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Salli Richardson Whitfield InterviewAs an actress, Salli Richardson-Whitfield has been working steadily in TV and film for two decades. And while the past few years have seen Richardson-Whitfield appearing in high profile movies like “Antwone Fisher” and “I am Legend” and a starring role on Syfy’s “Eureka” (which wraps up production this month after five seasons), it is a role in a small slice of life indie drama that may be one of her most important acting jobs.


Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, “I Will Follow” was the first movie released through the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), which was co-founded by DuVernay with the goal to release two quality independent films from black filmmakers a year—films that often fly under the radar and would probably not get a distribution deal otherwise.

“I Will Follow” has received much critical acclaim, and Roger Ebert called it “one of the best films I’ve seen about the loss of a loved one.” The film had an extremely successful festival run, and its initial release in five cities (Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Seattle) was expanded to 15.

The movie revolves around Maye (Richardson-Whitfield), a woman who is grieving the death of her aunt, and the emotional complications that come with love, loss, and family dynamics. “I Will Follow” also stars Omari Hardwick (“For Colored Girls,” “Kick-Ass”), Tracie Thoms (TV’s “Cold Case” and “Harry’s Law”), and Blair Underwood.

Film Slate Magazine caught up with Richardson-Whitfield as she was preparing for the final weeks of shooting “Eureka.” We asked her about balancing family life with the demands of work, her method of preparation as an actress and how “I Will Follow” turned into more than just another job for her.

FSM: Doing a series as opposed to movies, do you have a preference, one over the other? Maybe if you shot the series closer to home (“Eureka” shoots in Vancouver), I suppose that would be better for you.

SRW: Yes it would. You know what? I like doing it all. What I like about TV, especially after doing a show for so long, you really get into a wonderful comfort zone, where you are…I just feel so at ease in doing anything in front of a camera now and especially you have these people around you to feel so comfortable. It’s so easy to just be and act in a situation as if no one is there.

I’m used to being an over-preparer. You know, run stuff over and over and over and plan out what I want to do here and here and now I just memorize my lines and walk through the door and just go wherever I feel like going at that moment and I think that it is a more organic place to be working from. And it takes you a while to get to that.

FSM: And turning to “I Will Follow,” how did you become attached to the project? How did Ava get a hold of you?

SRW: I think she was asking around—this is what she tells me—she was asking around, and she wanted to find someone who, obviously people who she thought could handle the material and that was going to be easy to work with and game. Because when you’re shooting a film with a budget as small as this, you have to be able to be ready to move and not be difficult (laughs). And I think she found that in me.

It was really something that happened within a week. Met her, and we were shooting within a week. I read the script of course, and it was an amazing script, but of course I don’t know who she is, and we met, and once I met Ava I just felt like, ‘okay, I know she’s a first time feature director but I feel like I’m in good hands.’ And I’m really happy that I made the decision because it’s probably been one of the best projects I’ve done in my career.

FSM: I talked to her before the movie was released, and she’s been in the business as a publicist for a long time, and it seemed that she knew the business quite well. She said that traveling with directors and being in the business, she saw how they told stories and she used that in her prep as a director. Did you see that experience filtering through?

SRW: Definitely, because I got there and I did not feel as if she didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t feel new at all. She felt very comfortable in what she was doing. And then still, once I saw it, I still was unbelievably stunned at how good it looked, and how well it came out because you just don’t know. You don’t know if people have a huge budget—movies can still turn out crappy. Everything just worked out perfectly.

FSM: There’s basically only one location in the movie. As actors, did you talk to each other about that, any kind of prep time, how the burden of the movie falls really on the script and the cast, because it is a small slice of life drama as opposed to something with special effects or multiple locations, did you get to talk that over at all?

SRW: We had two days, or something, two or three days, before we started shooting. I got together with the woman who played my aunt (Beverly Todd) and my cousin (Michole White); the three or four main actors. We just did a little bit of improv, discussing the relationship, and did maybe a quick kind of idea of a blocking. But not too much.

And for me, I don’t like to do things ahead of time. I like to find it there. But I did find that for some of the stuff, it did make a difference, especially in this piece, already meeting the people and having that time to find what that relationship would be a little bit. It did help me. So it actually taught me something, that that’s not a bad process to go through. And I don’t have to be so closed off to a little bit of rehearsal (laughs).

FSM: Well, that’s not bad, as an actor, to have a little bit of rehearsal.

SRW: No, it isn’t.

FSM: But like you said, if it’s not the usual way that you like to work, it might be a different process for you.

SRW: But it was okay. I’m always open to something different. I still know that I don’t like, if it’s an emotional scene, we can discuss it and go over it a little bit, but I think that I don’t like to do those a lot. Because then, if I see too much emotion from the other actress too much, by the time I’m shooting it, when the camera is on me, I’ve seen you do it and now I don’t feel anything. I want to find it there. You’re going to show me some tears, I want to feel that then, and not have felt it five times already. We’re not doing a play.

FSM: And a lot of this film rests on the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. Did you discuss that at all with Ava, or did you see any kind of reception of the film through that? Because the film has gotten good reception and it seems to be catching on. I know it premiered in five cities with the movie and it seems to be a release movement that could catch on.

SRW: Once the film was over, she really explained to me what we were doing, and how she planned on getting this film out there. What was wonderful is that then the film didn’t just become something I was in. I felt like I became a part of this movement with her. And the film became bigger because of that.

And I was just so happy to do whatever she needed me to do to really change the way we get some of our films out there to the public. And even to this day, you know, Ava asks me, what can {you} do? I’ll do whatever you tell me to do. As much as I can. And there are times, in doing this thing, I’m literally going to jump on a plane in the middle of the afternoon and go do a cocktail party and then leave at six in the morning and go back to shoot. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. I think it’s important, and it’s important for us to get films like this out to the public.

FSM: When I did the interview with her earlier, I could sense her frustration at trying to get this thing off of the ground and going and how for African-American indie film—indie film in general is such a small slice of the industry—and African-American indie film seems even more so, so it was really important for her to push this and get this going.

SRW: And get people to not just see it that way. As if our films are cheaper and not as good. I think that, especially since this is such a simple film, like any other indie would be, at Sundance or something like that, it really got such a good reception because of that.

FSM: Any final thoughts about “I Will Follow” or the DVD release?

SRW: We did a very good job of getting the word out to people to get out and see the film those first few days and I think that it’s important with the DVD release that people get out there and buy it immediately, because it will show the industry that we are interested in films like this. And the only way they know is by money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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