Sierra McClain

Newcomer Sierra McClain is Hollywood’s freshest scene stealer as Nessa on FOX’s hit drama, “Empire.” The actor, singer, do-it-all talent is only getting started, and Composure gets an inside look on the making of this bright young star. 

Photography by John Hong
Styling by Robiat Balogun
Makeup by Jorge Monroy
Hair by Lisa Deveaux for Island Girl Productions, Inc. using Kusco Murphy Haircare.
Video by Jonathan Navales
Story by Sarah Yoo


I’m very much a “sweatpants, sports bra, bomber, and go” [kind of girl]. So, to be honest with you, [this shoot] was different for me, but I love that. I love stepping outside of what normally makes me comfortable, and just going there. Fashion, it transforms you, for sure, but I almost feel like who we are also affects the fashion. We dress how we feel, normally. It’s beautiful because it molds to however we feel at any given time, and it’s unlimited. There are no boundaries, and it can be tailored depending on who you are and what you love. Fashion is empowering, especially when it is outside your comfort zone, and it pushes you. Like I said, I’m not one to be wearing dresses and skirts – that’s not me – but when I put it on, and maybe this is just a part of my job, but I almost feel like a character even in my own shoes.


The show really is something special. I don’t think I quite understood what I was getting myself into because the producers, writers, directors on that show, they really trust you, and they let you just go for it. So, when I was going to rehearsals, when I was getting up on stage and just doing what I wanted to do, I didn’t realize what it was that I was actually doing until I watched it later. I realized I’m really going to have to make sure I’m on my p’s and q’s and be responsible with this because this is something serious! It speaks to how they feel about you and what they see when they look at you. And it’s crazy because I don’t always feel that way about myself! I feel blessed to have that support, I really do.

I’ve learned how to trust myself a little bit more because I didn’t at first. When I came into this show, I was like, “I can’t do this! I can’t go into the studio and sing a whole song!” I’d never done it. I didn’t know what I was going to do. So, when I watch people like [Howard] Terrence on set just hop on an instrument, no matter who’s around, and he just starts playing, it’s so beautiful to see other people trusting their gift. Hearing Jussie [Smollett] just sing on set, I didn’t trust myself that way. But I’m beginning to, and that is an area in which I’ve grown. Once I started trusting myself like that, it gave me the OK to work even harder and realize I have some level of potential here. As long as you stay true to what you’re doing, there’s room for you because no one else is doing that! Nobody else can do you. There’s room for you, for me, and whoever else wants to come in here and shine and be beautiful.

This is the first experience I’ve had with serious character development over the course of several episodes. Really having to step into Nessa’s shoes and say, “Ok, what is her story? What is she trying to say? Why is she here? What’s the writer’s purpose for her being here?” It’s material that you can sink your teeth into, and for a young actress like myself, and an African American actress as well, it’s something that I really took and realized, “Man, they really want this girl to have some power. They want this girl to have some bite!” It’s fun because that’s a little outside my personality. Hopefully I’m doing something right – it’s intimidating! If the rest of the cast weren’t so loving, and if they didn’t embrace me so, I think my performance would have showed how nervous I was. Terrence is so amazing. Taraji [P. Henson] is so amazing. Ta’Rhonda [Jones], Serayah, everyone! Everyone took care of me. They had no reason to be as sweet to me as they were, and I appreciated it so much.

Nessa is all about the music. And her love for performing. And her love for sitting in the studio and creating something that feels good. That’s why I so appreciated that scene in episode two, directed by Craig Brewer, where Nessa and Hakeem were in the studio. They were just bouncing off of each other, throwing stuff out there, and brainstorming – that’s what I do at home. That is the one thing without a doubt, when I look at Nessa, that I can truly relate to. The music is what brings me back to her, even when she’s doing stuff that makes me go, “What the hell is she doing?!”


My parents met doing music. They were like that old-school, you put your records together in your house, sneak up to LaFace Records, you know what I’m saying? They worked day in and day out – it’s honestly like Cookie and Lucious, the music side of it all. My parents went back and forth supporting each other, they went through so many ups and downs, and at the end of the day, it’s them, and it’s always been them. And like the Lyons, I don’t ever remember a time when music wasn’t playing in the house or somebody wasn’t singing or an instrument wasn’t being played. The music has never been about being famous. There simply was and is no plan B. I’m not the best there is, but it’s in me now. And it’s always been there.

That said, I have really big dreams. I’ve already seen some come to pass, but it’s only one facet of it. I’m just one facet of something so much bigger. My parents are talented, my brother, my sisters – it’s a family affair. We have so much work to do together. I’m a small part of something so big. Our parents always taught us – because it gets difficult in this industry, and people will try to tear you apart – when something good happens for one of us, something good happens for all of us. A win for one of us is a win for all of us. It’s all just a matter of time. I can’t wait for the world to see, God willing, what we have in store. Who says the sky’s the limit? Oh, it’s much further than that!

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9pm on FOX.

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