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February 2004
Beah: A Black Woman Speaks : An Interview with Lisa Gay Hamilton

Beah: A Black Woman Speaks: An Interview with Lisa Gay Hamilton

When actors die, an obituary is written and we think about how important the person was in the industry and what impact they made and left. Lisa Gay Hamilton, whom we mostly know from ABC's The Practice, interviewed and has over 70 hours of footage to what is considered a national treasure, and with this being Black History Month, it's very appropriate to showcase her directorial debut with the life of Beah Richards on HBO this week. You may know Beah from roles in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Great White Hope. Beah died in 2000 but not before she shared her life with Lisa in what is truly an amazing documentary, BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Lisa Gay Hamilton spoke about her reasons for capturing a legend on film.

WM: What inspired you to do a documentary on Beah Richards?

LGH: I went to visit Beah when I heard she had been ill. In addition to checking on her health, I wanted her wisdom on some personal and career issues I was facing. When I left Beah's house I was vibrating. I knew something was happening. After sharing with director Jonathan Demme my experiences with Beah, he said, "Beah's not going to be with us much longer. You should do a documentary on her life" I agreed. Beah agreed. A day or so later, Jonathan sent me 2 cameras and simply said, "Do it." That's how it all started.

WM: How did this film affect your work on The Practice?

LGH: Actually, I had often complained about my role being limited on "The Practice" and I wanted to quit. But Beah encouraged me to stay and find a way to make it work for me. It turned out that my income from "The Practice" helped me finance the documentary. I can't thank her enough for her wisdom.Also, I showed David Kelley some early footage from the documentary and he was surprised that Beah was still alive. I told him, "Yes, she's alive and she still wants to work." Two weeks later, he came to me and said, "I wrote a role for Beah." So, that was wonderful. It was ultimately her last role for which she won an Emmy for Best Guest Performance in a Drama Series.Also, "The Practice" offered me the opportunity to direct an episode last season. And, even though I am no longer on the show, I am going back to direct another episode this season. So, now I have greater creative gifts - acting, directing, producing and writing. These all developed as a result of my friendship with Beah.

WM: Every project has challenges, what were some on this one?

LGH: Beah illness was the greatest challenge. Some days she was up to it and some days she was not. We originally thought we would have several sessions and that would be it. However, the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I ended up with over 70 hours of interviews with Beah.

WM: Documentaries are not always an easy sell. How did HBO get involved as opposed to getting this into theaters?

LGH: HBO came on board when we needed the additional funds to complete the project. We had reached out to lots of people and, ultimately, it was HBO who stepped up to the plate.

WM: How challenging was it leaving stuff out?

LGH: As I said, we had 70 hours with Beah and another 20 hours with friends, colleagues and research experts. It was very hard to decide what stays and what does not. I was fortunate enough to get the help of a wonderful Academy Award winning film editor, Kate Amend, who deserves a lot of the credit. She worked with me to put it together seamlessly.

WM: What do you want folks to learn after seeing this?

LGH: Obviously, greater knowledge of extraordinary Beah's life. However, I don't want to dictate anyone's response. Each person will get something different from it.

WM: As an actress, what did you learn from Beah?

LGH: What resonated with me are Beah's words, "It's not about living your life as an actor, it's about living as a human being." Also, her encouraging words to know, "I am perfect. Maybe not yet realized, but perfect." I say that to myself everyday. Beah is still with me. I carry her with me everyday.

WM: What's next for you?

LGH: I will be directing "The Practice" in March. Other than that, I don't know. I just want to be a good human being, a good mother and be ready for whatever life brings my way. I just want to make the best of my life - be it acting, directing, producing, writing, whatever.

BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS will air on HBO Feb.25 at 7:30pm

For more information, go to http://www.hbo.com/docs/programs/beah/index.html

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