Neil Whitely knew he wanted to be an actor when he was seven years old, but he didn’t pursue his dreams until his mid-40s when his daughter launched her acting career. Now, with a wide array of notable credits under his belt and the distinction of working with prolific filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on two projects (Nightmare Alley and Pacific Rim), Neil’s living his dream.

Neil recurs on the upcoming second season of the hit drama When Hope Calls as rancher Harley Lawrence. There aren’t many roles for BIPOC actors in period pieces, and, hopefully, the genre continues to diversify. Neil also stars in the new film A Sisterly Christmas as Colton Fisher, slated for next month.

Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Neil about his role in When Hope Calls, his origin story, his favorite part, what else is on the horizon and more. 

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This interview is condensed for clarity.

Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Neil Whitely’s origin story?

Neil Whitely: I knew I wanted to be an actor from the time I was about seven years old, but I kept it a secret for whatever reason. I didn’t think anyone would understand, and I didn’t tell my friends or my parents. It went on the back burner, even though it was always this desire of mine. Then, in my early 20s, I got into the fashion business, and I started a company that I ran successfully for about 25 years.

But one day, my daughter, who was nine years old at the time, came up to me and tugged on my sleeve. I still remember the day. She said, “Daddy, I want to be an actor.” I always maintained that a parent’s main job is to encourage their kids not to be afraid to pursue their dreams. 

Of course, I encouraged her and supported her. Because of her age, she needed to have a guardian with her whenever she was on set. I was that person because I was self-employed and I was available. I found myself in that environment, and I realized that I still wanted to do it all these years later. At that point, I was 46 years old.

I decided I wanted to get training, so I studied for some time. Then, I started auditioning for local theater productions in Toronto, and I got a role in a local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I still remember the opening night. We were on stage before the audience was allowed into the theater. The actors were warming up on stage, and I suddenly got emotional in the middle of warmups.

I realized, at that point, I was 46 years old, and I had waited my entire life for this moment. We did 13 performances with 13 sellout shows and 13 standing ovations. I went to my daughter’s agent at the time and said, “I think I want to pursue this more seriously.” She looked at me, and she said, “Thank God. I was always hoping you would say that one day.” And here I am.

MM: Let’s talk about When Hope Calls, where you’ll be appearing as Harley Lawrence. How did you get involved with the project?

NW: It was your typical story with actors — we get presented with a role and audition for it. Of course, this is during COVID-19. The auditions were all done from home via self-tape, which I love doing.

At the time, it wasn’t in the story that the character was Black, but, of course, as a Black actor, I brought that sensibility to this character because the story took place in 1919. I knew this character was a successful businessman back in that time.

I had to do some research and get into the mindset of what it would take for someone who was an African American back in those times to become successful in business. Because yes, that did happen, but it was still relatively rare. 

What would it take for him to overcome whatever he had to overcome to get to that point? So, I brought that to the character, and I got the role. I’m very excited because I don’t get a lot of chances to do period pieces.

MM: How does Harley fit into the overall narrative for the season?

NW: Well, he’s a rancher in Brookfield. As a rancher, he supplies the local merchants with products they need to sell in their shops. He’s familiar with pretty much all of the townspeople, and he’s mysterious, but he knows a lot of what’s happening behind the scenes.

He doesn’t always let on what he knows, but he gets into other people’s business every once in a while. It makes it interesting and exciting when he’s there because he likes to subtly raise a lot of trouble, and I like that.

Photo of Neil Whitely When Hope Calls

Pictured: Neil Whitely

MM: Do you have a favorite scene from the show?

NW: My first scene, where I appear on the set or on-camera behind a horse-drawn carriage. Because the show is in a Western town, there are a lot of animals — there are horses and cows. I’ve worked with a horse before, and I had to learn to ride a horse for this film.

I fell in love with this horse during the shooting. It was amazing. I had never been on a horse before, never close to a horse. I was a little nervous, but I fell in love with it. When I did the scene, the opening scene for me in When Hope Calls, and I had to work again with the horse, Paul. I returned to that time when I initially fell in love with my first horse. That was a lot of fun. I loved that.

MM: How would you describe this season?

NW: I would have to say wholesome but exciting.

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MM: What can audiences expect from the upcoming season?

NW: I can’t give away too much, but again, there will be some surprises. There will be beloved characters people miss that are reintroduced. There’s action, intrigue, suspense and romance. It’s going to be entertaining, and I can’t wait for people to see it.

MM: You’re also starring in A Sisterly Christmas, which will air next month on OWN. Can you tell me more about this project and how your character Colton Fisher fits into the story?

NW: Well, the story is about two sisters, the Marshall sisters (played by Deborah Joy Winans and Lisa Michelle Cornelius), estranged from each other since the death of their mother. Their aunt Debbie (Marium Carvell), who’s not in the best of health, decides they need to rekindle their sisterly relationship.

