Salli Richardson Whitfield has acted in major motion pictures in three separate decades dating back to 1991. She was never really fully appreciated for being a more than capable actress instead of just another pretty face in Hollywood.
You may have recently seen her on Black Lightning, Black Dynamite, Queen Sugar and Stitchers.
However, over the past ten years, she has been building a formidable resume as one of the most sought after directors in episodic television.
Recently, The Shadow League sat down with her to discuss the transition to working behind the lens and how it came about, her favorite film genre, and much more.
The Shadow League: The Sallie Richardson-Whitfield that I grew up with, the one-time black film chanteuse from such classics as The Posse and Sioux City, was an actress as good as any in Hollywood, and better than most. What changed?
Salli Richardson Whitfield: My life has changed. I started directing my old show Eureka about ten years ago and it wasn’t necessarily the time to stop acting. I had young kids and I really wasn’t ready to stop working on a series. About three or four years ago, I decided it was time to make the move.
When I decided to direct full-time, I realized that maybe that was the thing that I was supposed to be doing.
TSL: You starred in Ava DuVernay’s dramatic film directorial debut I Will Follow. But you also directed her wildly popular series Queen Sugar on OWN. How did that come about?
SRW: I got an opportunity through Ava DuVernay to do Queen Sugar and I don’t think I’ve stopped working since then.
I think I like the control. It’s just a different kind of creation because I’m molding the acting, I’m modeling the look, I’m molding the tone of the pieces, and it’s just a big responsibility. Not necessarily something I knew. I didn’t know that I had this eye and a vision for film.
Mousa Kraish (the Jinn) takes you behind the scenes of American Gods Episode 205 and his experience shadowing director Salli Richardson-Whitfield. New episodes of American Gods Sundays on the STARZ App.
I’m a bit of a religious woman, and I think that if you listen you’ll follow the path that God is taking you. It doesn’t mean that I won’t act again, and at times I get the urge, but I felt that if I was going to do this I had to do it all the way.
I couldn’t be kinda acting, kinda directing. And people wouldn’t take me seriously that way. I think, eventually, as I developing shows, maybe I’ll find a good role for myself. But right now being the one in charge excites me.
TSL: You’ve been in all kinds of films, but I really love it when you pop up in science fiction films. Is that your favorite film genre?
SRW: If you look at my stuff, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of shows and, in the beginning, I really wanted to jump around so that there wasn’t something that someone could say ‘Yeah, but does she know how to…’ or ‘Yeah, but has she ever done…’
But I do like the action stuff, if you asked me probably one of my favorite films would be ‘Alien’. I’ve always been kind of a sci-fi genre girl, and I do like horror. But, for me, I’m looking for those things that are elevated.
Where you have A-list actors in that genre. Because then you’re getting the sci-fi, you’re getting the horror, but you have great acting and that’s the kind of mixture that I like.
Right now I’m on my way to do Altered Carbon, which is sci-fi and a great show. I’m doing the season finale of that. After that, all my emphasis is going to be on finding some really well-rounded drama because I don’t want people to think that all I want to do is sci-fi stuff. It’s not even really sci-fi.
I don’t know what Altered Carbon is, it’s so crazy!
I did an episode of American Gods and I just got finished doing Seed for Apple. These are shows were I can really push the envelope style wise. I don’t have any rules. I enjoy that. Whatever I dream of, everybody is game for it. You don’t really have any rules. Those are some of the projects that I look for.
I think that the one thing, unless it’s a show where this is completely something that they don’t do, I like to keep the camera moving.
TSL: Stylistically, every director has their favorite techniques. For example, Spike Lee’s cinematographic style stands out, while Ava’s use of shadows and lighting come to mind. What’re some of your favorite techniques?
SRW: It’s weird. As a TV director, you have to come in and bring your own style, you have to bring your own stuff to it. I’m fascinated with blocking.
The more that I can keep the shot going, where people are coming in and out and falling into the right places naturally and you don’t have to fully cut out of it, those kind of shots really excite me because I have to take time to prep and think about how do I execute the shot.
There was a climax scene that we did at the end of the episode for American Gods that we did as a one-er. Like, you have a screen where you have to move 20 people, and a lot of stuff is going on in the background. It’s like the movie Children of Men where there’s this one-er in the street. It’s like that or Revenant, a big one-er like that.
I still remember the DP (Director of Photography) saying during the meeting with all the stunt people and I said ‘We want to do a one-er’ and it was silence. Once you get one that works people are laughing and yelling and cheering like ‘Oh my f**kin’ god! It worked!’
TSL: Ava is one of the most sought after directors in the game today. She had to have given you some advice, right?
SRW: No, what’s funny is Ava didn’t necessarily give me advice, she just believed in me. I did her first film, I Will Follow, as an actress. That was the first time that she had done a feature film. She had only done documentaries up until that point in time.
During that process, I think I made a little too many comments like ‘You can do this, and this and this’ and she said ‘You know what? You might want to consider being a director.’ She saw something in me that I never had considered.
Because of that conversation, that’s the reason I went back to my show (Eureka) and said ‘Hey, I’d really like for you guys to give me the opportunity to direct here.’
Obviously, I went in and did the work I was supposed to, I shadowed a few directors, and I was very lucky that I had a show that gave me a shot.
And that’s the only way I found what I was supposed to be doing. So, when she got her show, and I had already directed Eureka, she just believed that this was what I was supposed to do.
TSL: Would you prefer to direct episodic television or one off projects?
SRW: I’ve had opportunities where people have asked me to be a writer, producer, director, unless it’s something that was like ten episodes I feel like it would be bored there.
And I like the challenge of doing different things. But, if it’s my own show, I’ll be there.
I don’t like that the idea is of going and running someone else’s show that I don’t have a vested interest in, because then you’re coming in and doing someone else’s plan instead of your own. If it’s my show, then we’re living in a world that I want to create. And that’s where I really want to get to.
TSL: Tell me about your style of leadership as a director?
SRW: I don’t know how to choreograph a fight scene. I can tell you what I want and what I’d like to happen. On these types of shows you hope that you have the people around you who are talented enough to do that.
Luckily, I had a great stunt coordinator, a great DP and a great camera operator who can get in there and help with that vision.
When I first started directing, I thought I had to do everything but now I’m realizing that there’s a reason why you have to have a stunt coordinator and there’s a reason why there’s a DP there and you don’t have to know every single thing every time.
It’s a collaborative process with you as the head making the decisions at the end of the day, but it is collaborative.
I think one thing that has made my work standout is that I am collaborative and I want to hear people’s ideas as long as you know, at the end of the day, I get to chose.