One could describe Serayah McNeill as scrappy.
According to McNeill, at 5-foot-3, she was one of the shortest players on Taft High School women's basketball team in Woodland Hills, California. But she played hard and made her presence known on the court. After graduating in 2013, the 22-year-old decided to pursue a different hustle -- acting and singing. She scored a slam dunk right out the gate, landing the role of singer Tiana Brown on the Lee Daniels production "Empire," a music-filled drama series centered around a fictional family-run music label.
espnW caught up with McNeill ahead of the show's season 4 premiere, which airs on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on FOX, to discuss her character, being a part of Grammy-award winner Taylor Swift's squad and her workout routine.
espnW: How did you go from ballplayer to actress on a hit prime-time television show?
Serayah McNeill: I wanted to have my own Disney channel show as I kid. I wanted to do the whole Mickey Mouse ears thing. Acting has always been an aspiration for me.
espnW: You've been playing Tiana since 2015. What have you learned from the role?
SM: She's taught me fearlessness and confidence. Tiana is my alter ego. Serayah thinks it, and Tiana says it.
espnW: Tiana is a singer and dancer, what is it like to prepare for the dance scenes?
SM: I have three to four days of rehearsal before shooting a dance scene or live performance. Learning the steps takes a lot of preparation and hard work. It can take anywhere from 10 to 14 hours to learn the sequence, but I'll keep at it until I get it right. A whole day is usually blocked off to shoot a dance performance.
espnW: Which choreographers do you work with?
SM: Jamaica [Craft] has been head of choreography at "Empire" since season 2. I look up to her in so many ways. She's worked with recording artists like Usher, Ciara, Nicki Minaj, and was a dancer herself. Jamaica brings a realistic tone to our performances.
espnW: How did movement become such an integral part of the role?
SM: I don't think the [producers] knew what they wanted my character to do as far as performances [in season 1]. My mom recorded me doing a choreographed performance with [dancer] Daz Harris in my hotel room a while back, and we sent it to the [show's director] Sanaa Hamri. She liked it, and they used pieces of it on the show.
espnW: What other workouts do you like to do?
SM: Growing up wasn't easy. [My family and I] struggled a lot and moved often. Sometimes we didn't have a place to stay. And that happened all the way until "Empire." That's not something far in my past; it's recent. That's why I go to yoga and stay prayed up. It helped me with meditating, because your mind is everything, and it can set your future forward or set it back.
espnW: You have killer abs. Please run us through your workout routine.
SM: I owe it to strength training. I use a lot of my body weight because I don't want to bulk up too much. While filming "Empire" in Chicago, I'd go to the gym in my apartment and fit in a quick workout. I'd warm up with a light stretch. Then I'd jump on the [stationary] bike for five minutes, then I'd do a few squat exercises on the Bosu ball. After that, I'll pull out the yoga mat and do some core-focused movements with a five-pound weight, like sit-ups, V-ups and oblique twists. To close out, I'd hop on the leg-curl and hip-abduction and -adduction machines. I'd do that series three times, and it takes about 45 minutes.
espnW: Did you ever feel pressure to attain a perfect "camera-ready" physique? And what are your thoughts on plastic surgery?
SM: Instead of the pressure to be fit and in shape -- it's now all about having a Coke bottle body shape and doing so unnaturally. I'm not against plastic surgery, but I am against that being the only way to look [or feel] pretty. It's the inside that matters.
espnW: Speaking of personal growth, how has working with veteran actors Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard helped sharpen your acting chops?
SM: Taraji and Terrence have shown me so much as far as the craft and preparing for scenes. On one of the first days on set [during season 1], Terrence visited my mother and me in my trailer. He gave me so much encouragement knowing that I was a newcomer to the [acting] world. To this day, he is Team Serayah and always roots for me.
espnW: You also have a close friendship with country-pop star Taylor Swift. What have you learned from her about being in the spotlight?
SM: I worked with Taylor on the "Bad Blood" video, and I respect that she fights for what she believes in. People don't always dare to do that. I love that about her, and she's taught me that. She's always said to me: "Don't be afraid to voice your opinion on something."
espnW: It's great to have friendships that build one another up. However, "Empire" has several narratives of women not supporting each other or breaking each other down. What's your advice to women experiencing that?
SM: My advice is that your ego should never be so large that you don't know how to apologize or own up to whatever happened in a friendship. Not everyone is meant to be in your life forever. Some are meant only for a season. But we need to learn how to deal with friendships that we outgrow with respect.
This interview has been edited for length.
Gianina Thompson is ESPN's senior publicist for NBA and MLB shows and on-air personalities. She's sports all day, every day, and lives for OT games, unless it's on Thursday nights, when she's locked into "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How to Get Away with Murder."