Case Study

She does it all

A veteran actor, wife, and mother,
Salli Richardson-Whitfield is also on a meteoric rise to becoming one of the top directors working in television today. Salli transitioned into directing from acting only three years ago, when she directed two episodes of Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey’s hit series Queen Sugar in 2016. Since then, Salli has been on a on a roll, recently directing a controversial episode of ABC’s Black-ish tackling the subject of colorism.

Monarch: Well, I believe it’s safe to say that you are definitely a woman who wears many hats. You are a wife, a mother, a veteran actor and most recently, a director. You are truly a wonderful representation of so many women who can do it all. So, what has the journey been like getting to this point in your life, and can you highlight the moment when you realized you wanted to have a career in the entertainment industry?

Salli: In the entertainment business I made the decision at twenty-four or maybe twenty-three, that I was going to move to LA. I had been acting in Chicago and it just seemed like if I was really going to take this seriously, I had to move to LA. But a lot of things for me, even my directing, producing, just seems to happen organically. It’s like some unseen force or God who’s just leading me in a particular direction and I just listen to that voice and follow that path and it has paid off for me.

Monarch: So again, you are also an extraordinary director, so what gave you the directing bug, or when did the directing bug hit?

Salli: I’m sure Ava is tired of me telling this story, but it’s the truth. It really hit me working with Ava DuVernay on I Will Follow, as an actress, and I was the lead in her movie, and it was her first film. It was something about being on the set and having a woman direct me
made me feel comfortable enough to make suggestions.
I was probably all up giving too many suggestions or something, but somewhere in that time while we were shooting Ava goes, “You know what, I think that you might be a good director. You should really think about it.” And honestly, something about her seeing something in me that I couldn’t see made me go, “Maybe. Yeah!”
Next, I was doing a show called Eureka on SyFy and I went to talk to them, about shadowing directors. To get the work, you can’t just say “I want to be a director.” There’s some work you have to put in to it. They gave me a shot and it fit. And even that first time, I didn’t realize how much I knew from being in the business so long and paying attention. And then from there I shadowed more directors and got to where I am now.

Monarch: So, what do you like most about directing, and how does it make you feel when you’re on set and you are part of this whole experience?

Salli: I think it’s the control of the art and just being able to express myself in a different way. With directing, I feel like I have found my true strength as a person, and as a woman. Just really being able to be myself completely in those moments. Which is strange but at like age fifty somehow, I just found completely who I am as a person in this world and directing has given me that.

Monarch: I think it’s perfect and it’s powerful and also empowering to get to that point in your life where you’re like, “this is it.”

Salli: Yes, as opposed to acting, I think I’m a bit more fearless in my directing. I make a choice and I decide that this is what it’s going to be and I’m okay with the repercussions of those decisions. And it hasn’t failed me yet.

Monarch: Yeah, and again, you are a phenomenal director, but you have also stacked up quite a record as an actor. Does being an actor help you as a director and if so, how does it help?

Salli: When directing television, you go into a new show, and with each show you have a new group of people that you have to immediately get on your side and make them your family. Managing people, crew, actors, producers, writers, and studio people, so it’s a lot of navigating people’s personalities.
Being an actor all those years, helps me relate to what they are going thru. I have the language with the actors that other directors don’t have. And I’ve also had the opportunity to work with so many other directors that I’ve been able to take the things that I like from all of them and kind of use that in my arsenal.

Monarch: With that being said, I know you come in contact with so many different people; have there been times when people have come to you and said, will you mentor me? And how do you really feel about mentorship in the industry?

Salli: I’ve had numerous people shadow me on shows and I love to help anyone in general. But I definitely love helping women find their way in this business, because we have to navigate so much in this industry. Then when it comes to directing, because were women, it’s entirely different approach to creating and relating to others.

Monarch: Have you experienced any reluctance from others to work with you because you are a female director?

Salli: I’ve had a few. There’s always one on the set. Not all the time, but there’s always one camera operator or just somebody who thinks they know more than you. With an attitude because somehow, they have decided that they should be there, and you shouldn’t. But I know how to deal with that.

Monarch: Do you believe things are progressing in Hollywood for women of color?

Salli: Well, yes. but at the same time, if you look at the numbers they’re not as good as they should be. I’m on one of the boards at the BGA, and it’s still only 4–5% minority directors that are actually working. So, in reality, when you look at the numbers, though it may have gone up a percentage, it’s still low.

Monarch: So personally, from the time you first started in the industry and in acting, what are some of the positive changes that you’ve seen?

Salli: Changes that I’ve noticed the most, there has been an increase of women and people of color hired as show runners and writers on shows where our stories are being told. Those people who are hired, can now bring up other young people, young Hispanics, Blacks, and Women. An show others how to write, running or writing a show in my opinion is one of the hardest things you can do in this business. You have to be able to start and train young, and if you’re not given those opportunities because you don’t have people in power to help you then moving up is very, very difficult. So, the more Mara’s (Mara Brock Akil) the Ava’s (Ava DuVernay) and Lena’s [Lena Waithe], in those positions, bringing up newer, younger writers getting deals who also hire women directors or people of color.
The more power we have to employ others, control the narrative and tell our stories correctly.

