Sierra McClain will be the first to admit that playing emergency dispatcher Grace Ryder on 9-1-1: Lone Star has put her through her paces. In the past three seasons of the FOX (FOXA) procedural drama, Grace has nearly lost her husband, firefighter Judd Ryder (Jim Parrack), in the line of duty multiple times; given birth to a baby girl in an abandoned bus, in the middle of an ice storm; and survived a life-threatening accident with a drunk driver that sent her car plunging into a freezing river.
The role, which she landed in the summer of 2019 after supporting turns in Empire and Mindhunter, has made McClain a better actor. “I feel like Grace is a lot of things that I’m simply not right now—she’s a wife, a mom, a first responder,” McClain said. “She stretches me in the sense that it’s like, ‘Okay, well, you’re either just gonna give [yourself] over to translating what you think this experience is and feels like, based on what you’ve seen around you, or you’re just gonna hole up and be afraid to do it.’ But Grace pushes me to let all of that [fear] go, and I think the birth was a turning moment for me when it came to how far I was willing to let go.”
In a recent Zoom interview, McClain opened up exclusively to Observer about the joy of working with her co-stars, the 9-1-1 franchise’s exploration of Black female friendships, the future of the girl group that she formed with her sisters, and the one emergency that has haunted her in the lead-up to Tuesday’s season premiere.
Grace and Judd are, in many ways, the foundation of this show. They’ve had their fair share of ups and downs, but they’ve always fought to stay together. What do you enjoy most about playing out that relationship with Jim?
Sierra McClain: I think their relationship has almost become a little bit second nature to [the point] where now, Jim and I kind of already know where we would be [in a scene]. If Grace and Judd don’t see eye-to-eye, or just in any particular situation, we already know where they stand as individuals and as a couple. This is the longest I’ve ever played a single character, so to live out her life, to play these episodes and to know what she would do and how she would think and how her husband would react, or how she would react to her husband, is something very different from me. It’s weird, but it’s super fulfilling, and the more you are in their shoes, the more you get to know them yourself.
What kinds of new parenting challenges will Grace and Judd face this season with a toddler and, if you count Judd’s biological son, a teenager?
When you take both scenarios and see them in juxtaposition with one another, when it comes to their new child—this bundle of joy—and this kid who’s really not a kid, I think it’s interesting to see the different parts of Judd and Grace, the different parts of parenting that it calls for. Having to raise a young baby is different from having to raise a teenager, and they’re—and Judd specifically is—having to do both at the same time.
Can we expect to see more of Wyatt (Jackson Pace) this season as well?
I don’t know so much about when he pops up, but I’m sure that he will, because finding out that you have a son is kind of a big thing. [Laughs.] And it made such a big impression when he first came on the show.
The 9-1-1 franchise has been elevated by the power of Black women, who consistently uplift and confide in each other on both shows, with Athena (Angela Bassett) and Hen (Aisha Hinds) on the original and Grace and Tommy (Gina Torres) on Lone Star. What do you think are the keys to making those relationships feel lived-in and authentic, and what have you enjoyed most about working opposite Gina to highlight some of the issues that Black women, and especially mothers, face on a regular basis?
Gina is probably one of my favorite castmates that I’ve ever had, because not only does she bring her experience and has she worked in this business for many, many years, but she has a transparency to her that she’s willing to just lay out on the table for us as her co-stars, which she didn’t have to do coming in [during the second season]. But she did, and I think it allowed Grace and Tommy’s relationship specifically to really blossom and open up. It’s really a blessing when the powers that be allow those relationships to do that, because I think that’s the best way to get something that is authentic. It’s to live those experiences that we live every day [in real life] out on screen.
And I think that’s the beautiful thing about watching Angela and Aisha on screen as well. It’s the same thing. You can feel their experiences from on the screen, and [it’s important] to really allow us to say, “Hey, this is what it is that we experience. This is what this experience looks like for her as a Black woman versus for me as a Black woman.” It is very important so that you can try to get as much of the full scope as you can.
How will Grace be there for Tommy as she starts to open herself up to the possibility of dating again after losing her husband?
I feel like Grace has always gently nudged Tommy in the direction of getting back out there again, and she doesn’t want to put her in an uncomfortable spot, but I think she probably knows that, “This is what your husband would have wanted for you.” She’s probably thinking about Judd in those moments and what Judd would want for her and what she would want for Judd if something were to happen to either of them, which is a very real possibility in their lines of work. So I think that, at least from Grace’s perspective, she’s gonna, no matter what, unless it’s just a bad situation, encourage her to get out there and to feel confident enough to keep going.
It seems like we only get a chance to see Grace at work or at home unless she is personally implicated in an emergency, such as the car accident or the birth of Charlie. How much will we see of Grace outside of the call center this season?
I know, huh? [Laughs.] You are gonna see Grace in some different scenarios. I felt the same way. Normally, I don’t voice this, but I was with the fans on Twitter like, “Can we put Grace at the firehouse during chili night? Because if Paul [Brian Michael Smith] makes another chili that Grace does not partake in, I’ma take it personal.” [Laughs.] That’s really how I feel, and I put it out there.
