By Charles Hallman
Second in a multi-part series
Despite her impressive filmography, LisaGay Hamilton humbly points out that her name isn’t a household one.
“I’m an ordinary African American woman,” she told the MSR in a recent phone interview. “Personally I am not exotic looking. I’m not curvaceous… I just have to be really great — really, really good.”
Hamilton nonetheless pointed out that she tries not to take acting jobs “just to make money. I can’t be truthful in those stories. They are intentionally meant not to tell the truth,” she notes.
The New York University and Julliard graduate acting career includes over two dozen films, such as Krush Groove (1985), Jackie Brown (1997), Beloved (1998), True Crime (1999), Honeydripper (2007) and The Soloist (2009). She also twice won the Obie Award for her stage performances in Valley Song (1995-96) and The Ohio State Murders (2007).
Prior to her longest prime-time television stint to date as Rebecca Washington in ABC’s The Practice (1997-2003) came appearances in Homicide: Life on the Street (1993), New York Undercover (1994) and Law & Order (1995), and runs on soap operas All My Children (1994) and One Life to Live (five episodes, 1996).
“I can look back over the seven seasons and the shows that stick out the most, I can’t tell you what they are in particular,” admits Hamilton. “But the shows that stick out the most are the shows that I became most vocal in what my character would not do.” Her character began as a secretary, was then promoted to attorney after her graduation from law school, and later became a partner in the fictional law firm. “It was over politics where I went and fought with [series creator] David Kelley over a word, over a sentence, over a particular viewpoint that a sentence gave,” she continues.
“I can say a couple of episodes of Law & Order SVU (Hamilton thrice appeared as the same character), I fought behind the scenes for truth,” says the actress. “Those are the behind-the-scenes moments that I sometimes say I would love to write a book about.”
She also directed several “Practice” episodes.
“I love directing,” says Hamilton. “The director’s chair is a good fit for me. It was a blast. There’s a loose-fitting strait jacket that all directors in television have to wear because you are obligated to do what the producer wants — it’s the producer/writer medium. There’s a certain tone… you don’t have a lot of artistic freedom. I fought so long and hard to direct an episode. It was just a wonderful experience to have.”
She also co-starred for two years on TBS’ Men of a Certain Age. Hamilton’s latest work is co-starring in Go For Sisters, a John Sayles film released nationally in November.
But it was her time spent with the late Beah Richards that Hamilton proudly admits was a life-changer. She met Richards, who won an Oscar nomination as Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) on the set of Beloved. The two-time Emmy winner often talked to Hamilton about “truth to the text” when it comes to acting.
Hamilton later spent quality time with the late actress, who died two months and two days after her 80th birthday from emphysema in 2000.
“I like to say I gave Beah a gift,” believes Hamilton, “and she gave me a never-ending gift emotionally, personally, tangibly — that probably is one of the most important moments in my life — not only meeting Beah but also shooting that footage and sitting in the editing room. My relationship with Beah was so rich and fulfilling because I could be me with her. We had the same [feelings] on what was right, what was fair and what needed to be done. She was much more successful than I had been [as an actress].”
Those 70-plus hours of conversations between Hamilton and Richards later became Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (2005).
“It was all in the timing,” recalls the actress, who wrote, produced and directed the 2005 Peabody Award winning documentary. “Between her [Richards] knowing that she was dying, to coming to her and saying, ‘Let’s talk’ and actually taping her conversations and put them on camera.”
Hamilton shared producing credit with Jonathan Demme, who directed the two actresses in Beloved, and helped her in funding the film. The only disappointment she expresses is that “Beah” didn’t get any Oscar consideration.
“I couldn’t get the big budget money… but years later, I have students watch that film because their teacher bought the film and they are talking about it in class,” says Hamilton. “I can’t tell you how many people that means but I can brag about that in the best sense.”
Finally, Hamilton fully believes that the Beah documentary “makes me a successful artist,” she concludes. “That’s success. Will we make our money back on the film? We never will. Did I lose money? Yes.”
Next: An interview with actress Yolonda Ross, who co-stars with Hamilton in Go For Sisters
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org