She decides to give the two sisters a trip to an exclusive ski resort for Christmas. My character, Colton Fisher, is the owner of the resort. So, the two sisters arrive, and I know what’s going on.

I understand why they’re there because their aunt gives me the heads up. I get involved with trying to help them rekindle their relationship with different things happening during their stay at the resort. Of course, things don’t run smoothly, and some crazy hilarious things occur in the process. It’s a lot of fun.

MM: Out of the projects you’ve worked on thus far, do you have a favorite role?

NW: I would say the role I played in a TV series called The Girlfriend Experience. I played Emery Wright, a bully, and overbearing businessman, and he got what he wanted by intimidating everybody around him.

The reason I say that was probably my favorite isn’t that he was a wonderful person to play, but because out of all the characters I’ve played, he’s the one that’s the most removed from who I am as a person. It was a real challenge to play him.

It was very tough, very tiring, but, in the end, it helped push me to the next level as an actor. It made me realize there’s nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it and focus. To me, that role was significant. 

MM: If you could work with any dream director, who would you choose and why?

NW: I already have — I’ve had the chance, on two occasions, to work with Guillermo del Toro. I worked with him recently in a movie coming out in December called Nightmare Alley, starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and a whole list of people.

He’s fantastic, and the chance to work with him not once but twice was an honor. I won’t forget that. Aside from being a fantastic director, he happens to be a wonderful, down-to-earth guy. I would have to list him as my favorite director at this point.

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MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives looking to get their foot in the door of the industry?

NW: I tend to gravitate toward younger actors who look at me with my gray hair and assume I have a lot of knowledge in this field. I like to tell people that it’s essential to understand why you want to get into this business.

You need to have a love for telling stories, for being an artist, not only coming into it for fame and fortune. The reality is, most actors are regular working people who happen to have a cool job.

It’s a business, first and foremost. If fame and fortune happen, then let that be a bonus. Let that not be the reason you started in the first place because you might end up becoming disillusioned and discouraged.

Make sure you take care of your body because you need good energy to do this job. Make sure you take care of your mind because you need to be mentally tough and resilient.

Make sure you take care of your money because you don’t know how much you’re going to work. You don’t know how often you’re going to work or how frequently the jobs are going to come. You have to make sure you’re as financially independent as possible.

Photo of Neil Whitely When Hope Calls

Pictured: Neil Whitely

MM: Is there anything else on the horizon for you, career-wise?

NW: I plan to continue to do more of what I’m doing. I have a couple of other movies coming out. I mentioned Nightmare Alley, which is in theaters in December. I have a movie called Love and Ice Wine, a Hallmark movie coming out sometime in the spring. We’re going to keep it going.

MM: Have you watched anything interesting during the pandemic?

NW: I think I’ve watched all of Netflix, but, like most people, I found Squid Game fascinating. My wife and I enjoy binge-watching these shows, and I would put Squid Game at the top of that list.

MM: Name your top five favorite films.

NW: One of my favorite films will surprise some folks because it’s one a lot of people don’t know. It’s called The Idolmaker, starring Peter Gallagher and Ray Sharkey.

The Idolmaker is a movie about a down-on-his-luck record producer who decides, in the 50s, to find an anonymous person and turn them into a matinee idol based on their look. Teach them how to sing, how to move on stage and how to become famous. Then, by extension, he would become famous.

You see the changes of this person as he becomes more wealthy and more famous. It’s a fascinating movie. I saw the first Rocky movie in the theater, and I love it because it’s got everything I enjoy. It’s sports-oriented and about a guy overcoming the odds, and it’s a love story. 

The Wizard of Oz, when I was a child, was one of my favorite movies. I grew up before on-demand and before being able to stream anything or watch everything online. We had to wait until this movie came out in theaters, which was only once a year.

On the same theme is Scrooge, the original Scrooge from the 50s, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. That’s a Christmas tradition in my house because my wife grew up watching that movie as a child, and she’s emotionally attached to it. She makes me watch it every Christmas, and it’s become one of my favorites as well. 

For a while, I got into the horror genre. The first Friday the 13th movie was amazing to me. It wasn’t the most technically advanced, of course, like the others; the special effects were more primitive. But at the time, I didn’t know that. I thought it was a fantastic movie. There were so many surprises, twists, and turns, and it was gory and scary and suspenseful. I loved that.

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MM: Neil, thank you so much for chatting with me. I appreciate it!

NW: Thanks, Melody. That was fun!

You can follow Neil on Twitter (@neilwhitely) and Instagram (@neilwhitely). Be sure to catch Season Two of When Hope Calls, premiering on GAC Family on Saturday, December 18, and A Sisterly Christmas, airing Tuesday, December 7 on OWN. 

This interview was originally published on 11/30/21.

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