Salli Richardson Whitfield is a veteran in the movie industry with over 30 years of experience starring opposite Hollywood’s elite—everyone from Denzel Washington and Will Smith to Samuel L. Jackson. She’s directed or produced some of the biggest shows that have emerged in the last decade—projects like Queen Sugar, American Gothic, The Chi, Wheel of Time, Luke Cage, and, most recently, with HBO directing and executive producing The Gilded Age and Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. She is living proof that a Black woman can do it all. She has a beautiful family and a stellar career and is amazingly beautiful while doing it all.
MONARCH: We all fell in love with you in your films you have starred in: I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, I Am Legend, Antwone Fisher, and so on. So how did you get started in movies?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: Oh my god, such a long story. You know, I started out in Chicago doing little modeling print ads and did my first play at 14 and started realizing that this is something I wanted to do. Cut to about 24, and I realized this is really the only thing that I’m excelling at, and I love it. So I saved up my money, jumped in the car at 24, and drove to L.A. I had saved up enough money to live for almost a year so I could really dedicate my time to working. I found an agent ahead of time and then drove in. So I planned it, and luckily by the time my money was starting to run out, I got my first big film, Posse. And from then on, I was able to just focus on entertainment and not have to do any other jobs.
MONARCH: Wow, taking that leap of faith and going out to L.A.—that’s very encouraging.
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: You have to do it or time just keeps going and you find that you’re still in the same place.
MONARCH: So what prompted the transition from acting to directing and producing?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: It’s so funny because I’ve told this story a million times, but it is just the truth. I was the lead in Ava DuVernay’s first movie, and she had only done documentaries at the time. I probably put my little two cents in too many times, but at some point, she said to me, “I think you’re a director, and you don’t know it.” There was just something about her saying that and then watching her doing it. My life flashed before my eyes, and I realized, “Yeah, I am that person who sits at the monitor all the time. I am the one who’s always asking questions. Maybe I do think like a director.” So from there, I got a bunch of books, and Ava gave me a bunch of tapes. And I started shadowing some directors that I liked.
Next, I was on a show called Eureka. I asked them for the opportunity, and they said yes. After that first episode, I realized that I understood this, I loved it, and maybe these many years of acting were my training ground, my university to do what I’m supposed to be doing, which is directing.
MONARCH: So do you think you will ever go back to acting, or do you think you’re going to stay in the realm of directing and producing?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: You know, of course I would love to act again. It’s funny. It feels like it’s been so long; it makes me nervous to think about it. But right now, obviously, I just don’t have the time. I’ve been so focused on my directing and producing, but I know that eventually there will be something. There will be something special. The right person will come to me. Cause right now it really would have to be about something that was just great and challenging.
MONARCH: How challenging was that transition from acting to directing?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: Directing is the hardest thing you will ever do on a set. There are just so many components; there is so much pressure on you, and there are so many decisions that you have to make. To someone on the outside, you just don’t even have any idea of the enormity of directing, especially some of the projects I’ve been doing.
MONARCH: Acting, directing, producing…which one do you enjoy more?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: They’re all different. When I was an actor, I remember people used to ask me, do you like theater more or do you like this better? It’s just a different thing. I do like the control I have over directing. And then, you know, when you’re producing it too, you have even more control. As my family would tell you, I like control. It just works really well with my personality. So I think it would be directing right now.
MONARCH: The projects you work on are so diverse in the subject matter and scope. How do you transition from Queen Sugar to Wheel of Time or American Gods? What is your process with those different genres?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: I’ve never wanted to be stuck doing one kind of thing. If I knew it was a different kind of show, I was going to learn a different skill set. I was game for it. If I’m up for a big job, I don’t want anyone to go, “Oh, well, she’s done all this, but has she done this?” I can’t be stopped by a lack of skill set. So it was just important for me to learn everything that I could. Pretty much my process is, when I go into a new kind of show, I really just immerse myself in that world so it helps me start to think in that way.
MONARCH: Congratulations on your recent HBO deal. How did this deal come about?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: Listen, girl, I don’t know—it’s just something that kind of grew. I was already supposed to do Winning Time and The Gilded Age, and then Gilded Age started to grow from two episodes to almost half the season. Then it turned into “Well, if I’m going to spend that much time, I feel like I need a bigger role.” They said okay, and then I became one of the executive producers; that grew into talking about a first look deal with HBO, which then turned into having an amazing team of people around me, which turned into an overall deal, and it’s just one of those weird things that I think just grew—I can’t explain it. I think that it worked out for both HBO and me. I’m on two of their biggest shows, and I’m really a big part of making that happen. So I’m proud of it, and I think it’s been a good partnership.
