Monday, August 15, 2011

Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Leading By Example

The actress, director and writer Salli Richardson-Whitfield, seen here as Allison Blake in the TV series "Eureka". 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
day, August 15, 2011

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS Salli Richardson-Whitfield will have long since landed safely in Vancouver, a three-hour plane ride from Los Angeles, where she was at home tending to her daughter.  Ms. Richardson-Whitfield readied for the flight north to shoot the final episodes of the popular "Eureka" television series on the SyFy Network, in which she stars as Allison Blake and often directs.  The actress was literally 40 minutes away from having to dash off to LAX.

Before then Ms. Richardson-Whitfield was on the telephone patiently talking about her lead role as Maye in the film "I Will Follow", a drama taking place on a single day in L.A.  Maye is picking up the pieces after the recent passing of her close aunt Amanda (Beverly Todd).  She has to move out and collect Amanda's artifacts.  Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, "I Will Follow" was released in March, doing well in its limited debut, prompting the film's expansion to many additional cities in the U.S., bolstered by wide critical acclaim. 

"I Will Follow", the first release from Ms. DuVernay's AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), arrives on DVD in the U.S. on August 23.

Like the road to the imminent flight to Vancouver, Ms. Richardson-Whitfield, a Chicago native and happily-married mother of two, had to make a very quick decision about "I Will Follow". 

"You're never sure about these things.  An independent filmmaker and a small film.  I got a call from my manager, who told me, 'you have to do this!'  [In a day] I had to make a quick decision.  I read [the script] that day and met with Ava later that afternoon, and she started shooting it that week," Ms. Richardson-Whitfield explained.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield will say several things that make you laugh, sometimes uncontrollably.  "'You're going to get paid about two dollars, but you have to do it,'" she joked about "I Will Follow", for which she won rave reviews, including from The Popcorn Reel, for her naturalistic acting. 

"Once you meet Ava, and you see the look in her eye, you feel like you're in good hands.  And I was blown away," she said, adding that she and the filmmaker have become good friends.  ("This woman is the coolest chick," Ms. DuVernay said of Ms. Richardson-Whitfield during an interview in March.)  "I'm honored that she gave me the chance to do this movie," the actress said.  On Ms. Richardson-Whitfield's website she notes that Ms. DuVernay said the actress seemed "mad" and "guarded" in their first meeting.  The actress had initially expressed concerns about whether Ms. DuVernay could get what Ms. Richardson-Whitfield called an "excellent script" on to film.

The finished product however, left no doubt in Ms. Richardson-Whitfield's mind.

"I thank [Ava] for the opportunity to show people the work I can and should be doing," she goes on to say on her website, after expressing some surprise about "I Will Follow".  The film also stars Omari Hardwick, Michole White, Tracie Thoms, Dijon Talton, Blair Underwood and Damone Roberts.

To get a feel for Maye and her relationship with Amanda, a bond loosely based on Ms. DuVernay's own closeness to her late aunt Denise Sexton (also a producer on "I Will Follow"), Ms. Richardson-Whitfield says she was shown a photo of Ms. Sexton and Ms. DuVernay.  "There was something about that picture, something that gave me a feeling about the depth and sacrifice that Ava had to undertake.  I felt it, and I tapped into it."

Salli Richardson-Whitfield (left) as Maye and Beverly Todd as Amanda in "I Will Follow".  AFFRM

A big horror film fan, Ms. Richardson-Whitfield says that in her career she has been a chronic over-preparer, but that her work on "Eureka", the television series ending its successful five-year run, helped her shed her compulsively organized routine and become a natural performer, an approach she took for Ms. DuVernay's film.  "TV has taught me that, and it's a great learning experience.  You don't have time to stand around.  You have to get so much done, shooting for 16 hours.  And you have to move on.  TV is very much about time management."

On the set of "I Will Follow", which shot for less than three weeks, the stakes were high for Ms. DuVernay.  "She needed somebody (to star in the film) who wasn't going to give her any problems," said Ms. Richardson-Whitfield of her director.  "We didn't have time to be Hollywood.  I'm not that precious about those kinds of things.  Look, I get paid $100 a day," she said of her time on "I Will Follow", a modestly-budgeted film which didn't have trailers for its actors.  "Everybody hung out in the same big room.  You have to be game about that."

As high-profile and as decorated as she is, vanity has never been part of the make up of Ms. Richardson-Whitfield as a person, who has starred in such films as "Posse", "Antwone Fisher", "I Am Legend" and "Black Dynamite", has an illustrious career in television, including in "Roc", among other series.  The strikingly beautiful actress, who has also modeled, made herself available to Ms DuVernay in many ways off the set, buying and bringing food everyday to the set for the cast and crew.  "I donated my salary to keeping people fed.  I thought it would make more sense than holding on to it," recalled Ms. Richardson-Whitfield, who also supplied some of her own wardrobe for "I Will Follow".

