We first met Serayah McNeill, known by her single-name moniker Serayah, as pop star princess Tiana in Lee Daniels’ critically-acclaimed series Empire. Now, the “Mr. Lover” singer has been carving out her lane in the industry with new music, a new style, and even a few new roles, including the recently announced confirmation of her part in 50 Cent’s “Black Family Mafia” alongside Lala Anthony and Snoop Dogg.
Before McNeill takes on the role of Demetrius Flenory’s girlfriend and mother of his child Lori Walker, she’s making her Lifetime debut as the lead inEnvy, which premieres on the women’s channel tonight. We caught up with the 25-year-old to chat about “Black Mafia Family,” her creative process in front of and behind the camera, and upcoming projects.
Tell us about Envy.
SERAYAH: That’s my first lead role and it’s a very different character than I’ve ever played on screen before. [Keisha] has layers and she’s complicated, like most of us, right? I just haven’t played that on screen yet. She has a lot of trauma and things that are unfinished from her life that she’s figuring out in this movie. She’s learning, she’s getting over and going through things, and a breaking point in her whole life of struggle is when her mom dies and she has no one else. She’s the envious character of the movie and everything that surrounds jealousy, deceit, lying and trying to have the upper hand because she never had it before.
It’s interesting that we find her redemption at the end because she does have a faith background. We see her pleading to God at the end like, “Ugh, I’m just in this messed-up space,” and that’s what I really did love about the characters. Within all of this crazy stuff that you see her do – like, this girl is crazy, at the end – you’re like, “Okay, she deserves a second chance.” We all do things out of hurt, pain, or spite because of what we’re going through. The first thing they told me was, “We don’t want people to hate her by the end of this movie, with all of this stuff that she’s done.” I really, really love the story of Keisha in Envy and it’s a part of the Seven Deadly Sins franchise that T.D. Jakes is doing on Lifetime.
Congratulations on landing a role in “Black Mafia Family.” How did this opportunity come about?
SERAYAH: It’s a monumental story about a family from Detroit where two sons, Terry and Meech started this whole drug lord thing of their own. They found their own way to do it in their own way, capitalized and they are who they are now. It’s really, really dope because I know Terry and his sister Nicole in real life, and I was able to get connected with this series and audition for a role of a tomgirl, baby mother of Meech. I was like, “Yeah, I got to do this. Y’all have to pick me, come on.”
I was really excited just to be able to pop in and out and be there whenever they need me. I think it’s another one of those moments. Gratefully, I was a part of Empire at one of those Black TV moments where it’s so highly anticipated. Everything 50 [Cent] touches is just amazing, right? Power is dope. I have a lot of confidence in Tasha Smith who was directing and you have Randy Huggins as one of the producers. The way that it’s being shot, let me just tell you, it’s a movie and I can’t wait for it to come out. It looks so good and it’s so real.
How has this role helped you grow as an actress since your days on FOX’s Empire?
SERYAH: This is the first time I’m playing someone in real life. Playing someone’s life, digging into who she really is as a person, and figuring out her and Meech’s relationship back then makes it really interesting. I think that’s a big growing stage for me by being able to do those types of things with the character and break it down in that way. It’s helped me grow and in the biopic space by being able to really break down the character, talk to the real person and do all my research. It’s a really raw moment. I had no makeup, they made me take off my nails, and I can’t wait for people to see me grounded.
What’s interesting for me that I found out just from talking to the showrunner was that the most important thing for them is showing the family. They want to show the family ties, so that’s definitely what you can expect to see. Obviously some grit and some grime because we got 50 Cent. I haven’t seen those scenes, but I know everything is going to be A-one spectacular.
You’ve also been tapping into your creative side and exploring more behind-the-scenes. What made you decide to make the transition from actress to producer?
SERAYAH: For years, I fantasized about ideas of my own. Now me and my mom, who is also my manager and a big part of my business, are figuring out this script together about the lives of five different females. It’s really dope to be a part of that because now I get to be on the backend and say, “Ooh, this character feels like this, and we want this character to feel like that.” What stories do we want to project? What’s our main objective of when our viewers watch this, what are they getting from it? How do we change the trajectory of Black women or Black people on TV? Not only powerful or coming up from the struggle but how do we show the women that are out here getting it every day, like me and you? We wake up and we work and we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.
We want to show that and that’s been the biggest thing for us in creating this space. I’m really excited about that, but I can just say it’s empowering because I get to sit with Tamra Simmons and my mom to debate and figure out how do we change the trajectory. Tamra Simmons is also on the producer side with us and writing the scripts. The conversation is just dope in general.
What have been the most challenging parts of your screenwriting and production journey?
SERAYAH: Time management and there are not enough hours in the day, honestly. There’s just so much to it and it’s not that it can’t be done, but I think it’s just definitely time management for me because I still am a talent. I love that I get to leave and then come back to this story and be like, “Ah, I think this character should be like this.” I would definitely say time management in figuring out all of the characters and making sure our deadlines are meeting everything on time.
What about the most rewarding parts?
SERAYAH: Oh my gosh, the most rewarding and exciting part is being able to finally create it. Put in words, see it in an email and we’re getting a deck drafted right now. An exciting point is going to see the whole breakdown of every single character, storylines, the first, second, and third episode. Seeing who this character may resemble. We do want fresh faces, but probably someone that we all do know. I was on a TV show with fresh faces, I love fresh faces, I think having a couple that we do know, obviously that can carry the show and that can pull in people, but people that can really just tell the story the most authentically is the most important.
How would you sum up your growth as an actress, and how will you continue to grow?
SERAYAH: When the world first met me, I was a pop star, I was glamorous, I was a diva, which is great. By the end of Empire, I said that Tiana was like my alter ego because she’s the girl that you want to be every day, but you probably don’t feel like that every day; she does. She literally walks in a room like, “This is mine and I don’t know what you thought you had, but it’s mine.” She gets to wear all the fun stuff straight off the runway and she was like the young Mariah Carey of the label.
Now the trajectory of my work is going more into the film space and really see me as an actress. My role on Empire was limiting in the way of seeing me perform and those attributes, right? Now you don’t get the glitz and glamor; you get the raw stripped-down version. I get to dig into these characters and I get to be nothing like you’ve seen me before. That’s so important to me when I’m picking roles, and when I’m auditioning is, what is my story being told along the way?