Salli Richardson-Whitfield has been in the business for decades. The Chicago native credits her background as a person of color in a multicultural city for helping to shape the successful actress and director she’s become. And in a town like Hollywood, she learned early on that she’d need tough skin.
It didn’t take her long to land her first gig. Within months before making the cross-country trip from the midwest to the west coast, she was already booking spots and secured an agent before officially making the move. Richardson-Whitfield was smart enough to save enough money to pay rent and live comfortably for a year so that she could solely focus on auditioning. It paid off.
She landed roles in projects like Posse and A Low Down Dirty Shame before starring in guest roles on popular television shows like NYPD Blue and House and the lead role in the independent film Pastor Brown that she’s beloved for. But it would be her starring in Ava DuVernay’s first film I Will Follow in 2010 that would change the course of her life and career.
It was DuVernay who took notice of Richardson-Whitfield’s potential as a director and encouraged her to see it through. Flash forward 12 years later and Richardson-Whitfield is juggling numerous directing jobs. She’s directed episodes of Scandal, Queen Sugar, Chicago Med, Luke Cage and so much more.
She lays it all out in her episode of TV One’s Uncensored, which aired on Sunday, April 3. Shadow and Act spoke with Richardson-Whitfield about participating in the special, which is something she’d never considered before, her career, making a career switch, her family and more.
S&A I've never really seen you open up in this way. It was nice to see you get your flowers. What made you do a special like ‘Uncensored?’
SRW: I’m not one that goes out a lot. I am kind of private. I think most of that is because I just don’t feel like getting dressed up most of the time. And then it’s like, OK, every once in a while I have to show them that I’m still there. Right now, I kind of feel more comfortable about being out and talking more about myself and doing press. Everyone has their time in their life where you feel like you’re sort of in your purpose work and blossoming. And so I’m just a little bit more open to talking more about myself and just kind of pushing what I’m doing.
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One of the things that you mentioned in the special was that earlier in your career, you didn't really hang out in the Hollywood circles. Do you regret it? Looking back, would you have mingled a little bit more? And would you give the same advice to up and coming talent?
I think that it would have been more beneficial to me if I had been out more [and] if I had back then hired the publicist and really pushed myself more. I think that that is definitely part of the reason why maybe I didn’t make it to the heights of where I could have been as an actress. But at the same time, if I had done those things, I always say if I had been more famous then I would have maybe have missed the boat of what I’m really supposed to do as far as directing because I would have been so consumed with acting.
For me, it was to go in a different direction. But I do think that as much as I’m a pretty personable person out – I’m talkative, I’m fun, I’m not shy – but I do think that I can be an introvert, too. And there are times being in those situations that on the outside, I may seem like everything is fine, but I’m a bit uncomfortable at big parties like that. I’d rather be on the set telling people what to do.
As far as your transition into directing, you mentioned that Ava DuVernay is the person who gave you the push because she saw that you were a little bossy on set when she featured you in her first film. And it's crazy that it's come full circle in this way because obviously you and your husband's work on her OWN drama, ‘Queen Sugar.’ I thought that was a good lesson to impart because so many actors or creatives feel as if they don't make it or peak in their specific field, that they failed. You are proof that sometimes it's not their specific path that you're supposed to take and you can still take a path within that industry and be fulfilled or even more fulfilled. What would you tell those who are discouraged by where they are and those who are like, ‘Well, this is all I've ever wanted to do. So what am I supposed to do next?’
Well, first of all, you never know. You never know when your time is.It’s not that I’ve given up acting. I just don’t necessarily have the time now. But I have a feeling at some point that avenue will open up to me again. I’ll be somebody’s mother in a role [laughs]. So I just think it’s about being open to following where the universe or God is taking you. And don’t be afraid to pivot.
I think that the people who are the most successful in this business have to do three different things that they can do. And one will help the other. My directing, I think, eventually may help my acting. The acting surely helped my directing. So you just have to be open to pivot.
You also mentioned that you went up for several roles that you didn't get, one of which that I found funny was 'A Thin Line Between Love and Hate' just because when you think of that movie, you automatically think of Lynn Whitfield. But now that you're directing and you're getting like all of these major projects, basically any gig that you can dream of, what's been your favorite project that you've directed and why?
Honestly, it becomes whatever the next thing is. When I did Wheel of Time for Amazon, that felt so enormous and like the biggest thing I ever done. Then comes the Lakers series [Winning Time] and then you’re like, ‘Oh my God, look at the talent here. Look who won? Look who has to listen to me who I’m directing again.’ HBO, the budget, the basketball sequences. So now that’s my favorite, because it’s anything that challenges me or excites me. Anything that scares me excites me because I know that I’m on the right path. What if I’m just going to jobs that are the same thing over and over and I can basically like I can do that with my hands tied behind my back. I don’t want that. I’m looking for that next high of the next project to create. So I would have to say it would be between Gilded and [Winning Time] right now.
Is there a passion project that you're working on?
I have two projects at HBO that I’m working on, that I’m developing there. I am still looking for that feature, though. And I think once I find what that right project is, that’ll be where my real love happens. Picking out your first feature, I think, is something that has to be special and the perfect fit. And luckily, now people are coming to me more and saying, ‘Read this.’ It’s been quite a journey, so that’ll become my new passion.
We love the dynamic of your husband and your family life. You guys have such a beautiful family, and in the special, you spoke about how communication and honesty is what has kept you guys together. You talked a little bit about your different love languages, how you guys are like polar opposites, but obviously 24-25 years together is a long time being together, especially in Hollywood. So what else has kept you together in such a tough industry, especially you guys are doing the same thing for a living.
At times, I just think it’s the commitment that causes you to stick it out when it’s going bad because in any marriage, you’re going to have rocky times. And it’s deciding that we don’t give up. A lot of people just give up, just because it’s easier. But we’ve been together a long time. I can’t even imagine us not being together. So, I think it’s just the commitment to not to leave. Which then pivots into, ‘OK, if I’m not leaving then let’s figure out what this issue is so that we’re not just sitting there hating each other, but together. But we are thriving and still enjoy being with each other.’
And you have your two kids - do they have the entertainment bug or are you guys trying to steer them away from it?
Neither of them are in the business or care to be. My daughter is 17, and we’re looking to actually go on a college tour next week on the East Coast. So she’s a business-minded kid, math and sciences. My son is only 13, though I think he is the one who should be in the business or considering acting because he is very funny and he just has that kind of personality. But so far, he’s not interested, so we’ll see. I don’t think at 13 I knew what I wanted to do either.
TV One’s Uncensored airs each Sunday.