By: T. Felder
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/25/22 – Mary Lou Belli is a two-time Emmy award-winning director and author. For over 30 years she has been the backbone for many of our favorite shows, some of which include NCIS New Orleans, Black Lightning, Bull, Legacies, Station 19, Sweet Magnolias, Monk, Wizards at Waverly Place, Sister Sister, Girlfriends, The Game, and a host of others.
Belli has served two terms as the Co-chair of the Women’s Steering Committee at the DGA where she also has served on the Western Director’s Council, currently sitting on the Leadership Council PAC and as an alternate to the National Board. She is an Honorary Board member of the Alliance of Women Directors and Advisory Board member of Women in Media and a longtime member of Women in Film as well as the Peer Group Executive Committee of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. She has been a judge and guest speaker for CSU’s Media Arts Fest, a judge for the Miss America Outstanding Teen Pageant, a jury member at the Sapporo Short Festival, Newport Beach Film Fest, Regina International Film Festival, and The Voice awards, a lecturer at the Chautauqua Institute, and a panelist for Women in Film, the DGA, SAG, and AFTRA and the LA Times Festival of Books. Belli has taught workshops to thousands of teens and high school theatre teachers. Through her many years of teaching and mentoring, she has been able to support many of the vibrant diversity programs including ABC/Disney, CBS, Sony, HBO Access, AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, and Warner Bros. Directing Workshop mentoring the next generation of directors (imdb.com).
This remarkably busy lady has also found time to co-author four books: “The NEW Sitcom Career Book,” “Acting for Young Actors,” and “Directors Tell the Story” With assistance from fellow DGA member Bethany Rooney. Her 4th book, “Acting for the Screen” was published by Focal Press summer 2019.
THT had the opportunity to interview Mary Lou to discuss her journey through the film industry as well as her recent projects.
THT: How did you get your start in television?
MLB: As a glorified stand in on a sitcom. I was standing in for a teenage girl because we were the same height, but I had just come from New York having had some nice roles as an actress I had experience. Due to me being a minor I could only work limited hours, so I became a coach and stand in. I was doing a lot of acting with the adults on the show some of which approached me to coach them. The show was called Domestic Life and Steve Martin was the executive producer.
THT: So, you started acting from there on out?
MLB: No, I did not start acting professionally until I was at Penn State University. I had been training as a singer and dancer but had never been paid. On the second show when I was a staging assistant, I started observing as a director and that was the first show, I ever directed called Charles in Charge.
THT: So, you were at the university when you made your first directorial debut?
MLB: No, that is when I did my first acting debut. I didn’t have my first directorial debut until I was in Los Angeles having moved from the east coast. I directed some theatre at Theatre West in Hollywood and then I got my first television directing job on Charles in Charge in Los Angeles.
THT: I read that you have directed over 71 plays. Am I correct on that?
MLB: Yes. I have either produced or directed 71 plays.
THT: Aside from being a television director you are also an author. How do the two differ?
MLB: Writing is a solitary job as opposed to when I am directing a tv show where I have 100’s of people that I am supervising. There’s a limited number of interactions with all the cases in which I authored my books. There’s four of them the first three I co-authored Phil Ramuno (sitcom book), Dinah Lenny (children’s acting book), Bethany Rooney (directing book).
THT: Do you prefer one over the other?
MLB: I love them both, but I would say the writing follows the directing. Directing has always been the dream and I feel fortunate and blessed to be doing it on a regular basis. A lot of the writing has been informed by the work I do as a director because all my books are books about the show business industry and the knowledge I’ve acquired while being a director and acting coach.
THT: Where can those books be found?
MLB: On Amazon.
THT: What’s the most memorable project you’ve ever worked on?
MLB: I did seven years on NCIS New Orleans and the first episode I did, which cemented them invited me back was called the Genesis episode where two characters met during Hurricane Katrina. That episode really informed my love of New Orleans and gave me knowledge of what the people went through and survived. It holds an incredibly special place in my life. On top of that I got to work with the talented cast and writers on the show.
Recently, there’s a show on Netflix called Sweet Magnolias, it was lovely to work on a show where kindness ruled. Everyone was respectful and kind, I do believe that generosity of spirit shows on the screen.
I had a directing student who gave me a beautiful piece of quartz that I keep in the pocket of my directing coat and if anything gets too tense, I put my hand in my pocket and hold on to it.
THT: What challenges have you faced being a woman in the entertainment industry and a director?
MLB: There was an instance where I joined the same talent agency as a male counterpart, having done similar shows, the number of interviews he got so outweighed the opportunity laid at my feet, but if I would have concentrated on that or let it stand in my way I would not be where I am today. And where I am at today is a person who advocates for other directors. Advocacy is one of the most important things I do right now outside of being a director for hire. The number especially in episodic television has change drastically for women and I am so proud to be part of an industry and particularly the Directors Guild of America which has been at the forefront of these programs, because of a negotiation the Directors Guild made with the studios and networks who were willing and excited to start diversity programs, serving the underserved and as a result we have seen a huge swing in numbers, some better than others in terms of diverse groups, I am thrilled that I have been a part of that and lived to see it. A little anecdote, during one of my last years as a teacher at the USC school of cinematic arts the number of director/producers graduating from that school was 51% women and at that time it wasn’t anywhere near how women were being represented in the business and I can say within very recent years there has been a huge amount of opportunity for women.
THT: Do you have any new projects in the works?
MLB: I have optioned a set of books by an award-winning crime writer, and I have been taking it out and trying to sell it as a television series. I am very happy with the complete knowledge and excitement by the author when I suggested to change one of the characters from a Caucasian to someone black and I must say that it made the story so relevant. It’s been greeted with high praise when I’ve been out pitching it with the team, I assembled to do this with me. God willing I’ll sell it and it will be on the air!
THT: Do you have any other books coming out?
MLB: I have another book that is out at a publisher right now, it’s kind of a companion book for to my Acting for Young Actors book because it’s a book about when my son auditioned for college programs and had to find material relevant to him as a teen, there was a lack of plays out there that had great roles for teens. So, I developed the book based on my teaching experience. It is really an exercise book to teach young actors and give them original material that is completely relevant to their experience as teens and shows a lot of diverse voices, so that it will be relatable to people that want to work professionally or just study acting for the sheer joy and amazing rewards it brings.
THT: Where can our readers find you? And are you on social media?
MLB: Yes, maryloubelli.com and I am on Facebook and Twitter. Most of my Facebook work is advocacy, just trying to show people that there are opportunities if you know where to look.
THT: Anything else you would like to add to the interview?
MLB: Yes, I am currently working as the producing director on season 3 of a show on BET+ called The Ms. Pat Show.