Salli Richardson-Whitfield has been working steadily for the past several years. Aside from big screen roles in films including A Low Down Dirty Shame, Antwoine Fisher, I Am Legend, Black Dynamite and Ava Duvernay’s indie darling I Will Follow, Whitfield-Richardson has further proven her versatility as an actor on TV in shows such as Family Law, CSI Miami, Rude Awakening, among numerous guest-starring turns. On the small screen however, she is probably best known as Dr. Allison Blake in the sci-fi hit show Eureka.
Despite recent news of the cancellation of her new Lifetime series’ pilot Secret Lives of Wives, the stunning actress isn’t disheartened. “In my mind, I’m going to get another show,” says Richardson-Whitfield, adding, “I think there’s enough respect from people that they want me on their show. They know I’m nice; they know I’m good, and I know how to do it.
There really isn’t any need to pity her. Whitfield has kept quite busy lately. The actress just finished shooting a Robert Townsend romantic comedy, in which she co-stars in and co-produces. She’s also preparing for a Lena Horne stage project she’s developing.
Beginning on February 7th, Whitfield is being honored as host of this year’s Pan African Film Festival, which takes place in Los Angeles. Also this month, she will star in Rockmond Dunbar’s Pastor Brown, which she co-produced. In Brown, set to debut on the Lifetime network on February 16th, Whitfield plays an ex-stripper who honors her ailing father’s wishes of taking over the family church.
The actress wants to make very clear that Brown isn’t a “message” movie. I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Whitfield, who graciously took time aside from her busy schedule to discuss Pastor Brown, her career and future projects.
S&A: How did you get involved in Pastor Brown?
SR: It’s funny because we were at a birthday party for Nicole Ari Parker, and Rockmond Dunbar looks over and goes, “I’m about to direct this movie and I really want you to do the lead in it." I was like, OK, a lot of times in L.A. you may never hear from that person again. Literally, that week he gave it to me, and it was funny because I had started taking these Sheila Kelly pole-dancing classes here in Los Angeles. So, it was perfect. I had been doing them for about three months and then we weren’t starting for another month or two for his film, so I was ready. I grew up in the Baptist Church so I had a foundation in that; it was a perfect fit for me. They brought me on as a producer too, and I was able to get some actors in there that I really wanted in there and be helpful with the casting process. Everything just kind of fell in place perfectly.
S&A: This is great ensemble of known faces. How was working with the cast?
SR: All I can say is well, it was shot a while ago ; but we had no drama on that set. Everyone sort of knew each other. There were a few faces but most of us; especially me, Tasha [Smith], Tisha [Campbell-Martin], Keith [David] Errnie [Hudson], and Rockmond already had this friendship. One wonderful memory I do have is that at the end of the movie, I have this big speech I have to give. It was a really hard speech, and I had to really be a preacher. Tasha especially, she really gave me some help, along with Tisha and Nicole. They all stayed there while I was giving the speech and gave me such great support. I will always remember them for just being so kind and giving to me.
S&A: Any hesitation on playing a stripper? Where you concerned on the public’s reaction as in “Oh, here we go, a stripper!
SR: No, you know as an actress, the fact that I’m going to go from that [stripping] to preaching…you can’t hesitate. It’s not like I’m actually nude in it. That would make me hesitate and be like, “Hey wait a minute we have to discuss this,” but no, it was a challenge. Every aspect of the movie was a challenge. For me, that’s what I look for.
S&A: What did you like about the script the most?
SR: I’d like to be clear that this isn’t a “message” movie, although you sometimes get films like this, and they’re beating you over the head with some lesson you have to learn; or there is so much church you can’t enjoy it unless you’re in the church, and this film isn’t like that. It just happens to be in the backdrop of the church, you know. Really, it’s about this woman, her problems, the wrongs she has done in her life, making them right, getting that together with her family, and finding herself again. That’s really what it’s about.
S&A: Just curious, after this film, how do you view stripping as a profession? Any judgment on that?
