Dream Career: Filmmaker
Hometown: Queens, NY
WISE WORDs: "I think the image of black women is very powerful and that it always has been. That's why I love movements like #BlackGirlMagic and Black Girls Rock because they are part of our evolution. This is also why the Black Girls Unscripted movement is so important. It's sending a message that says 'wake up.' And black women and girls are waking up to their power, potential, and the value of their voices in the world..."
Storytelling, when it's done with purpose and with
the right intentions, holds a mirror up to each of us.
A very powerful and necessary thing...
- Marishka Phillips
A new USC study found that only 4% of all directors across the 1,000 top-grossing films during the past decade were female – that’s 24 males to every one female director–with only three of the films directed by black women. And while we've seen the rise of a handful of incredibly talented black women behind the camera over the years, it is clear that Hollywood remains an old boy’s network. As a result, more black women filmmakers are opting to forgo the traditional conventions of Hollywood, choosing the independent film route instead.
Enter powerhouse, Marishka Phillips. She is equal parts writer, actor, director, and acting coach (she also founded the Marishka Phillips Theatrical Preparatory in 2011). Practically born into show business, this New York native is passionate about her craft. She believes that stories have the power to heal and she takes this mission seriously as she works to complete her latest film project, Melinda.
Check out Marishka's interview below as she talks about what drew her to filmmaking, the healing power of storytelling, how she got so many awesome actors on board her project (hint: relationships are key!) and what she has in store for us next.
Where did you grow up? Any Interesting facts about your upbringing?
I'm a native New Yorker and I was practically born into show business. My mother is actor Sandra Reaves-Phillips - she played Mrs. Powers (the music teacher) on Lean on Me. She also did musicals and theater. She was pregnant with me while she was recording, so folks like to joke and say that I was in a womb of influence. Just watching her process her work intrigued me. Seeing a production go from the first day of rehearsal to opening night was powerful for me. Then, at the age of eight, my mom realized that I could sing, so she started having me udition at local community theater. At the age of 13, I had my first professional show and I never look back.
What sparked your interest in becoming a filmmaker?
Well, I’ve been a storyteller and question-asker since I can remember. During my time as an acting coach, students would ask, “Can you coach me?” That would eventually lead to, “Can you direct my short film?” This was great because I always wanted to direct. I had stories of my own to tell, I just didn’t know how it would come to be. So I took a writing class to hone my writing skills. I also took a directing class. Anytime I wanted to learn something new, I took a new class or workshop to help me. I like to learn what I want to know then enhance it with experience. It really all came together pretty organically.
I love the filmmaking process; although it definitely has its ups and downs. It's like a battle where you come up against so many obstacles. Sometimes those obstacles are within your own camp. But I absolutely love being on set and the interactions between me and the actors.
Tell us about your film, 'Melinda.' What was the inspiration behind its launch?
It’s a suspense thriller inspired by my performance in Medea (by Euripides) at the National Black Theater. It’s a play that takes place in Greece about a woman who killed her children out of revenge when her husband left her for a younger woman. We did twelve shows and after every show, I was so disturbed by the ending and constantly wished I could change it. It sat on my spirit even after the show was finished. But my curiosity about Filicide –the deliberate act of a parent killing their own child – was also peaked, so I started researching it more.
Around this time there was also a rash of parents killing their kids. Each time I heard about it, it upset me. I always kept going back to Medea as a reference, so I decided to put this into a modern day story of how it could happen to one woman. The way I’ve written it, there are many lessons in terms of infidelity and holding true to your vows. The film also sheds a light on childhood abuse and the importance of self-love. It's filled with a variety of elements.
So you've got some pretty phenomenal actors on board your film project. What was that process like?
I’m still auditioning, but I do have some incredible actors so far! Lechonce, who plays the lead, Melinda, won the Tony for the first Color Purple on Broadway and she is incredible. She and I have known each other for years. She read it and immediately said yes. I taught Terri Vaughn while in Atlanta, so we already had a relationship. When I started writing the scipt, Terri popped into my head. She read it and loved it. Monifah and I have been working together since 2011. I trust her with this character, Hannah, who is the overseer. Tara Wallace came to me recently as a student. She read the full script and decided she wanted to sign on. I met Lillias White, who starred as Fat Annie on the Netflix series, The Get Down, on the Broadway circuit, When I got to the priestess, I just saw her in the role. I reached out to her and she told me to let her know when I was ready.
It's blessings like these that make me extremely grateful. To have people of this caliber belive in the story enough, to trust me to direct them, and their willingness to help me bring this story to life. I can't find enough words to express the feeling.
Where are you in the filmmaking process? How can we support your work?
Well, we're in pre-production now. Still casting and hiring the crew. The next phase will be production. We've launched a GoFundMe account, so one of the biggest ways to support us is by donating to our fundraiser. We’re getting closer to our goal - only $6000 more to get us to the next phase - so please go and donate! Also, helping to spread the word in your social media spaces is hugely helpful. You can find us on Twitter, Instagram and on Facebook
Wearing so many hats must be stressful. What's your self-care routine?
My mornings are very important to me. This is how I collect myself together. I stretch, I meditate, I read scripture, I journal at least three pages a day. I listen to my gospel music and fill my spirit for the day so that no matter what kind of energy is around me, I'm in a good place. Then I set my mind that I’m in service and I go about my way.
Growing up, who were the women that inspired you the most?
First up is Sheryl Lee Ralph. My mother took me to see her in Dream Girls for my sweet 16. Even though I had already been performing and studying, seeing her really made me want to be on Broadway someday. I started taking dance classes four days a week, hired a vocal coach, I was all in!
When I was in California, I did the last two seasons of A Different World, and watching Debbie Allen really inspired me. The way she commanded the actors and the set, I knew I wanted to direct. I went to school for directing while I was on the show and I definitely wouldn't have the knowledge about directing if I hadn’t been watching Debbie.
And of course there's my mentor, Susan Batson. She's an actress, author, and acting coach. In 2002, after touring Europe, I returned home, started taking acting classes and was introduced to Susan. She was an incredible teacher and I knew I wanted to do the same thing. And she encouraged me to do it! I got a chance to fill in for a teacher in 2006 and I’ve been teaching ever since. There were many things I learned from Susan, but one of the most important things she taught me was to approach this art with absolute humility.
You seemed to have benefited greatly from your relationships with mentors. How impactful were those relationships?
The mentee-mentor relationship is really like a piece of clay being molded into a beautiful piece of work. It may be intimidating or uncomfortable to be handled and stretched. It's hard to be vulnerable and put your trust in someone. But it really is a molding process. Mentors help mold you into your greatness. They truly inspire you to be your best self.
Reflecting back, what advice would you give your 13-year-old self?
The first piece of advice would be that it's okay to trust again. The second thing would be to listen to your elders more. My great-grandmother lived with us until she passed. She tried to tell me things, and of course I wouldn't listen. But in retrospect, I should have listened more. And the last thing I would say is don't be afraid to speak up.
If you had to give your life story a title, what would it be?
It would be entitled Tenacity. Once I put my mind to something, I'm all in. I wake up every day with vigor, that 'what am I going to do today to get closer to my dream today' kind of attitude.
So what's up after 'Melinda? '
I've already started on another project called Charlie. It's about another amazing black woman who left the police force after tiring of the corruption. She decides to become a private investigator and her crusades take her to very interesting places and cultures. Stay tuned!
In the film, we get to take a voyeuristic look
at that moment when a woman suspects
her significant other, her husband, her man
is stepping out and what she does or doesn’t do to figure it out and keep her family together.
- Marishka Phillips
Black Girls Unscripted
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