotaging fellow Empire artist Tiana (Serayah) to define herself as Empire’s top female artist. Under the watchful eye of her violate manager Shine (Xzibit), Nessa is only just beginning to shake things up.

Ahead of the midseason premiere of Empire which airs Wednesday, March 22nd, spoke with Sierra McClain about her breakout role, the songs and TV shows she’s currently obsessed with and what’s next on Empire.

JET: Sierra, we were introduced to you and your sisters in Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls a decade ago. Since then, you’ve worked with your sisters in your band McClain, but your role as Nessa on Empire is you stepping out on your own. What has that been like for you?

Sierra McClain: Oh my gosh, that’s such a good question. To be honest with you, I wasn’t even sure I could do it. I had been working with my sisters for God knows how long and with my father, who is my favorite music producer. So, I felt like that kind of groomed me and prepared me for this opportunity. But, it all happened so fast. I don’t even think I really had the time to second guess myself too much. It was just a regular audition. I went in and did the audition and then, once I booked it, I flew out that night. It has just been a whirlwind from there. It’s been studio sessions and filming and rehearsals, so I didn’t have time to psyche myself out of it. But, during the first studio session for “Need Freedom,” I had never sung an entire song in the studio by myself. So, I was like, “I don’t even know if my voice will hold up, I’m praying it will!” Honestly, before this, I didn’t really utilize it the way I am now on the show. I had to talk to my dad, and I said, “Dad, I’m scared. I don’t know if I can do this.” He was like, “This is what you’ve been preparing for! Just fly.” So, I think that’s what really helped me come into my own with this opportunity.

JET: I read that you were a huge Empire fan before signing on to the series and that you don’t even read the scripts all the way through so that storylines still surprise you. What has it been like to move from fan to actor?

Sierra: Oh man! It’s so hard to explain because you walk on to the set and you’re dealing with people, and you’re dealing with sets that you’ve constantly seen on TV. I knew a little bit about what that’s like, but not on this scale. Empire is one of the biggest shows on television. I sat, and I watched the entire series with my mom before I started filming. I had seen some of it, but I was like, “Let me sit down and watch it front to back.” Walking on set was this out of body experience. Working with everybody was amazing. I will say it was a lot different than what I thought it was going to be. They’re truly like a big family. It sounds a little cliche and like the right answer but it’s really the truth.

JET: Nessa came on to Empire with full guns blazing. You’ve done some pretty tough scenes that have included violence and sex, how have you prepped yourself for these tumultuous sequences?

Sierra: Well, I will say there is no prepping for a sex scene. (Laughing) You just go in and do it. The people around me, my family and my friends were like, “Sierra, you ain’t never done nothing like that, you don’t know what you’re doing.” So, I just had to sit and talk to my mom because I didn’t even know where to start. Daddy’s Little Girls was an emotional movie for us, and we were like eleven and twelve and had to tap into something like that. I don’t even know if we realized what we were doing at the time. But, that unlocked something in me emotionally. So, with Empire, I got to tap back into it for the first time in a long time. So in a strange way, it brought back memories from that movie. But, this is no joke. Empire is no joke. People can say what they want about the show and the story and stuff like that, but once you step on the stage, Taraji [P. Henson] is a REAL actress, and she’s a vet. Terrence [Howard] is a REAL actor, even Trai [Byers]. These people don’t play games when they step on set. So, you can think what you want coming into it, but you have to be on your A-game because this is real-life stuff.

JET: Do you have a favorite character on Empire?

Sierra: I have to say Cookie because she reminds me so much of my mom. Watching Taraji on set, and watching her work; Cookie embodies not just Black women in general, but the Black women in my life. I didn’t miss my mother and my grandmother as much when I was with Taraji, so I love that about her. She was so kind to me too.

JET: What TV shows, besides Empire are you loving right now?

Sierra: You know what, I haven’t had the time to watch much of anything, But you know what? I’ll tell you what I do need to start watching. I’m really late, but Underground is next on my list; Atlanta is on my list. I’ve seen the beginning of Queen Sugar; I need to keep going with Queen Sugar. Greenleaf, I’ve seen like the whole first season, so I need to keep going. I know there are other things I need to watch! I watch Black-ish when I can catch it, it’s so freakin’ funny!

JET: What are your must-haves in your trailer on set?

Sierra: We actually just wrapped not too long ago. But, when I first got to Chicago in July it was hot, so I was keeping tons of ice water. My mom was with me at the time, and she doesn’t like it when it gets too hot. Then when we moved into the winter months, there is a fireplace in the trailer. So that was incredible, I can’t operate when it gets too cold. So, I had to stay warm.

JET: Can you describe your perfect day off? What does that look like?

Sierra: I’m a homebody. I don’t do a lot of clubbing or partying, so as long as I’m in a space where I’m comfortable with people that I enjoy being around like my family and good friends, that is my perfect day off. Us getting together and watching a movie or getting some food, that’s my thing.

JET: Which songs do you have on repeat right now?

Sierra: Oh my gosh! That’s so hard. Anything by Beyoncé, D’Angleo’s stuff is constantly on repeat, anything Aaliyah. I love old school R&B. That’s my thing, anything from that time.

JET: Can you give JET a sneak peak about what we will see on Wednesday during Empire’s midseason premiere?

Sierra: Oooh. It’s gonna be some drama, and there’s gonna be some rivalry happening. So, I’m kind of scared about this upcoming episode. (Laughing) But it’s going to be so good, and I can’t wait. The second half of this season is almost better than the first half, and the first half was GOOD! (Laughing) You’ll get to see Nessa acting a fool; y’all know her. She’s really showing those character flaws. It’s just really been such a blessing, though. I’m thanking God and trying to take it one day and one step at a time. God is good.

JET: Congratulations Sierra! Thank you so much.

The midseason premiere of Empire airs Wednesday, March 22nd at 9 PM ET on FOX.