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Interview

A 'Certain' Something

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A 'Certain' Something
It has been seven years since viewers last saw Lisa Gay Hamilton on ABC's long-running legal drama "The Practice" as attorney Rebecca Washington. Since then, the veteran actor has kept busy, booking films like "The Soloist," "Mother and Child" and the upcoming "Beastly." One of her crowning achievements is her portrayal of young Sethe in Jonathan Demme's 1998 big-screen adaptation of "Beloved," opposite Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Hamilton can now be seen as Andre Braugher's wife, Melissa, on TNT's "Men of a Certain Age," which recently premiered its second season. She stars alongside Ray Romano and Scott Bakula as people dealing with the hardships and realities of middle age.

Hamilton spoke candidly with Back Stage about the lessons she has learned from her time on "The Practice," the project she is most proud of, and acting with Braugher, who was a classmate at Juilliard.

Back Stage: You've done a lot of theater, a lot of film, a lot of TV, and even directed. Is there a medium that you prefer?

Lisa Gay Hamilton:
I love the medium of working. [Laughs.] Wherever that might be. But if I had to pick, I would pick theater.

Back Stage:
Why theater?

Hamilton:
That's my background. I'm a NYU/Juilliard grad alum. My training is the stage, and in fact, I never ever thought that I would be living in Los Angeles, let alone being in film and television. My goal is to be the consummate theater actor because it's such a strong, powerful, present medium. You're right there, and of course, frankly, it's an actor's medium. I am in control. It's my stage and I like that.

Back Stage: And you're not putting yourself into someone else's hands.

Hamilton: Yeah, I say that the theater is the actor's medium in that television is the producer-writer's medium, in that film is the director's medium. I think that's all very true in terms of who has the power and who has the control.

Back Stage:
As a kid, did you envision yourself in any aspect of the industry?

Hamilton:
I've always wanted to be an actor, and I guess I always wanted to be a theater actor. It never occurred to me that it was accessible to me. As an African-American woman, it didn't seem practical that it would be accessible in the way that I would want to be, where I would have the opportunity to play a full-fledged human being versus a stereotype or a cardboard, one-sided, generic person. I wasn't interested in that. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to be able to be in the business, so to speak, for 15-plus years and not only make a living at it, but do roles that I'm very proud of and roles that are important to the black community in particular. They are roles that brought—and bring—a great deal of dignity and sensibility to what it is to be a human being in general.

Back Stage
: It is good to know what you want to do and what you don't want to do. That always seems to be the difficult part in anybody's career.

Hamilton:
Especially when you're not in control of it. If it weren't for "The Practice," I wouldn't have had that luxury for as many years as I have had to be able to pay my rent and turn down a job at the same time, which is a luxury. Most people don't get to do that. They'll take what is there.

Back Stage: "The Practice" is where a lot of people know you from. Was there a lesson that you learned from shooting the series that has carried with you?

Hamilton
: Everything that I have gotten, I had to audition for. I came off the street as an unknown, and while "The Practice" gave me a certain amount of notoriety, I was pre-screened for "Men of a Certain Age." I had to go through the wringer. Nothing's ever given. What remains a lesson is that I have always had to work for what I have gotten. And perhaps what I have learned doing a series is how sweet it is. [Laughs]

Back Stage: Has this toughened you up, the fact that you were never handed anything?

Hamilton: That's life. I don't know that the industry has toughened me up. I think life has toughened me up. We all are faced with the "isms" that are present in the world, sexism and racism, and all sorts of oppression that makes life harder. It's the reality of the world and the society that we live in, that things are not always fair. Things are not always easy, and sometimes you have to buck it up.

Back Stage:
And one would hope that it makes you work that much harder.

Hamilton:
It has to; otherwise, you're not participating. And also you're not leaving behind something for the next generation. If I can leave behind a life that shows perseverance and dignity and thoughtfulness and intelligence, then I will have done my job.

Back Stage:
Is there a role that you've done that you think depicts that?

Hamilton: I will forever love my role as younger Sethe in "Beloved." That was an important film. I loved that role and that experience. It was very special. It was where I met Beah Richards [who played Baby Suggs] and Jonathan Demme—those are just some long-lasting friendships that are very important to me and my life. To some degree, it changed as a result of having been in that film.

Back Stage: Now you're on "Men of a Certain Age." What's it like working alongside other veteran actors?

Hamilton: What I love is that it's not only men of a certain age; it's women of a certain age. While the show focuses on men, I can flip the gender and relate to it. I think women go through much of the same thing. Maybe our issues are a bit different, but it still is about who are you as a human being as you age and where you are in your life. What have you done with your life? The show has a very ordinary, very tangible, very concrete, and very human depiction of life, specifically of people in their late 40s, early 50s and moving on. Most of my stuff is with Andre Braugher. We went to Juilliard together. I've known Andre since 1985 and there is a history there already. There is no b.s. We know each other. We come from similar backgrounds and we have a perspective on life that is compatible.

Back Stage: Do you have advice for actors on how to navigate the industry?

Hamilton: I think it is virtually impossible, and I mean this with regret, to work your way into this industry. I would never recommend to a young person to come out [to Hollywood] with nothing. I think that's silly. I still think New York is the training ground. You do theater, pay your dues, and hone in on your craft there. Ideally, you get an agent that has the East and West coasts, and ideally that West Coast agent is decent enough to get you in general auditions, if not some specific roles. You work your way in. But for those who come and waiter, I don't understand why people do that. It's illogical—it's illogical becoming an actor anyway, let's just put it that way. At least in New York, you might be busting your butt, but you can do readings—there's always something you can be in. In L.A., it's just not a theater town and nobody's coming to see you. In New York, casting directors will go see theater because they know that's where the actors are.

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