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HBO’s new go-to director used to feel ‘replaceable.’ Not anymore

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A woman in an orange suit poses in her home
Actor-turned-director Salli Richardson-Whitfield at home in Los Angeles. Richardson-Whitfield has worked two buzzy HBO series that have aired this year: “The Gilded Age” and “Winning Time.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

It’s after hours at the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility, and Magic Johnson is alone on the darkened court, practicing the skyhook, the signature weapon of team captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When the veteran star spots Johnson, he grudgingly gives the rookie a private lesson, demonstrating how the skyhook is not just another shot but a way to elevate above opponents and “the world.”

Suddenly the quiet is broken by a shout of “Cut!” Salli Richardson-Whitfield jumps off her director’s chair and approaches Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes, the two actors portraying Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, respectively, in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” about the Showtime era of the 1980s Lakers. The three, along with a whole crew, were on a soundstage at Los Angeles Center Studios, where much of the docudrama, which premiered in early March, was filmed.

After a few minutes, Richardson-Whitfield returns to her chair and announces another take: “OK, let’s make some magic! This is going to be great.” Isaiah and Hughes resume the scene under Richardson-Whitfield’s close scrutiny.

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After pursuing an acting career that landed her roles in films such as “Posse” and “A Low Down Dirty Shame,” Richardson-Whitfield switched gears and is now making her mark on TV as a producer and director of major prestige projects. Directing the two climactic episodes of “Winning Time” — a project that has attracted both praise and scorn — is just the tip of the iceberg in what has been a banner year.

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She was an executive producer and director on HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” about late 19th century New York. The period drama from Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), which stars Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Nixon, has already been renewed for a second season.

And she is developing “Motherland Bounce,” an HBO Max comedy based on the life of Hasidic rapper Nasim Black. The project is part of Richardson-Whitfield’s overall deal with HBO.

Although her schedule is jam-packed, Richardson-Whitfield is not complaining.

“For the first time, I don’t feel replaceable,” she said in an interview last week from her Chatsworth home she shares with her husband, actor Dondre Whitfield (“Queen Sugar”), and their two children.

Basketball players in Celtics and Lakers uniforms stretch for a tipoff
Tim Soergel and Solomon Hughes in “Winning Time.”
(Warrick Page/HBO)

“As an actress, and as a Black actress, you can feel replaceable,” she continued. “Although there have been initiatives in the industry to hire more women and people of color, you don’t get these kinds of shows if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s not a fluke. I know I may check some boxes, but I know they’re calling me because people love my work. And that feels good.”

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Since leaving acting behind, she has collected a wealth of credits showcasing her wide creative range, directing episodes of “Scandal,” “Luke Cage,” “The Punisher,” “Chicago Med,” “black-ish” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Richardson-Whitfield and Tanya Hamilton were the sole female directors on “Winning Time,” which is crammed with bold physical action and incidents of men behaving badly. Each directed two episodes. The producers wanted to project a different perspective on the aggressive male behavior on and off the court.

“You always have to balance sensibilities, and just because it’s a testosterone-driven environment doesn’t mean that a woman can’t do a good job there,” said executive producer Rodney Barnes.

The series, which features a top-notch cast including John C. Reilly and Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Sally Field, has sparked controversy for its depictions of real-life figures such as NBA icon Jerry West, who has demanded a retraction for what he calls a “cruel” and “deliberately false” portrayal of himself. West, who is played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, is depicted as a hot-tempered, moody team executive prone to temper tantrums and foul language.

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The final stretch of the Lakers’ 1979-80 championship run is chronicled in Sunday’s “Acceptable Loss” and next week’s season finale, “Promised Land.” In both episodes, Richardson-Whitfield has to handle likely the most challenging phase of the Lakers’ journey, re-creating both frantic game action and more intimate scenes, such as Spencer Haywood’s drug-fueled breakdown.

“Salli was the closer,” said Barnes. “There were so many emotional beats we had started in the beginning of the season that were finally coming to an end. There is a balance between finding a satisfying sports-themed ending along with closing out a lot of character beats while still leaving it open-ended enough for Season 2.”

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Barnes worked with Richardson-Whitfield on the Starz fantasy-action series “American Gods”: “Salli came in and did an incredible job under difficult circumstances. So when we were pitching directors, her name immediately came to mind. She not only knew L.A. culture, but Lakers culture.”

Richardson-Whitfield spoke to The Times about the controversy around the series, keeping A-listers in line and “making up for lost time.”

A woman in an orange suit poses in her home.
“I’m not a shrinking violet,” says producer/director “Salli Richardsom-Whitfield. “When I get on a set, at a certain point you’re going to know not to mess with me.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The year’s not half over, and you’ve already had these two big series.

It’s funny. Every time you do a show, you think it’s the biggest one you’ve ever done. When I was doing “The Gilded Age” with the horses and the carriages and the time period, that felt big. And then I went to the Lakers. It was even harder. I have much more basketball in my episodes than there was in any other episode. Luckily I grew up playing basketball. I don’t know how I could have tackled those scenes without having some basketball IQ.

What was your biggest challenge with “Winning Time”?

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I didn’t want those basketball scenes to be something you could watch on old footage. It was, ‘How do we make this exciting, but feel fresh?” A lot of that was getting in there and telling the narrative of it. The part that people don’t get to see: the eye contact between players, what’s happening in the huddle, what’s going on in Magic’s eyes when he’s about to take it over. Once we got over that hump, I knew we were good.

I was on set for the scene where Kareem is teaching Magic the skyhook, and you did it over and over again. You seemed to have a very specific vision of the scene, which only takes a few minutes.

In general, I don’t stop any scene until I feel it in my gut. I loved the bonding of those two guys. In a lot of TV shows, you don’t see Black men helping each other and supporting each other. When I have an opportunity to do scenes like that, I take care with them. A lot of times on shows, it’s about sports, sports, sports. And when you get a moment to sit and be still and just be about two characters, I think it’s important to get that right.

There’s been a lot of criticism about the way some characters have been depicted. Jerry West has demanded a retraction, and there are a lot of people, including players, who support him and are not pleased.

I feel sorry for all the people who feel it’s not the way they’d like to be portrayed. I know that the showrunners are Lakers fans and have done a lot of research into this and want to get it right. But at the end of the day, it’s not a documentary. It’s a biopic. That’s all I can really say about it. I just feel bad for all parties. I think that everyone was trying to honor them.

There’s so much going on with you right now. Did you ever imagine reaching this height?

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Listen, I’m 54 years old. I’ve been doing this a long time, as far as [being] in the business. Relatively new as a director. Once I realized this is what I’m here to do — that after 30 years of acting, I needed to be a director — I knew I had to hit the ground running. I’m making up for lost time.

When you were making your transition from acting, did you encounter resistance or skepticism?

You know, you always feel it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Black, or because I’m a woman. But I find a way to get people on my side. I’m not a shrinking violet. When I get on a set, at a certain point you’re going to know not to mess with me [laughs]. I’m serious. Within the first few setups of a show, everyone sees that you know what you’re doing, or you don’t know what you’re doing. Once they see you know what you’re doing, people leave you alone.

On both “The Gilded Age” and “Winning Time,” you’re in charge of elite talent, A-listers, and you’re telling them what to do.

I can’t say there aren’t those butterflies in the stomach when you’re first going in. But that’s where my acting comes in and my face betrays nothing. It doesn’t matter who the actor is. You can’t be afraid of them. They can feel that. I have to be able to go in there and give notes. Even if it’s to Sally Field, I have to be able to give notes. What I try to do is be prepared enough so when I come to them, they know I have really thought about this and I’m not asking something crazy.

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