MEET ALISON MILLS NEWMAN: Alison Mills Newman is a film director, film producer and an actress who began her career during childhood when she made history, acting in Julia, America’s first TV series that starred an African American woman. Alison has also written, directed and produced films such as The Tree Widow which was released in 2015. This artistic dynamo has worked with legends such as Diahann Carroll, Maya Angelou and Leslie Uggams. She’s open and candid and inspiring. Find out what she’s up to now.
WMI: As a child did you dream of growing up and acting in movies? If not, what did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
AMN: When I was about twelve years old, I simply saw a TV series called Peyton Place, starring Mia Farrow, and I decided that I wanted to act. I was able to connect the make believe pretending I would do when it rained, or while I was in my bathroom or bedroom at night or whenever I was alone, as acting. I connected the two experiences. Eventually that that connection led me to acting in movies, especially as I grew up watching great films like Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon, or a film with Betty Davis. Those old great movies, with great stories, great acting and great cinematography were powerful. The movies usually had a moral to them. Eventually, I wanted to be in movies as an actress, not any movies, but great movies.
WMI: Where did you go to school and what was your major? How have you been able to leverage what you learned in college as an actress and as a book and screenplay writer and major motion picture producer?
AMN: I went to college later in life, earning a Bachelor’s in Theology, at the age of fifty, after my husband passed away. I had also raised my children and helped them get through college. Originally, I got a scholarship at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. I also studied for four years at the American Theatre of Being under the direction of Frank Silvera. While there, I worked on a play of African American poetry, starring alongside Maya Angelou, Beah Richards and Dick Anthony Williams. I also understudied in James Baldwin’s play, The Amen Corner.
I was exposed to great literature and great artistic and intellectual thinking. I was also introduced to the great American playwrights, both black and white. In acting school, we were required to do scenes from plays. So, I even played Juliet to a Caucasian Romeo, I played Oletha in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The depth and breathe of the culture that I had to digest became a part of me. Imagine at the age of twelve being exposed to such great writers and actors. I loved to read. I was already a poet and song writer. I grew up writing songs on my mother’s grand piano. So, my education was on hands. I met these people, lived with these people and travelled in plays. I met James Baldwin. I met Paul Newman when we were travelling and doing plays in Arizona. Frank Silvera had done a movie with Paul Newman, I think. It was a great political time as well with the Civil Rights Movement and a real celebration of recognizing humanity in all its fullness and diversity
WMI: As a child, you acted on the historic television shows, Julia and The Leslie Uggams Show. What was it like working with Diahann Carroll and Leslie Uggams? I remember Julia. I think it was the first American TV show that starred an African American actress. It must be exciting to be a part of history!
AMN: Julia….Yes, it is amazing being a part of television history. I am still amazed when I see my name in history books. I think it has more to do with God and His plans for our lives and how He engineers things and events and circumstances….to God be the glory!
In any case, yes; I got the part of Carol Deering. The first year of the TV show, I was the babysitter and a regular cast member. It was pretty amazing to be on such a pioneering positive TV show, and working with Diahann Carroll was, of course, the gift that kept giving. I was already exposed to fantastic, powerful, lovely, black women — Beah Richards, Maya Angelou my mother — when you grow up around greatness it’s not that you take it for granted, it’s just that you are a part of it, It is required, I suppose, to be your best God created self…during that time I also think that was a goal and desire of black actors to be great, to do their very best to represent our people in a way that celebrated our brilliance and humanity…..so it was fun….
Diahann was, of course, elegant and regal and, oh, so professional. There was always peace on the set. We came and did our work, our lines. We laughed. We did parades together, riding on the back of cars and stuff…like the Watts Parade in TV Guide. The whole TV life was our life. I hung out at Diahann Carroll’s house, met her daughter, saw her private life.
She’s a lovely human being who happens to be an actress. These people are just people….and Leslie Uggams — I adore her. She was so generous and kind to me. We had a ball on The Leslie Uggams Show. I hung out a lot at Leslie’s house. She took me in, I ate at her house. Sometimes the whole cast did. I ate pigs’ feet for the first time in my life at her house in the Hollywood Hills. Just great people, beautiful people.
Inspiration for African American Actress to Create Better Films
WMI: When and why did you found Keep The Faith Films and Ministries?
AMN: I gave my life to Christ and my life was transformed. It was no longer my way. But, a yielding took place in me. A kind of separation from the world and its way and all that it had filled me up with….and a cleansing taking place. It’s still a daily process, everyday. But, initially it was just that huge surrender, that acknowledgement of God the Creator and salvation through Jesus Christ, the door, the truth and the way and the life when I got saved. I didn’t think about acting or writing or singing much. It was all about winning souls and wanting to introduce people to Jesus in the hopes they would see the beauty of the righteousness of God. What God did for me, I was compelled to share with others. So Jesus became my first love and ministry was of most importance. I forsook Hollywood basically.
I got married and had five beautiful children. I spent that portion of my life serving God through ministry with my husband and raising our children to be good citizens. Our children became my art and works of art and I enjoyed raising them. Then, as time went on and the process progressed, my late husband, who was also an evangelist and pastor ,began to sense that God was calling him to make movies. He had made documentaries for PBS. Eventually we produced Virgin Again which won an Honorary Mention Award at the International Philadelphia Film Festival. He passed away and I moved to Atlanta. I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to continue making movies, to continue to act through faith based films, to extend ministry into the arts, which, since childhood, had been a great gift and love of mine. I am passionate about film making. It is a way to incorporate ministry, message and the gifts and experience and expertise that I have been given.