MONARCH: The Gilded Age and The Rise of the Lakers are two iconic period pieces, which really speaks of your range. So let’s discuss The Gilded Age: first the imagery, the cinematography. It’s beautiful, and the storyline really pulls you in. What intrigued you about this project and caused you to get so involved?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: I love period pieces. I think that people didn’t expect Black audiences to be that into it, and we are. I run into so many people, so many Black women who are like, “Oh my god, I love this world.” And now they’ve added this Black storyline of the Black elite. I love exploring worlds where we live and breathe in an authentic manner. And I think that’s why people love it so much. Because it was done in a way that every different kind of audience is going, “Oh, I learned something, and I was entertained.”
MONARCH: Then we have Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. I love how the story is narrated. And although it’s told through the eyes of Magic Johnson and Jerry Buss, it moves, placing focus on different characters. It’s so layered and so much more than a film about basketball. What intrigued you about this project that caused you to get involved in this one as well?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: First, it’s Adam McKay. I want to work in that camp. Then, I love basketball, and again, it was a world I had not conquered before. Plus we’re shooting on film. We’re shooting three, four different kinds of styles on that. It was just a new challenge. And also, it’s HBO, amazing writing. Rodney Barnes, who is one of the writers with Max Bornstein, wrote my American Gods episode, so we already were friends. I love his writing. Then, to top it off, you have John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Sally Field, Jason Clark, Jason Segel. It just builds and builds with this amazing talent.
MONARCH: What are some of the things that you look for when deciding on a project? What’s that process like for you?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: I’m very picky about what I think is good. There are a lot of things people are like, “Oh, that’s really good.” Is it? Part of the reason why I’m happy with this partnership with HBO is, everything they do is about excellence. You’re not getting mediocrity there. It’s harder to develop things there because they really do take the time. But at the end of the day, I know it’s going to be something that I want my name associated with.
There is nothing like the feeling, during Oscar time, of going out and running into so many people in the business, out of the business, famous, not famous, man, woman, Black, white, just all over the board who were just so excited about Gilded. And that’s what I want my name associated with: greatness.
MONARCH: You are a mother, actress, director, and producer. How do you find the time to be all of these amazing things. It’s like a super woman, you know. How do you find the time?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: I don’t always do it perfectly. There are definitely times where things suffer. I’m a bit of a workaholic because really on that front, if I fail, I fail not only myself but I fail the people coming after me. If I fail there, then I’m not supporting my family at the end of the day. So there’s a lot of pressure, but I think that to make it up, when I’m not working, I am a hundred percent in. I’m that mom up making breakfast. I’m at every single game. I’m calling you: “Hey, where are you? Are you okay at the party?” So I’m a hundred percent in, and I think that they forgive me when I’m missing because they know that when I’m there, it’s all about them.
MONARCH: That is so beautiful. So I have to ask this: What inspires you, and who motivates you the most?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: I think my family motivates me the most. I actually started working much harder once I had children because it’s really about securing their future so that they don’t have to struggle as hard as I did.
And then, who inspires me—I finally have an answer for this question. It’s really my peer group around me, the people I came up with in this business: Tasha, Jada, Nia Long, and Regina King. We all started together in L.A., hung out, and somehow or another our little group has really risen to the occasion. We all have found a way through different avenues to stay successful in this business. And so I’m inspired by the people around me.
MONARCH: What is next for you?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: Well, I have two shows in development at HBO right now, and I will continue to be one of the executive producers on Gilded. I have some other things coming up. I can’t say yet. I have another show that I’ll be working on for HBO. I really want to build and build. I’m trying to have my own pie. You know, I want to have that instead of me being so excited to work for Adam McKay. I want somebody to be so excited to be working in my company, and that’s what I’m aspiring to.
MONARCH: How do we stay in contact with you?
SALLI RICHARDSON WHITFIELD: Well, I’m on Instagram at @SalliRichWhit and @SalliRichardson on Twitter. And Facebook, I think it’s Salli Richardson Whitfield there.
MONARCH: Thank you so much, Salli. This has been awesome and encouraging to say the least.