LisaGay Hamilton is present. Present in all the ways you’d expect from a person who trained at the Juilliard School, who has starred in Hollywood films, and who is a mother and woman of color married to a historian and living in Los Angeles.
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Hamilton is widely known for playing Rebecca Washington in the television series THE PRACTICE (1997-2004), earning nominations for an Image Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She played young Sethe in Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s BELOVED. Her theater credits include playing Isabella opposite Kevin Kline in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, the moody comedy that is a Shakespearian play. Hamilton was also an original cast member in two Broadway productions.
Presently, Hamilton is discovering how to balance creating the home life she wants for her children — one emphasizing structure and academic excellence — and nurturing her unique desire to, through art and in her words, “create that experience, which is the truth.” Though she complains that she hasn’t worked as much as she might like lately, Hamilton found the time to brilliantly star as Bernice, a parole officer grown desensitized to reality who rediscovers the importance of connecting with people, in GO FOR SISTERS (a film written and directed by John Sayles.)
Even though GO FOR SISTERS features a beautiful cast of color, including Yolonda Ross, Edward James Olmos, Harold Parrineau, Isaiah Washington and Hector Elizondo, the narrative rarely directly discusses race. Hamilton balks at the suggestion that because it’s little discussed, it’s not a film about race.
“I disagree with that 100 percent. Nothing can be unto itself. You can’t say, ‘There something is’ and not put it in its context. Like, if you have one child and raise him in Bangledesh and you have another child raised in Beverly Hills, there is a context. As a woman of color, everything I do is political,” she says. “I don’t know whether John Sayles set out to write a film about two black women, but it does have two black women in it. Like I think THELMA AND LOUISE is about two white women. I need to understand the world around me to understand the person and understand the truth.”
Hamilton gives insight to her acting intelligence when describing how she connected with the role of Bernice, who is searching for her son who might be facing trouble with the law. Hamilton shadowed a parole officer to prepare and says, “Going to house visits with the officer was sad, tragic and beautiful because the success rate was so low, and it was especially tragic with a parole officer who was a woman because she said she had to emotionally remove herself to some degree.”
Hamilton also connected with the role of Bernice as a mother. “Bernice was a mother in crisis and needed help now, and she knew being in the system would be the end of her Black male child. I happen to be a mother of two boys myself, so I can imagine potentially one of my sons getting into trouble that way; so, that was easy enough,” she said.
Finally, Hamilton connected with the film’s message, in which she and Yolanda Ross play friends who have grown apart after being so close in high school that they could “go for sisters.” She says, “I have those phone girlfriends who live across the country, and you never see each other. The way we nurture those relationships is we talk about our selves and our lives. The idea of being able to give of oneself and receive is ordinary, so to speak.”
Despite her intelligence, beauty, charm, and acting acumen, Hamilton says she is challenged to identify starring roles like Bernice, ones that allow her to stretch her wings. And it seemed difficult she adds, to engage a promoter for the new film, but not based on its quality (which is exceptional — it is a well-written, well-paced and well-acted film). It was difficult to find a promoter to announce the film’s existence at all.
Everyone wants to talk about THE BUTLER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.Here’s a story starring two Black women, and it was hard to find someone willing to promote it in New York.
Hamilton’s advice for bourgeoning actors: “Times are so difficult and crazy now. It’s, I think, impossible to make a living as an artistic person or an actor. I think if you’re lucky enough, if the cosmos are with you in some way, I think you could. But if you are waiting by the phone for someone to call you, the opportunities are few and far between. I would say, go to a four-year college; get a liberal arts degree; learn about academics and the world, and then if you still want to pursue art, do. Of course, some people don’t go to school and are successful.”
Hamilton continued, “But when I was growing up, and I’m raising my kids this way, I was taught you have to be better because you are Black, and you need that piece of paper. Today, college is like high school, you need to go. You need a master’s degree. Go and find that teacher; find that master. I really love Juilliard for what it gave me, the time to hone my skills. I was the only Black student in my class. I never had a Black teacher. But I am really appreciative of the experience it gave me: The opportunity to train the body and the mind to create that experience, which is the truth.”