Monarch: It’s funny that your comment led into this discussion because that was going to be my next question. Do we need to be creating those opportunities for ourselves? Because I do believe we need people of color in those positions to open those doors for women and minorities because they get it, you know.

Salli: Yes, I definitely think that’s what’s happening now.

Monarch: So, I do have one question about politics, who do you like for president right now?

Salli: (Laughs) Oh gosh, I mean I think I always did like Biden just because of Obama, they seemed to have bonded very well. And though of course he has made some missteps in his past, I think right now, when you get right down to it it’s getting anybody on there who can win. I’ve always liked Bernie. and I like Senator Kamala Harris. I like the idea of her obviously But it’s still early, so I’m not throwing in my hat for anyone yet.

Monarch: I think it will be very interesting to see who will run. I think a lot of people will be throwing their hat in the ring to run.

Salli: Yes, it will be very interesting.

Monarch: So, here’s a fun question. You’ve worked on Black Lightning, Luke Cage, American Gods, Punisher, and Doom Patrol. Are you into comics?

Salli: I like comics, I am at all the superhero shows, I like action.
When it came to Black Lightning, Luke Cage, American Gods, Punisher, and Doom Patrol for some reason when I read those scripts, I just knew exactly how they should be directed. Obviously wanted to do shows that I liked, but I wanted to do shows with action and vis-effects because it’s not the kind of movie that a lot of women get to direct. It was just kind of a niche where I’m like, the only woman and person of color, so this is something that I really want to conquer.
So now it seems that I’m kind of the person they go to, and the last few shows I’ve been the only woman who’s come in to direct at all. I love drama, comedy, you know, with Dear White People and Black-ish. So, it’s really just wanting to know how to do everything.

Monarch: I think it’s cool in a that you are really opening that door and trailblazing ground for others who will follow.

Salli: It’s important to me to do a great job because I know any women or person of color who comes after me, will be judged on how good I do. If the few experiences one has working with a woman director or a person of color, and that director does an awful job, that makes it harder on all who come after that. So, I really work hard to be that face for everyone, although it shouldn’t be like this.

Monarch: Thank you for that. So, how does your family feel about their wife/mother directing some of today’s most popular shows?

Salli: I think they would rather have me home, I’ve been gone a lot these last two, three years, honestly, it’s been kind of a whirlwind.
They’ve been really, really supportive. And they think it’s funny when I’m directing certain shows obviously of actors that they know.
I believe that my daughter thinks it’s great for her mom to be in this position, It will empower her as a woman and hopefully my son will look for a strong woman in his life too.
But you know, what’s great is that my kids, even though they have a lot of friends whose parents are Hollywood kind of people, they’re not really part of that scene. They know what we do but they’re not that impressed, and they’re not trying to be actors or hang on the set or do anything like that. They’re just kind of regular kids, playing sports and going to school.

Monarch: So, do you like that about them or would you like for them to follow in your footsteps one day?

Salli: I do ask them if they want to try to act because they’re cute and they have good personalities. But it just hasn’t been their interest yet. But I didn’t start acting ’til I was like fourteen, fifteen. So, you know, everybody figures out what they want to do in their own time.

Monarch: Thus far, what has been the most challenging experience in your directing career?

Salli: It might be right now. I say that and every time my friends laugh at me. You know the shows get bigger and bigger. I just got finished doing a show called “See” with Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard for Apple’s new streaming network. It was a pretty big challenge because it is a really, really big budget show. Everything is futuristic, everything shot outside in the elements. Also, I’m doing this show, right now, it’s called “Altered Carbon”, Anthony Mackie is the lead this season—it’s quite challenging. I’m doing two episodes at the same time. It’s a lot of vis-effects, a lot of action. And I’m still prepping, A lot of times the prep work is the real challenge. Like figuring out all of the little pieces but, once you start shooting, that’s when the fun happens.

My friends who are directors tease me because this is the time, I call them and say, “Oh my God, I can’t figure it out. I don’t know. I don’t know about this one. They just laugh and say; you know you did that about the last one and then you killed. But I say yeah, but this one’s different. (Laughing). John Singleton was one of those people who gave me a shot in the beginning. With his passing it’s been really hard
losing one of those voices. Someone who would call and check in, and ask how are you doing, saw your work, looks great, proud of you. Because we need those people, and he was one of those people for me.

Monarch: Any plans for developing a film or TV show?

Salli: Yeah, I have a few things that I’m developing that’s sort of the next wave for me.

Monarch: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to in the future for your career?

Salli: After I leave here doing Altered Carbon, I go to Budapest. They’re doing The Bourne Identity as a TV series called Treadstone. I go there for two months. And then, I have two shows that we’re working on selling. What’s been great about directing is that it’s really become dealer’s choice for me and what projects I want to do. You know, I can really be choosy.

Monarch: Last question, so you said that you’re fifty years old. What do you do to keep yourself looking so good and in shape?

Salli: I think I’m hiding under some clothes right now (laughs). But my whole family are vegetarians. I think that saved me in general, because when directing I’m sitting down a lot—my hours are much longer, so one thing I can always control is my diet and how I eat.
You have to take care of yourself. Although I feel young, fifty-one ain’t twenty.

Monarch: Thank you so much, Salli. It has been a real pleasure talking to you.

Salli: It was my pleasure, thank you.