By Cait Rohan | November 14, 2016 | People
Playing Tiana on Empire may be 21-year-old Serayah McNeill’s first major role (she didn’t get her start on Hannah Montana as she’d hoped—more on that later), but this season her character will get a meatier storyline (with Gram, played by Romeo Miller, taking over as her new love interest) and a kick-butt, girl-power anthem called “Me.” And with a part in Taylor Swift’s epic music video for “Bad Blood” and 1 million Instagram followers and counting, all signs point to success outside of her Empire role, too. We rang the talented actress/singer to hear more about this season, which Empire guest performers leave her feeling star-struck, and what she’s working on next (including a solo album!).
Talk to us about your role on Empire this season.
SERAYAH MCNEILL: Well, this season Tiana is obviously still focused on her career but we get to see she has a new love interest, which I was really excited about, because that gave Tiana something as far as a storyline. This season we just get to see more of her, instead of just talking about her in a scene. [We] see how she contributes to Empire. She’s grown a lot on the show as far as like, a pop icon, so it’s cool to see her in these different scenes with different people in the cast she hasn’t been in scenes with before.
Why do you think the show has become so successful?
SM: Even though you might not have a Cookie [Lyon, played by Taraji P. Henson] in your family or anything like that, you’re just able to relate to the characters in different way. That’s what I really do enjoy about the show—if you know someone with bi-polar disorder or someone who’s gay, you can really relate to it.
What do you think about the show’s portrayal of mental illness and the LGBT community?
SM: I think it’s completely authentic. I think the stuff that happens to Jamal [Lyon, played by Jussie Smollett] and Andre [Lyon, played by Trai Byers] really does happen to people who have the same issues; who have parents that don’t accept them. It’s a harsh reality but it’s out there.
Talk to us about your new song on Empire, “Me.”
SM: So “Me” is a song that Tiana was doing because these two guys, Hakeem [Lyon, played by Bryshere Y. Gray] and her new boyfriend on the show, Gram, were arguing about her and going back and forth and being stupid. The song is great because it just talks about loving yourself first and not needing acceptance from someone else to feel love. That’s why I really do like that song, it really brought me back to a Beyoncé moment where it was like “Me, Myself, and I.” It was really cool when I was able to relate to it in that way. I was really, really feeling it.
Serayah as Tiana on Empire season two.
There are a lot of famous guest stars on the show. Any favorites, or anyone who you were completely star-struck by?
SM: Oh, always star-struck by Mariah Carey, always. She’s a favorite, [I’ve] literally listened to every album, even albums that were kind of under the radar. Her and Alicia Keys. I got the chance to meet Alicia Keys, and she is so sweet and she’s amazing, and I saw her perform and it was just like, ‘Oh my god, I love this human being,’ so those two for me [I was] really, really excited about.
The cast is also completely stacked with talented actors and performers. Anyone you look up to in particular?
SM: I really look up to the more seasoned actors; Trai and Terrence [Howard, who plays Luscious Lyon] and Taraji, they just have something. Everyone is so amazing, [but] they just have something that oozes, and I really just enjoy watching them perform on set—their scenes come to life.
Who or what made you want to get into singing and acting in the first place?
SM: I started writing music at 10. I think writing and music for me was always a self-expression thing because I wasn’t very expressive growing up, so if anything happened I’d write it out.
I was in choir and stuff, but I would only write music, I wouldn’t sing it, because I was too embarrassed to sing. So one day I was in choir at church, and I had a solo and I sang the solo and I could just see my mom’s face—[she’s] sitting sitting down right in front of me. I could just see her face like, ‘What? I didn’t know you could sing; why don’t you ever sing?’ (Laughs).
I think it just started [with] me expressing myself, and then I was so in love with it and wanted to be on TV. One specific show I wanted to be on was Hannah Montana. When that show came out I was like, ‘Oh my god, if I could just guest star on Hannah Montana….’ I remember Selena Gomez guest starred and then she got her own show, and so I’m like, ‘Hey, I could guest star and get my own show!’ (Laughs). That was my plan.
Serayah at the premiere of Empire season two.
What was it like to work with Taylor Swift in “Bad Blood”? Were you a Taylor fan beforehand?
SM: I was definitely a Taylor fan. Ninth grade? [Sings Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me”] ‘On the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset…’ you have no idea how obsessed I was with that song. I was definitely a Taylor fan, but I was very taken aback that she wanted me to be in the video and be a part of showing empowerment with young women in the industry that are doing their thing. It was a really, really good experience.
And what’s next for you?
SM: I’m working on my solo music project. [I’ll] hopefully get a single out soon and an album by next year. And I’m still auditioning for things that can work out around my schedule in Empire, so yeah, a lot of exciting things coming up soon.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY FOX (HEADSHOT); DIMITRIOS KAMBOURIS/WIRTEIMAGE (NEW YORK PREMIERE); FOX VIA GETTY IMAGES (EMPIRE STILL)