"Slate!” One word that changed everything for Shelia Wofford.
“I wanted to make a living being an actor. It was always a dream and I had done theater for years. When I finally realized that was what I really wanted to do I thought I was going to start auditioning just like that! I went online and saw that they were auditioning for this huge film called ‘Connected’. I knew I could do it! It was an African-based film and I had the dialect down, ready to audition for the role of the queen,” Shelia insists.
In front of a panel of eight, Shelia heard the man behind the camera yell, “Slate!”
Shelia just stood there smiling, waiting to begin. “I thought he was calling somebody ‘Slate’. The ladies up front are looking at me and he said it again. I stood there like a deer in the headlights and finally a lady, realizing that I had no clue what ‘slate’ meant, said, ‘He means for you to say your name and what role you are reading for’… it taught me that I didn’t prepare myself. There is a transition from theater to film that I didn’t know at that time,” Shelia admits.
Mary Moses, Shelia’s mother, would watch her young daughter play with her friends as they acted out the roles of television shows or performers, such as Dianna Ross. Her father, Willie J. Moses, was a reverend and just recently passed away. She grew up with siblings Angela McGee, Michael Moses and Andrea Jackson.
“I wanted to be a dancer - a creative dancer,” Shelia says. “I trained with Joyce Fletcher when I was young. My dream was to go to the School of Performing Arts in New York. That was just a dream. But back in the 70s when you are living in a blue collar city like Chattanooga your parents can’t see you going after your dream. You are to get a good job so you can work and pay the bills,” Shelia insists.
And then Shelia experienced a pivotal moment when she knew what she really wanted to do. In 1984, Shelia attended Michael Jackson’s victory tour in Knoxville.
“I remember that it was so packed! I remember he was on stage and we were all screaming. What got me was - while he was singing… when he looked into the camera it was as if every word was personally to you. I thought, ‘Look at how he is touching all these people. I can do that!’ That changed my life knowing that I really wanted to get into acting, stage and performing.”
She went to Chattanooga State and took acting classes at UTC and also classes at the Chattanooga Theater Center.
“I had to learn that with theater, we are always projecting but with film it is all subtle and you have to ‘bring it back’,” Shelia avers. “It has to be more emotional but also more subtle. People have to see that emotion in my eyes and not my voice like I do on stage.”
Theater is Shelia’s background but she also enjoys film. “You learn in theater. You have to perform live in theater. In film, you can ‘cut’ and have a few ‘takes’… you can’t do that on stage in front of a live audience.
“Most of my work is in Atlanta. I will be cast for a film and I learn my lines. They tell me when I will shoot and what day - you know it, you do it and you get it over with. Done. With theater, we rehearse from let’s say, January to May and you put so much more time into it. I can knock out five films against one play. So in that sense, I love film, but theater--- there is nothing like a live audience!” Shelia exclaims.
Shelia is probably considered a ‘fan-atic’ of the King of Pop.
"I have always loved Michael Jackson. I have the gold glittery jacket, the socks, the glove, fedora – all of that. I had a professional seamstress sew everything to the exact detail that I wanted. Every Halloween I am Michael Jackson. After he died, the Rave Theater did a premiere at midnight of ‘This is It’ before they actually showed it. I had it all together - I was coming to that premier as Michael. I had it down to the detail!” Shelia laughs.
“My friend Casper Mann said that we should go the way Michael went around when he was out – with the entourage and Elizabeth Taylor and the umbrellas. So we did. Well, when we got out of the car, people were pointing and staring – and keep in mind, we’re actors! We played the characters!”
The manager of the Rave came up to the eccentric group and Sheila recalls him saying, “I have some people that want to take pictures with you. Would that be ok?”
At first, Shelia and her friends thought he was coming to kick them out. With delight she agreed to oblige the other fans in the theater. “We did that - as if we were celebrities!” Shelia laughs and, with a serious note she confides, “But I felt like it was something I had to do for Michael, as I grieved his passing and this was a way to honor him in my mind.”
Shelia has been married 22 years to Sam Alvin Wofford Jr. and they have a 16-year-old son who is the III but they call him Trey. Trey is also an actor. He has performed many times at his school, Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences, and also in his church drama productions at Living Stones Ministry. He has also been in the film ‘Double-Sided’ with his mother; a film with Robin Givens. Shelia says that Sam and Trey are her biggest supporters.
Trey wants to perform with the Chattanooga Theater Center but Shelia says it will take a lot of commitment. She esteems CTC and says, “George Quick (director/actor) is amazing, I love the people down there. They have great quality plays and the best training you will ever get!”
Shelia’s first award was for Best Featured Actress in the 2010 theater performance, “The Crucible”. In which she received a big writeup. “I didn’t have a main role, but it was a powerful role,” she says of her character Tituba.
