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.