And the reason that I feel this way is because we have a cast that really does have such a good rapport with each other. We really do love each other. Especially in a cast of so many people where everybody has a different dynamic and we’ve got different relationships, experiences and little inside jokes with each other, those things translate on screen so beautifully. I watch it every time I see the 126 and Carlos. Every time I see them all together, I feel the same way. So she does have a few scenes and some scenarios where she’s outside of work and outside of home, but I really would like to just throw her in the mix on a more consistent basis.
I was so upset that you weren’t part of the softball game last season! I was like, “Where is Grace?”
[Laughs.] And let me tell you something: [Showrunner] Tim [Minear] is my guy. I almost called Tim, like, “Tim, how is Grace not part of [this game]? You know she can swing!” They’re gonna have to do a redo, and they should put the call center people out there too, and it’s dispatch against AFD or something, I don’t know.
What storylines would you like to explore with Grace going forward?
Grace has been put in some crazy situations, but she’s also done a lot of big stuff, and she’s done a lot of meaningful stuff. And I thought about this too: With a character that has done so much, there are all these different possibilities, and so I want to see a lot more of the things that she deals with on a regular basis, because it’s also been established that Grace is very stubborn and that she likes to do things herself and she doesn’t like to ask for help. So there are a million and one ways that that could get you in trouble, and so I want to see more of that and more of her inside life, like who she is outside of work and being a wife.
I’m still waiting to see Grace sing on the show. I know it’s difficult to fit that onto a procedural drama in a way that makes sense to the story, but it’s never impossible!
Let me tell you something: With the 9-1-1 franchise, I don’t think anything is impossible. I think we have proved that many times. [Laughs.] Grace does sing a little here and there, but who knows? Maybe she’ll have a little more in the future.
You come from a musical family, and you began your career alongside your sisters as a child actor and singer. What kind of role does music play in your life these days?
Oh my gosh. It’s so crazy that you say this because my dad literally just left my room after having a conversation about music with me, because we’re very much so doing that. [Laughs.] But it was important for us to make sure that we had a sound that was not inhibited by anything, you know what I’m saying? We’ve been willing to take our time on it, so it’s tough because we’re like, “We’re ready to get music out. We know people that are ready for us.” But we’ve revamped our whole studio and we’ve got all these different pieces, and we’re just moving in a new direction, so we’re just excited about it. But we are doing music every day downstairs in our studio, so it is coming! I’m not gonna piss people off by saying it’ll be here at this [specific] date, but it’s always been an active part of our lives, and I feel like it always will be.
What have been some of your favorite scenes to shoot as Grace, and what would you say have been the most physically or emotionally challenging?
My favorites are probably when I’m with any other cast member, so anything I’ve ever done with anyone else. Obviously, I’m a little biased because we’re friends, but the team-up [last season] with Carlos [Rafael L. Silva] was one of my favorites. I’m hoping that they throw Grace in there with T.K. [Ronen Rubinstein], Nancy [Briana Baker] or Paul. Me and Briana were joking because the poster for Season 4 came out, and we were like, “Look at our characters—they’re next to each other! This is the closest they’ve been in the whole series.” [Laughs.]
And then the most challenging or the most emotional probably had to be the birth stuff. Now, surprisingly enough, not the birth itself. The birth itself kind of was just God—that took over, and it just was what it was. I didn’t think about it when I left, but the road up to it felt like a million and one pieces moving at the same time. It was very hard for me to keep up. I try not to criticize anything that I do at this point in my career, but that’s probably one of the most challenging I’ve had so far.
A lot of fans have been wanting to see if Grace will ever tell her mother about her father’s affair in the second season. Will we be seeing more of Grace’s parents in the first half of the season?
It’s possible that it could come up. It’s something that I would like to hopefully, at some point, touch on, because that’s something that I’ll [hear] from the fans sometimes in messages, which is like, “What happened with this? We never resolved it. Here’s the theory. We have some theories over here.” So I think the family drama is always some of the worst, so I’m sure if it ever comes up again, [there] will definitely be some drama.
Of the episodes that you’ve already filmed this season, has there been a particular emergency that really stands out in your mind?
This thing with frogs [in the premiere]… [Laughs.] Because here’s the thing: For a lot of these emergencies, I’m on the phone, so I throw a couple of lines to the screen and it’s like, “Okay, frogs,” and then the trailer comes out, and [I’m] like, “Oh, frogs?! Like, actual, real frogs.” So ever since it came out, my skin’s been crawling a little bit, but I’ve been extremely eager to see what that actually looked like, because when I tell you I didn’t think twice about it after doing the lines… I was like, “Oh, did you say frogs?” And then that’s it. Now, I feel like I’m gonna be dreaming about frogs. [Laughs.] I’m never gonna think about that line the same again.
At one point in the premiere, D.B. Woodside’s character even has a frog lodged in his throat.
I’m not sure that was a visual that I needed. Some of these emergencies will really keep you up at night. They really will. I didn’t know I had this fear. Thanks, Lone Star.
In a promotional clip, Rob Lowe said this season has “more psychological pressure” for the characters, especially the mystery surrounding Carlos.
Yeah, actually, I agree with him, especially in the beginning when everything starts to unfold. It really feels like you don’t know what’s going to happen next until it actually happens, and I think that even though Lone Star constantly has something up its sleeve, that’s kind of a first for us, so we felt like we were doing something different. I can’t wait to see how it actually all played out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
9-1-1: Lone Star premieres Tuesday, January 24 at 8/7c on FOX.