"When you are number one and if you are an ass, you can steal it," Ms. Richardson-Whitfield said of the type of attitude that might occasionally infect a bigger movie production.  "And [that attitude] doesn't want to make everyone want to work hard.  There are people who are very special," she says sarcastically, prompting laughs. 

"People can be really crazy.  I don't know what's wrong with people sometimes.  I don't understand it.  Some people really think that it's necessary to act and behave the way they do on a set.  I will -- I'm sure there's times where I can be an ass and I can think I'm special.  Usually I have a mechanism that says, 'you sure talk a lot, you better be quiet, girl.'"

When Salli Richardson-Whitfield isn't working on set she is busy as a mother of a son and a daughter with actor and husband Dondre Whitfield.  She also spends time riding motorbikes, playing golf and cooking, among many endeavors. 

While the University Of Chicago alum lamented the end of "Eureka", she looked forward to the future. 

"There's so many things I want to do after directing ["Eureka"].  I want to direct a short which Ava wrote.  I know the technical side . . . now I need to show what my vision as a filmmaker is.  I want to continue directing.  When the times have been tough for me, after a project is over, and looking for that next acting job, people have been so supportive.  I get excited when I get a new challenge but I also get scared.  And I think that's what helps me take things on, and I love that.  It makes me better.

"I just want to continue to challenge myself so there's no reason to do anything if it doesn't scare me.  So that's my future.  Challenges."

Salli Richardson-Whitfield directs Colin Ferguson, her co-star and on screen husband in the TV series "Eureka".  SyFy

Ms. Richardson-Whitfield is asked about "The Help" and the reaction to the new film about black maids in Mississippi 1963 and their white employers.

"I love the book (by Kathryn Stockett).  I haven't seen the movie though.  The problem isn't that film but that we (as black actresses) aren't getting enough different roles.  The problem is that that's the only thing that we have.  If we did a comedy, a drama, a biopic, an action film, then this wouldn't be a concern."

The actress cited greater concern about the movies that some black filmmakers are putting out.  "It needs to get better," she said.

As for Ms. Stockett's novel, Ms. Richardson-Whitfield said "there are strong, brave women in the book -- these are heroes that are in the book.  And they do things that could cost them their lives.

"I can't get mad at Viola (Davis) and other women.  There's just something they're looking to do as actresses.  They need work, and they're searching.  And it's ugly out there," Ms. Richardson-Whitfield said of the kind of roles available for black women on the big screen.  She says that she has been very lucky as a black woman to receive roles on television. 

"There is very little out there, and I think that's why I look to TV a lot, honestly, and it's not as if we're well-represented there, either.  The role (on "Eureka") was initially written for a white woman and I just happened to have the best chemistry with [Colin Ferguson].  I have been lucky in TV, for me, that people have been a bit color-blind.  There's just not that much out there."

Asked to comment on a report that suggested that black women had to reign in their attractiveness when in films with lead white actresses, Ms. Richardson-Whitfield expressed great skepticism.  "If the lead actress isn't as pretty as you, you aren't getting [the role].  I don't think it's a race thing.  I think that black men have it harder, honestly.  Because black men -- [Hollywood] likes them to be a little softer.  With shaving off facial hair.  [The hair] makes you harder (looking)," the actress said.  "And that's a tough thing.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Maye and Omari Hardwick  as Troy in Ava DuVernay's "I Will Follow". 

"Even for me as an actress I find that my sarcasm and my humor is a little hard to [some whites].  'You seem a little angry,'" she said her white colleagues have told her.

"'I'm not angry at all,' I say.  The way I've been raised and the tone I take when I tell one of my children, 'if you don't get your butt off that table...', that's me making sure that my child understands.  I'm parenting.  I'm not angry."  She laughs at this moment, and she's not the only one doing so.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield is on Twitter (
@SalliRichardson).  The journey to Twitter took some cajoling, but it was Ms. DuVernay who encouraged her.  "I just thought they were all so ridiculous in the beginning.  But now I respond to people everyday.  Whenever there's some downtime, between scenes or whenever, I'll check out what people are saying."

Meanwhile, something can be heard in the background on Ms. Richardson-Whitfield's end of the telephone line. 

"I've got to go and tend to my daughter," she notes with a little urgency.  "She will kill me."

"I Will Follow" arrives on DVD in the U.S. and Canada on August 23.

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