Interview: Salli Richardson-Whitfield Talks Playing Lena Horne In 'A Lady Must Live' +  Kickstarter Campaign To Finance
Photo Credit: S & A
Interviews

Interview: Salli Richardson-Whitfield Talks Playing Lena Horne In 'A Lady Must Live' + Kickstarter Campaign To Finance

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UPDATE: Richardson-Whitfield’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the workshop for A Lady Must Live has gone live. To donate, find the campaign page HERE (or on page 2, after the interview that follows)

S&A’s interview with Richardson-Whitfield follows below. 

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In the upcoming bioplay A Lady Must Live, Salli

Richardson-Whitfield is set to play legendary singer and actress Lena Horne. The show will explore a

major span of Horne’s life, taking place “backstage

after the first preview of ‘A Lady and Her Music,’ as Horne wrestles –

emotionally and physically – with her ghosts, struggling to rework her show to

recount her life story with more candor and complexity.”

The project has been in the works for years,

and Richardson-Whitfield and her team will soon launch a fundraising campaign to workshop

the play. Recently the actress made time to talk with Shadow And Act about the

process of transforming into Lena Horne, as well as her other upcoming

projects.

JAI TIGGETT: Back in 2011 we saw your performance as Lena Horne

for the Jenesse Silver Rose Gala. Is that where this project started?

SALLI RICHARDSON-WHITFIELD:

That just really sparked something. After that event, so many people came up to

me, some of which she knew Lena and said, “Oh my God, you were Lena.”

I’ve always had a love For Lena Horne and I’d really love to do it as a movie,

but she loved singing and being on Broadway in New York. She actually left

Hollywood to go back to performing on stage. So I thought that it should be a

Broadway show, because that really was true to her heart.

So then you have to find the right

playwright. I got very lucky that I had to go to London for a convention. My

manager knew this playwright [Rikki

Beadle Blair], and I went to see his play and it blew me off my feet. I had

breakfast with him and talked about it, and he wasn’t quite sure. But then we

found a way to get into the story and get it written. And now we need the money

to do the workshop. The workshop is the first step of a production, and then

you present that for the really big investors to take it to Broadway or start

in LA at one of the bigger theaters.

JT: Are there still plans to eventually make it into a film?

SR: Yes. Part of it is that I really

wanted people to identify me in that role. People are always throwing around

singers’ names that could be Lena Horne. But I think this role deserves an

actress who happens to be a great singer to do it. Because Lena was a

powerhouse, she has a great story to be told, and I think it needs to be done

right.

“People are always throwing around singers’ names that could be Lena Horne. But I think this role deserves an actress who happens to be a great singer to do it… it needs to be done right.”

JT: Not everyone knows you as a singer. But apparently youve been singing for years?

SR: It’s funny, because I literally

was just at Regina King‘s house for

a housewarming party. There were maybe 20 women she had over, and I had the

nerve to play it for Jill Scott and

Regina, and Lisa Leslie was there

too. So about 30 seconds into it Lisa goes, “Is that you singing?”

I go, “Yeah.” And I’ve known Regina for 20 years. Regina

goes, “What the hell?”

I said, well I came to LA kind of trying to

do both, but acting kicked off. I’ve always loved doing this kind of music – the

old standards, the kind of stuff that Lena did. I don’t think you’d really get

a record deal for that as a young girl. So it’s just something that no one

knows.

And so then once I decided to do this, it’s

like any muscle – if you don’t use it, it’s not ready. So I literally have been

back with a voice coach for the last few years. The whole time I’m developing this,

learning all of her songs, I started performing in clubs. If you’re doing a

Broadway show, you’ve got to be ready to sing every night. And if you’re going

to be Lena, you need to know what it’s like to perform in those clubs and really

own that. So it’s been a journey of being really ready and prepared for this.

JT: Tell me about researching her for this role. 

SR: There are so many books, and there are a lot of interviews and

tape on her. She does this amazing Ed

Bradley interview where they say he got more out of her than anyone has,

ever. So for me, it was just seeing that, and then the playwright is the one

who had to do the real research to come up with his take on what our story was

going to be.

JT: She lived such an interesting life, was very outspoken, and was actually blacklisted in the ’50s for her political views. Did you learn anything about her life that surprised you?

