Ever since Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s breakout role nearly twenty years ago in the black Western film Posse, the 43-year old Chicago native has been wowing audiences with impressive performances in both film (Antoine Fisher, I Am Legend, Black Dynamite) and television (CSI Miami and Eureka). Now one of Richardson-Whitfield’s strongest movie performances to date gets the DVD treatment this week: the indie drama I Will Follow, written and directed by Ava DuVernay and featuring Blair Underwood. The film is a day-in-the-life tale about a woman in mourning.
BET.com caught up with Richardson-Whitfield to discuss her latest film, the controversy surrounding The Help and her dream role of playing Lena Horne.
Lots of movies go into melodrama when they feature characters dealing with death, but I Will Follow takes us on a dramatic journey without going down that road. Is that what attracted you to the role of Maye?
I just look for stuff that’s really well written. It was a simple story about one day and I knew that kind of acting was what I wanted to do. You’re just glimpsing my day, it’s not this over[ly] dramatic ridiculousness. It’s not over-the-top buffoonery. That’s what Ava wanted—that simplicity. I was drawn in because of the simplicity, but you still got to feel great emotion for what she and the other characters are going through. Even though I could tell it was written beautifully, you don’t really know, especially with a new filmmaker, what the movie is going to become. Ava just did a wonderful job. I’m very honored to be a part of it.
Despite the near-drought of mainstream Black films released these days, it seems Ava’s work is a part of this new movement of Black indie filmmakers on the rise.
There are a number of amazing Black indie films that are out there, but usually they don’t see the light of day, like some of the white indie films that get picked up at the festivals and get released. I think that’s what Ava’s trying to do with our films in a different kind of way— where we do have an opportunity to show other sides of ourselves as people and as women.
Speaking of which, what’s your take on the controversy surrounding the film The Help? It’s the number one movie in the country this week, and still doing great box office numbers.
There’s nothing wrong with the movie The Help. I read the book—it’s an amazing book. It’s great that it’s a movie. These are great roles for any actresses to be playing: it has all these different sides, it has wonderful characters. Strong women who are changing things; it’s too bad it’s being received that way [negatively]. It’s okay for us to have those kinds of films, if we have I Will Follow and then we have a great comedy. It only becomes a problem when it’s the only one.
It’s been reported that you’re interested in playing Lena Horne in a biopic on her life. So many of our great icons deserve movies on their lives, what specifically drew you to Lena’s story?
I’ve always loved Lena Horne. Maybe it’s because I saw all the amazing work she did. Some people are drawn to Dorothy Dandridge because she died young, but how much more did Lena have to go through? I always thought it’s much harder to have lived through all of that stuff and to have come through the other side and be successful than it is to have not made it. Lena Horne was an amazingly strong and driven woman and people don’t know that. I was given the opportunity to play Lena in a performance at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it went so well. A few people from New York who knew Lena ... said they were amazed. It made me feel really good and honored to have these people tell me, "I knew her and that was her—you had her.” [The biopic's] one of the things I’m pursuing and would love to do before it’s too late.
You’re also wrapping up your role as Allison Blake on the SyFy drama Eureka that is ending this season after five years, and you’ve directed the series as well. Has television been a better medium to you over the years?
Lately you see a lot of people who you would never expect to be on television. You have big actors doing it and are [specifically] looking for TV shows. That’s where all the really cool roles are going and, honestly, many more great roles for women in their 30s, 40s and 50s are on TV. Those are the ages of the female leads on a lot of those shows as opposed to the films where it’s usually kind of young 20-somethings. I directed Eureka last year and I’m going direct another episode this year. So I’m going to be looking for some directing opportunities for myself. I’ll be looking for my next TV show to do. I enjoy doing series work. I have children and I know that TV right now is what pays your bills. I kind of [always] have my "pay the rent" gigs.
The film I Will Follow arrives on DVD on August 23.
(Photo: Frazer Harrison/GettyImages)