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March 28, 2019

Taking the Reins

Salli Richardson-Whitfield doesn't just shine in front of the camera, she glows behind it as well.

Cecily Knobler
  • Rowan Daly
  • Rowan Daly

Having worked as a successful actress for decades, Salli Richardson-Whitfield decided to take the reins as a director, and in just a few short years, her directing résumé is chock full and growing.

Just in the next few months, she will direct two episodes of Treadstone for USA Network, which will be her first time shooting in Europe, the final two episodes of Netflix's Altered Carbon, and the season finale of See.

She's humble about her success, saying, "Sometimes things just happen to you and you find your way. Which is how I found my way into directing."

"One small thing sparked it," she said "and then my life changed, and I was on a whole different trajectory."

Let's start at the beginning. What's your background?

I grew up in Chicago in Hyde Park, which is the South Side of Chicago. Parents were both educators. My father worked at the University of Chicago for it seems like most of my life. My mother worked at Chicago State University. And so obviously I'm doing something that's completely opposite of what my parents raised me to be!

But Chicago is where I started getting the bug, at least for acting and being in the entertainment business.

And how did that all begin? Did you do plays when we you were younger?

My mother, before she worked at Chicago State, worked at a record company/recording studio. I'd be up at the studio seeing various artists perform and I started singing.

Then, when I was 14, my mother saw an audition for a play - a musical, and thought it would be a good play for me. I auditioned and I got the lead!

What was the musical?

It was called The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves. It was an adaptation of a poem by this poet called Gwendolyn Brooks. They made this poem into a play.

How lovely!

Then my mother's boss at the time (who owned the recording studio) started to help me get auditions, an agent and then became my manager to help my mother out.

The right people were around me at the right time.

When you were working as an actress, was there someone in particular who inspired you to get behind the camera?

I was on a series called Eureka for five years. And during a summer hiatus, I did this movie called I Will Follow for Ava DuVernay. It was her first feature! I probably put my two cents in too much, saying things like, "Well, why don't we do this? And "Don't worry about that coverage, we can probably do it later." I think probably at some point she was like, "yeah lady, be quiet."

But honestly, she gave me the bug. Watching her inspired me and she did say, "I think this is something you might want to consider also." Because of that I thought, "You know what? Maybe I do think that way!" She saw something in me that I didn't see.

So I went back to my show and shadowed a director called Eric Laneuville, a big TV director who has hundreds and hundreds of hours of TV. And I asked him, "Hey would you give me a shot?"

Did you direct yourself?

I did! It was a humongous episode. I think I played two people! And I had a helicopter sequence with green screen on top of a roof. It was a huge episode and of course there were things that I didn't know that I needed help with. But it seemed to be something that immediately suited me. Literally the director/producer said, "You've got this!" and he left!

Did you feel you "had" it?

When I look back now, I realize all the things I didn't know. But I did think, 'hey I think I get this.' And then the next season, they gave me another episode and I thought this may be my future. But my kids were younger then and it wasn't really the time to make that jump.

But then the show Stichers came about. And I thought this is going to be the perfect show for me to start making my transition. Only 10 episodes a year, so I'd have enough time. And it worked out!

I got an agent, I started shadowing again. And right as I did that, my husband got a show called Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay's show. She had booked all women to direct and I sort of missed out because she didn't know I was directing.

I went to visit my husband on the set and literally as I got out of the car, she said, "I can't believe you're here! Are you still interested in directing? Are you doing it again?" I said, "It's funny, I just got an agent and have been shadowing again. So, yes!" And she says, "Great! I can't do one of my episodes. Do you want it?"

It's one of those things that if you're doing what you're supposed to do, the universe will provide.

Well, it's not just the universe. You have the talent to back it up!

What's that saying, opportunity meets preparation?

Oprah also executive-produced Queen Sugar. Did you get a chance to meet her?

My husband had the opportunity to visit her home in Hawaii a few times. She is just as inspiring as you would hope she would be. She's interested in people and she's kind and it's the example I would like to follow. I would like other people to see that you can be that powerful and at the same time, still be a kind person.

The idea of being in control but also kind and empathetic is really important.

When I see actors who kind of lose their minds, I just don't get it. But I think that's just who these people were in the beginning.  

One of the many things that stood out on your résumé was the episode you directed of black-ish. Tell us about that.

Sometimes you just get lucky and you get a good one! And that particular subject matter, colorism, was in the black community. Usually black people know about it, but it might not be a topic that other cultures know about.

I was so lucky I got such a well written script. I know a lot of those actors and even though I do mostly hour dramas, I am around a lot of comedians.

My husband Dondre Whitfield, is one of the funniest people I know, so I get comedy. To be able to do a comedy and balance that with great drama, I just got really lucky. And again, I got a really well written script and with such a great cast, you can't mess that up.

Do you see yourself acting again in the future?

I think I will again one day. I just honestly don't have the time to do it right now. I'm booked through June, and luckily things are going well. Part of my next step is developing some shows and producing, hopefully pilots and films. And hopefully maybe find something, like a small role in something I find interesting.

As a director, is there anyone on your bucket list with whom you'd love to work?

Even as an actress, I never had those people I felt like I HAD to work with. I just like doing high quality projects and working with really good people.

Part of the reason I'm not acting is that I don't want to act in anything that I don't really want to do. Luckily, I'm not directing anything I don't want to do either. I'm just at a point in my life that I don't want to do anything that doesn't feel good in my heart. It's not worth it to me.

You're booked for quite some time. What are you working on?

I just finished working on Dear White People, which I did last season. It's just a fun, quirky, artsy show. Really well written and I love the cast there.

And I'm on my way to go to the show See for Apple that Francis Lawrence - who directed all of those Hunger Games movies and actually directed me in I Am Legend - is producing. He's directing the first three episodes of that. Jason Momoa is the lead!

So that's where I'm off to next and those are the shows I want to do! I want to work with really great people and actors. And this has everything: it's a futuristic, sci-fi, action, character piece and everything I could dream of.  

That sounds like a dream!

It really is. I just finished doing Doom Patrol, directing Timothy Dalton. He was just delightful! He's so hard working and still a handsome man, so talented and just did whatever I asked of him.

I also did American Gods, directing Ian McShane, who's the same.

You have these people who trust you. They've been doing this a long time and they don't have to. And I appreciate their kindness and their trust in me!



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