SR: I think it depends on the person and, actually, I don’t have a judgment about it. Now, would I want that to be my profession? No. Would I want that to be my daughter’s profession? No, because I know when it comes down to it, it breaks you down; it breaks your soul down; brings your mind down, and eventually, it’s not good for you. But, for a lot of women that’s what you got to do to take care of your family; so you do what you have to do. You don’t have to be sleeping with people on the side. There are a lot of women who are not doing anything on the side; they’re and not drinking and doing drugs. They are just making money in the way that they can. I don’t have any judgment about that.
S&A: How was working with Michael B. Jordan? His new film Fruitvale caused quite a stir in Sundance! What’s his role in Pastor Brown?
SR: He is just a little sweetie pie; since then, he has gone on to do so much. He’s just doing so well in his career. He’s just a nice kid. I guess he’s not really a kid, but he’s a nice kid. He plays my son.
S&A: Oh my god! You are too young for that.
SR: Oh well, he could be my son, but we’ll just move on [laughs].
S&A: Since the working in the acclaimed I Will Follow. Any plans of working with Ava Duvernay again?
SR: Ava has become, honestly, one of my best friends. We talk all the time, and there’s not any pressure like, “Hey can you bring me in your next film?” If it’s the right part for me, I know that she’ll have me there.
S&A: How hard it to find work on the big screen?
SR: There are definitely less roles on film, always more TV stuff. Honestly, you know, I love doing movies, but for most actors TV is much more lucrative. You go through a movie for three months; they hardly pay you anything. Really, TV is the new place to make a living and luckily to do some work now.
S&A: We hear that you’ve been working on a dream project: Lena Horne – Is it still on the works?
SR: That’s something I’m working on. I am actually going to rehearsal right now because I’m singing in an event tomorrow night; and so, my way is just to start singing again. I was always a singer, but I had kind of lost my voice. Sometimes you are just not thinking about it. I was so into acting and I found my voice again. In the next few months, I’m going to start performing in some clubs around L.A. and doing these jazz, old standard kind of things to get ready. I plan on making that happen.
S&A: What kind of roles challenge or interest you? Is there a particular type of role you would love to play?
SR: It’s so funny, I can’t think of any particular role. I think it comes down to whatever the story is. At a time I did a Lifetime pilot, there was another show I was offered, and it could’ve been the biggest hit ever, but the one I picked on Lifetime was a challenge and it was the harder project as far as acting goes. I just look for stuff that, if it makes me feel uneasy and I’m scared to do it for a second, I know it’s the right thing because it means that it’s going to challenge me. I keep forgetting; I just finished a movie about two weeks ago with Robert Townsend.
S&A: Do Tell!
SR: He’s directing and also in it. It’s a romantic comedy with the two of us and we shot it in Miami. I’m not sure when it will come out because, literally, I just finished it after New Year’s.
S&A: How do you feel about hosting at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in LA next month? You are doing so many things!
SR: I am literally parked on the side street about to go in this parking lot to go do vocal warm-ups, so I can sing with this band for rehearsal. I am so honored to do this [PAFF]. Last year, I had a short film that I directed in the fest, and the year before that, I had I Will Follow. So they’ve just sort of become a nice family over there, and it was really nice that they asked me to do this this year. It’s great, and then I’ll get to go to more of the festivities there.
S&A: I know you’ve worked on a few TV pilots; one of them isn’t happening anymore. So, how challenging is it?
SR: It’s always challenging. I am a black actress in Hollywood, so you can’t pretend that it is not a challenge, but I have been very lucky to consistently work for the past seven years. Like the pilot I just did [Secret Lives of Wives]. It didn’t get picked up, but I’m in pilot season. In my mind, I’m going to get another show. TV has been very good to me and I always get a good show; at least a good pilot, and I think there’s enough respect from people that they want me on their show. They know I’m nice; they know I’m good, and I know how to do it. At the same time, I’ve been doing other things. I’m directing; I’m developing some shows. So, maybe I wasn’t thinking this in my 20’s or even my 30‘s, but now I’m really about making things happen and not waiting for them.
If you haven't read it, see Sergio's interview with Pastor Brown's actor/director Rockmond Dunbar HERE.