The unusual part of the scene was the Hollywood actress, who chatted with the kids as she sat in the back of a pickup truck placing rings of frozen pineapple into snack bags. Ciera Payton, a New Orleans native and graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, appears on the TV show “Graceland” and has had parts on “The Closer” and the classic daytime drama “Days of Our Lives.” She’s a Los Angeles actress on the rise, with the kind of experience that those aspiring to work in the burgeoning New Orleans film industry dream of acquiring.
That’s what made her perfect for this particular summer camp. Building a neighborhood book drop was a community service sideline. The main purpose of the 2-Cent Entertainment Summer Camp, founded by artist and video producer Brandan Odums, is to introduce Crescent City teens to the film trade, which has become a feature of the local jobs market.
“When I heard of this program,” Payton said, “I wanted to come back home and jump on board.”
Payton is one of the camp’s media arts instructors.
“Basically, we are teaching media arts literacy to New Orleans youth,” she said. “They’re learning filmmaking skills, both from behind the camera and in front of the camera. We’re making five short films discussing five different issues here in the city: job development, rebuilding New Orleans, stopping the shooting, improving NOPD and how to prevent violence in the city.”
Payton is no stranger to the grittier side of Crescent City life. She has composed a one-woman play inspired by letters she has exchanged with her imprisoned father. She performed the play in Los Angeles, but the show has yet to be produced in New Orleans.
“A lot of kids do have parents that are incarcerated,” she said. “I believe the statistic is that one in 42 American kids have a parent that is incarcerated or in jail. I’ve seen just how it affected my life across the board, and I decided to write a one-woman show to discuss the experience. I think a lot of time when I show up at places to talk to people, people assume I came from some privileged background, but when I start talking about my experience, it’s just not so at all. I did grow up in the 3rd Ward. I was in an environment that harbored a lot of drug addicts and alcoholics, and I do think that’s why I gravitated to go into acting or into arts, because I didn’t have any other way to express my feelings or have some kind of outlet.”
Payton has recently reached a new acting plateau, with a role in Spike Lee’s movie “Oldboy” that is expected to open in late October.
“It’s kind of one of my first big roles, working with A-list talent, and it was pretty cool. Spike is a really tough director. He knows what he wants, and he wants it now. It was very challenging, but at the end of the day, he got some really good stuff out of me.”
The kids seated in the pickup truck bed with Payton were attentive as she described her audition with director Lee.
“I walked into the room and he was sitting there and I just got this thing in me, whether I was going to fight or flee. I was like: ‘I’m going to fight.’ So I went in there, put on my game face and said my lines. It ended up being like a work session, and I was probably in the room for 45 minutes working on actually two different characters that he had me audition for. At the end of the day, he cast me as the ‘sassy receptionist.’”
As the morning wore on, the tiny library took shape. A small roof appeared above the four red shelves. Cartons of donated books lay on the grass awaiting the moment their contents would be put on display. The man with the weed cutter, who was supposed to trim the grass around the broken concrete path, had not yet arrived. Maybe he was lost. It was even hotter. A camp counselor passed out bottles of water. It was someone’s birthday, so cake was cut and dispersed. Kids nibbled on frozen pineapple rings. The sassy receptionist crouched in the grass, helping brush the details on a colorful painting of a tree blossoming with books, meant to draw attention to the library.
The five-week-long 2-Cent Entertainment Camp was presented in cooperation with New Orleans’ Job 1 (a municipal program to foster jobs) and Nola-For-Life (the mayor’s program to reduce the murder rate). Payton said she hopes there will be a crowd when the campers’ films are screened Monday, July 29, at 6 p.m. in Xavier University’s ballroom. The screening is open to the public.