*Salli Richardson Whitfield is remembered by many as a more than capable actress with visual beauty of show-stopping proportions. But Salli has proven time and time again that she is far more than just a pretty face, as was illustrated in the hit indie film “I Will Follow” (available on DVD, Aug. 23, 2011).
Though her chops were on full display in that offering, science fiction fans have been tuning in to watch her play Dr Allison Blake on SyFy’s “Eureka” for since the 2006 TV season. In that span Ms. Richardson Whitfield’s aspirations have expanded past merely being in front of the camera. She has recently directed two episodes of the show, the first of which is slated to air Monday (tonight) at 8pm.
I had the chance to speak with her regarding this wonderful opportunity as well as the absence of African Americans in the sci-fi genre, her career longevity and more.
“My first episode airs (tonight, Monday, August 8), but I’ve already finished my second episode of directing,” said Richardson Whitfield. “What’s great about my episode is that it’s female driven so not only is the director me, a woman, but I have all the girls from other episodes there. It’s big action and movement, which I found that I love to direct. I like a fast moving pace. The second one I’ve directed is the same kind of thing. It’s a disaster episode with a lot of things happening. It’s really giving me a chance to do something things that most women don’t get a chance to do in film and TV. They never get a chance to do visual effects or action stuff. They’re always given drama. ‘Omega Girl’ airs Monday, and the second, which you probably won’t see until next year, is called ‘Worse Case Scenario’.”
Fans of “Eureka” can attest to the show’s great writing, wonderful story arc and well-rounded characters the likes of which are missing in most other offerings in its genre. To some actors work is just work. It may not be personally satisfying but it pays the bills. However, Salli says she has been pleased with her work on the show.
“I couldn’t have asked for more from the show,” said Richardson-Whitfield. “I’ve gone from a having a kid who was autistic, to a him not being autistic. We really get to do everything. Drama … giving birth on camera … comedy. I don’t know what more I can do on the show with the character Allison. I’ve been very pleased with the show in that regard.”
With Allison … um, we mean Salli’s segue into directing it appears “Eureka” is the gig that just keeps getting better. But with every new job title there is a considerable learning curve and she wasn’t immune to that. Especially since she had to direct her character as well.
“It’s a little hard. I enjoy directing more when I don’t have to direct myself,” Salli admitted. “I like when I can just be the director. But, particularly, on this TV show where I know the character because I’ve been doing Allison forever. I pretty much know when I’ve hit it on the money, and keep it moving.”
There are times when comrades can throw shade upon individuals who are promoted to bigger things from within their ranks, but Salli tells EURweb that she had no such problem from her fellow actors.
“I didn’t know how I was going to be with the actors. Just because you’re an actor doesn’t mean you can direct other actors. But what I’ve learned, especially on this TV show, is that they know what they’re doing. I let you do what you need to do and I come in as like your third eye and tweak things here or there. When you have people like Joe Morgan, whose been in “Terminator” and is huge in theater, all I need do is come in and do some fine tuning.”
“The crew has been hugely supportive of me, but there have been times. Most of the crew are men and there were a few grumblings. They know that you haven’t done this and maybe you get some resistance. I have a wonderful DP whose always in my ear saying ‘never show any weakness and always have an answer’.”
As a child most of my friends and I were science fiction fans. The genre inspired some of us to want to be scientists, mathematicians, engineers and so forth. It can be very inspirational to a young mind. But, with very few exceptions, African Americans are underrepresented in the genre.
“We’re under represented in most things in entertainment and it carries over into that and it just makes it even smaller,” Salli reminded us. “If you go to any of these sci-fi events, we just went to Comic-Con, we are definitely fans of sci-fi. We’re definitely represented there. It would be wonderful if we were more a part of it because we’re the ones watching and buying.”
A five year plus run for a science fiction television series is unprecedented for anything without Gene Roddenberry’s name attached to it. But all things must come to an end. In researching “Eureka” for the interview I found that, according to IMDB, SyFy may have ordered its final 6 episodes of the series.