WMI: Tell us about a major challenge you faced in starting your business, especially since much of your early development in the arts was as an actress. Also tell Write Money Incorporated visitors what steps you took to overcome this challenge.
AMN: The major challenge would be money; money remains the challenge. It may get easier. As the years have gone by, I have made connections with distribution companies. The films are commercially rewarding. Now is a great time to make faith based films. Years ago, there were not so many of us who wanted to do films about Christ or the word of God. Now, there are so many faith based films and so much growth.
WMI: What’s the title of the first independent movie you produced and what was that early movie making experience like?
AMN: The first independent film I was executive producer on was Virgin Again. The movie was screened on Robert Townsend’s late Black Family Network. The Tree Widow was screened on AIB.tv here in Altanta. It got a distribution deal even though it was a short.
When we first started talking to Hollywood about our concept, they thought we were crazy and impossible. We.conceived a black Jesus in modern times. You can still purchase Virgin Again at amazon.com,or Barnes and Noble. Nobody would listen. Nobody would even consider it. The cast is interracial. We placed the Bible in modern times. We didn’t tamper with the word of God. We kept it as close as we could in modern style. We hustled to make that movie and we prayed. Dick Anthony Williams signed on to star in the film. You realize that some of the visions that you have will not be received by the mainstream. For that reason, independent filmmaking is wonderful. I would love to have a screening of Virgin Again at a theatre in memory of my late husband’s work.
WMI: Have your movies which you created as a director, producer and actress appeared at film festivals, and if so, which film festivals? Also, why is it important to debut or show films at these and other festivals?
AMN: Virgin Again was at the Cannes Film Festival. E Entertainment interviewed us and did a story about us on their TV station a few years ago. Our interview ran on E Entertainment for two weeks. Virgin Again has been screened at the Pan African Film Festival, Motor City Film Festival and the Philadelphia International Film Festival. At the Philadelphia International Film Festival, Virgin Again won an honorary mention award.
The Tree Widow short won an award for Best Director of a Short at the Philadelphia International Film Festival and has been screened on AIB.tv here in Atlanta. The short is available alongside Virgin Again at Barnes and Noble and amazon.com. The feature film was screened at the Milledgeville Film Festival and the Garden State Film Festival in New Jersey. We got a standing ovation in New Jersey. Word of mouth really worked at the Milledgeville Film Festival here in Georgia.
I think film festivals are important for any director or cast. Film festivals are great opportunities to have your film seen and to experience the reactions to your film with an audience. It’s a great help in many ways and often there are distributors around who are looking for films. Film festivals are great places to network. You get a sense that you aren’t alone and that your crazy stories, setbacks and disappointments are not unique. You also get chances to share the victories and joys of film making with peers. The entire process of film making is strengthening and can make you grow as a person.
WMI: To grow a business, you have to find and engage your target audience. That said, what strategies do you use to grow your businesses?
AMN: Growing an audience is easier today. There is great help via the Internet, Facebook and direct email. I do a lot of film screenings at churches. Pastors have been good to me, giving me time to share the film and talk about its messages. Churches have been a great advertising opportunity for me. In fact, December 5, the feature film the Tree Widow was screened at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Interviews also play a role in helping to get the word out. I often ask the actors to help advertise and to help market. I think it is important for actors to help market the film and help build the product. Of course, you can pay for PR. But, there is so much that can be accomplished with hard work on your own. Hopefully, the distribution company helps with the promotion and marketing when you get a deal.
WMI: How much capital did you initially invest in your business and how did you raise this initial investment?
AMN: I’m still raising money. I am in need of an investment or business partner. I do the writing, producing and directing, seeing the vision through to the end. I am seeking a business partner who can handle the finances, someone who wants to make a contribution through the arts to bring light to media. My faith based films are not cookie cutter. They are marketable and artistic, intelligent films that have a Christian flow or theme.
WMI: Tell us about the Tree Widow. What is the movie about and who are some of the actors and actresses in the movie? Also, are you an actress who appears in the movie?
AMN: In the Tree Widow, a widow experiences the emptiness and the loneliness of losing her husband, her best friend. She also experiences the temptation of a handsome young man. The word of God says this is the will of God that you abstain from fornication. What will happen? Will this older woman remain strong and not give into the pressure of loneliness and turn from the faith in God that she preaches? Or will she cave? She takes in younger women who are broken from dysfunctional relationships and teaches them truths. I am grateful for all of the actors in the film. I am the actress who plays the lead character in the movie.
WMI: You also produce musical artists like Leaf. What was it like working with Leaf and when will her album be on the market?
AMN: Leaf is a beautiful artist. More importantly, she is a wonderful mother and person. It’s beautiful to see my children grow up and become what they have become. Leaf has been singing since she was four years old. She has enjoyed a lot of success and recognition. She continues to work on her music.
WMI: What other services / products do you offer through Keep The Faith Films and Ministries?
AMN: I am the author of Francisco. It’s my first book. It was written before I got saved. I also have a book titled Maggie Three. A Tree Widow study guide is available at amazon.com. I am finishing up a novel and an autobiography.
WMI: What’s next for Alison Mills Newman? Where would you like to see yourself as an actress, movie director and movie producer — as well as your business — two to three years from now?
AMN: Two or three years from now, I hope to have had a couple of films in movie theatres and a TV series on national television, an offshoot of the Tree Widow feature film. I’m also looking forward to making a movie out of Maggie Three. I’ll keep writing and listening to God.
NOTE: Support The Tree Widow at GoFundMe.com/thetreewidow. Thank you!
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