SR: It was mostly that she was so

angry, because she talks about how she was angry for years. And that was also

what drew the playwright in to find what his story was. I didn’t realize that

being put up there as this beauty icon, but being hated for it, affected her so

much. Because all of us, we see entertainers and we just see this smiling face.

I didn’t realize how hurt she was from this business, from years of thinking

that you’re going to be in a movie and they decide to cast a white woman in

your role. Or you’re in a movie, but when they go to the southern states they

cut you out of the movie. That kind of stuff after a while will make you

bitter.

There’s a lot of things that I deal with as a

black actress, where you know that if I was a white actress with the amount of

work that I’ve done, no one would dare ask me to audition for this or that, or

argue about money. You really have to step back and find a way not to get

bitter or annoyed or have a thing against this white majority that runs this

business. She had an anger about that, and I think it’s something that black

actresses and actors in general have to really check and not let it seep into

your soul, because it easily can happen. So I think the story is so important,

because it really is something that hasn’t gone away.

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JT: Youll be playing her from age 5 to 65. Thats a huge scope.

SR: It sounds a little crazier than

it is. I think there’s only a scene or two, when the ghost of her father comes

to visit her in the dressing room. It’s almost like a change comes over her and

you see that little girl come out as she talks to her father about the love

that he didn’t give her. So as an actress you’re changing in demeanor, in

context of what’s going on, feeling like that little girl when your daddy’s

there with you.

JT: Has the rest of the cast been chosen?

SR: I’ve always had in mind for Jenifer Lewis to play Lena’s mother.

When the playwright started writing, we sat down with Jenifer, and when we did

our original table read Jenifer was there reading it. People see Jenifer in all

these movies, but they don’t realize this is a woman who’s been on Broadway

with Meryl Streep and Bette Midler and she’s amazing on

stage. So as long as Jenifer is available, it’s Jenifer.

JT: Do you plan to direct again? We know that you directed a short

film called Grace a few years ago as

well as some episodes of Eureka on

Syfy.

SR: Yes, that’s a hard one. I

directed a thing for Mekhi Phifer

and his producing partner Inny Clemons

recently as a show they’re shopping. It’s a hard one to push through and

especially on these network TV shows, it’s not just a white club, it’s a male

club. And unfortunately I don’t have 100% of my time to devote to it, I’m also

acting. But there are a few smaller indies I’m working on directing. It’s going

to take time but eventually I’ll start doing more. Just like this project, it

may take me a few years, but I don’t quit.

JT: You worked on Grace

with Ava DuVernay, and also starred in her first feature I Will Follow. Do you plan to work together again soon?

SR: It’s funny, because Ava and I

are actually talking about a particular project, and I just saw her when I was

in Atlanta. We happened to spend the day together. Every movie she does doesn’t

necessarily have a role for me, but she still has become one of my best friends

through that process of doing I Will Follow and that being her

first film. We just really bonded during that film, so it’ll definitely happen

again. I’m so proud of her.

JT: We’ve heard that you’ll also be appearing on Being Mary Jane. What can you tell me about the new season?

SR: I only can tell you a little

bit, because I’ll get in trouble. But I’m playing an old friend of [Mary Jane’s]

that seems to have a perfect life – the children and the husband, and the

career, and everything. So I think that maybe it’s something that’s hard for

her to deal with. Chris Spencer

plays my husband. I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything else. But I’m doing

five episodes so far, so it’s almost half the season.

JT: For A Lady Must Live,

you’re launching a fundraising campaign to get it going. What do you want

people to know about the campaign?

SR: There’s a reason I’m doing it this way. At

least for this first step of us doing the workshop, I really wanted to have a

certain amount of control. That’s why we’re doing it this way, because it’s not

like I’m asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I really need that

help and support because it’s just such an important story to be told.

I really need my friends and my fans and my

family to help me make this happen, not just for me, but really to get another

one of our icon’s stories out there, and done right, and done by us, not a

movie about us that’s directed and written by people that aren’t us.

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Thanks to Salli Richardson-Whitfield for the in-depth conversation. 

For more on A Lady Must Live, find Salli Richardson-Whitfield on Facebook HERE and Twitter HERE

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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