In 2011 she received the Miss Annie Award/Best Supporting Actress in “Blues for Mr. Charlie”.
“My mentor is Hope Alexander, she is an instructor at CTC and she directed ‘Blues for Mr. Charlie’ and then also Karl Gardner, who is a part of Destiny Theater Company in Atlanta. He has done so much in Hollywood and has done a lot of Tyler Perry stuff. He told me to submit for the part I ended up getting in Tyler Perry’s ‘Meet the Browns’,” Shelia said.
“You have to start small. You can’t walk out of Chattanooga and have a big role. You have to start here and be extras and sometimes for no money just for the exposure . You work your way up - unless you know Steven Spielberg or something. I don’t know those people, so I have to work hard to train, network and bust my behind,” Shelia declares.
She says, “I had met Tyler (Perry) when he came here to the Tivoli and I had backstage passes, but Kim Fields (Facts of Life fame) and her mother directed ‘Meet the Browns’.”
Shelia’s favorite actor is Tom Hanks, with whom she shares the same birthday. “I started liking him when he did films like ‘Philadelphia’ and my favorite one was ‘Cast Away’,” Shelia says.
“In the frame of the island where he was all alone and he didn’t really talk for a long time - yet his expressions - he was such a genius! For maybe 35 minutes or more he said nothing and I thought that was the most honest and most precious part of the film as he conveyed things to the audience.” Shelia says with tears in her eyes.
Morgan Freeman is also a favorite for Shelia. “He didn’t get started until later and that is a connection I feel with him because, in my ignorance… I broke all the rules,” she confesses, “in the business you just don’t hunt a director down and you don’t start out at 45… but I did it anyway.”
Frank Dievbiere’s film “Redemption 316” was a very physical role for Shelia. “I had to push myself the hardest in that one. I played a gang leader in prison; the language was so raw - a character unlike myself, I had to show my dominance. I ran that prison, that was my prison,” Shelia emphasizes.
“With such language, I had a few of my Christian friends question me about acting that type of character and being a Christian. But an actor has to carry the truth. You can’t portray something and not tell the truth in what you are doing. Otherwise, everyone is going to know we are acting – and we want to pull you into it. It is the person who is watching who has the responsibility to separate the two,” Shelia declares.
When recently shooting the local film for a web series called “The Scent of Lavender” by Tom Goddard, Shelia describes how she challenged a part in the script. “I was playing this woman who was a juror of the trial of a call girl who allegedly murders her clients. My character had seen a credit card bill with a charge to that company she was hearing about. Now… she ain’t no fool,” Shelia waves her finger. “Her husband’s habits have changed, he’s coming home late, she calls his cell phone AND he doesn’t answer …and in the script, I was to ask him, ‘what is going on?’ Now, a white woman may respond differently, so I went to him and said, ‘Look, if I found this out, I would have a different reaction than what is written’.”
Shelia demonstrates and yells out, “I am not a fool! I know what you’re doing! Oh no! It’s not happening like that! I called you at 8 o’clock and you did not answer your phone and I already called your friend – he told me you weren’t with him!” Shelia comes out of character and laughs, “That is how we would react but the script said to do something a little different… and I knew I wouldn’t react that way – so Tom said, ‘Ok, let’s see what you give us’.”
Shelia has a big project coming up in July, a film called “Honor Among Thugs,” that will be in local theaters. It is about musicians who are very talented but get caught up in the street life and end up using their music to get out.
“I play the mother of the family. Again, it’s very raw language – but it’s based on a true story and we’re portraying truth. James Reece is the producer and he told a great story, very honest,” Shelia says.
The rising star has done so much in such little time why was she not also a part of the Movie 42 partially filmed in Chattanooga? “I was asked by so many people about being an extra in that but with having two agencies and getting paid for what I do now, I can’t go backward. I have to continue to have speaking roles from now on, in order to keep moving forward. It was a business choice.”
What is next for Shelia?
“My son Trey is a senior. Once he graduates, I am thinking about relocating to Georgia. I may just get a little apartment down there and commute. I want to make bigger connections and will eventually have to make a decision whether to go to LA. But really, everything seems to be coming to Atlanta. All the work from Los Angeles has been coming to Atlanta. A lot of things are moving here; we have cheaper taxes, cheaper rates, and a lot of production houses… people don’t always have to relocate. My dream goal is to do a film with Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman and, of course, Denzel Washington,” Shelia says.
What advice would Shelia give herself 20 years ago?
“You can do it. You have a talent to do it. I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to go to New York and dance; I was told I couldn’t do it. I don’t want to be 80 years old in a rocking chair thinking, ‘If I had only made that move’ – No.” Shelia says, “I got tired of people telling me ‘no’.”
IMDB Actors Database for Shelia Wofford www.imdb.com/name/nm4558046/