“Right now, what they’re telling me, is this is considered a six episode pick up with it being open so that we may do more,” she explained. “I’m kind of left there. But if that happens to be our ending, I’m okay with that. It’s been a wonderful show for me and I’ve always been excited about moving on and trying new things. But if for some reason they love and want to keep us then I’ll do that too.”
Sometimes to grow we have to let go of the old so that we can grab hold of the new. Salli tells us her new thing is a offering that features one of our favorite men in Hollywood.
“I did a film over my last break with Mario Van Peebles. I’m not sure when that’s coming out, then I literally left Ava (Director of ‘I Will Follow’) and went straight into production for ‘Eureka’. We’ve just been so busy working here. I’ll be done (shooting ‘Eureka’) in a few weeks and I’ll be traveling back to LA and I’ll be ready to do something different.
“It’s a high school coming of age movie. I can’t wait until it comes out. It’s one of those situations where people are doing these indies on a shoestring budget and getting some amazing stuff. Three of his kids are in the movie. So, he’s just doing what his Dad did for him in bringing his kids up the ranks. From the footage I saw it’s going to be a quality movie.”
Now that Richardson-Whitfield has been bitten by the directing bug she tells us she hopes to bring some of visions to life soon.
“My plan over this next break is to shoot a short that, hopefully, I will be able to put in a film festival, and I would like to direct more network television. It’s really something that I would like to pursue. There are not a lot of African American women who are directing films or directing TV. I feel like I get it. I don’t know everything yet but I feel like I get it. It’s something that I really would like to continue to do. Depending on what happens with ‘Eureka’ I’m really excited about moving on and doing a different kind of show.”
In addition to opening up about her new career Salli also spoke about bringing her dream role to life.
“One thing that I really want to do is the Lena Horne story. I had a chance to do Lena Horne as a tribute to Halle Berry for the Genesee Foundation. Like Halle has always dreamed of doing Dorothy Dandridge, I’ve always dreamed of doing Lena. I’ve just always loved her. That’s something that me and my management are working.”
It seems as though ever so often Hollywood falls in love with the “it” black girl. You know, the one that appears in every movie that needs a black woman. She’s very pretty, might have appeared in a few videos, and appears to be every where for a time. Then, she just goes away. While Salli may have rocketed into the stratosphere with her fame, she has had a steady climbing career arc that just keeps going. I asked her why she thought that was.
“I don’t know. God knows I have 2 children to feed. I don’t know if it’s my look. There have been times that my particular look has harmed me in getting jobs because people feel that maybe I don’t look African-American enough,” she explained. “There have been some African American films that I would have loved to have been apart of but maybe I didn’t look ethnic enough for them. Then there are times on TV where sort of looking middle ground has helped me. Maybe that’s the reason why I’ve able to do a lot more TV and shows. I really have no idea. I just feel completely blessed because right now is a very hard time in that are great people are just not working. It’s really, really hard out here. I just thank God and that’s why it’s really important that you do different things. I’m producing and directing because as you get older you have to be able to do different things. As you get older there’s not going to be as many things for you. I want to be able to direct and still feed my art.”
“Would I have loved to have become this huge star? Yes! But, as my good friends say, it’s not over yet. Your time is your time. I’m glad that I have never given up and I don’t get bitter. I have fun with what comes and that’s just my path. I don’t think that when I was doing those first movies that I was ready to be who I am now. The roles that I’m able to tackle now are roles that I know I can kill. There’s nothing that I am not going to be amazing in because I know what I can do now, I know who I am as a woman now. I was young then. I may have had a second when I was hot, like some of these girls that were hot. But where are they now? They’re not working. You have to be able to grow and do different kinds of roles. Part of why I’ve probably been able to keep working is I didn’t get that big famous role then. Those people didn’t have to change. I had to be a lawyer here, or be a scientist over there and be different things that helped me grow as an actress.”
We sincerely wish the incomparable Salli Richardson Whitfield all the best in her future endeavors. Once again, the closet science fiction nerds amongst our readership can tune in tonight and watch “Omega Girl,” Salli’s “Eureka” directorial debut (Monday, August 8th) at 8pm. I know I’ll be watching.