Actors LisaGay Hamilton & Edward James Olmos

The two stars reflect on their experiences working with the multicultural cast of their indie film thriller, Go For Sisters.

His role on Miami Vice made Edward James Olmos a household name, but he began his career as a rock singer. Throughout the 70s, he split his time between music gigs and bit parts in TV and plays, but a starring role in 1978's Zoot Suit was his acting career break. Olmos' performances have resulted in Tony and Oscar nods, and his extensive television work includes starring in the acclaimed PBS series, American Family, which ran for two seasons. A spokesperson for several organizations, he devotes much of his time to political and humanitarian causes.

Theater lovers know that LisaGay Hamilton has wide-ranging stage credits, including an award-winning role in Valley Song. Small screen fans know her from her turns on Men of a Certain Age and The Practice, and big screen audiences have seen the NYU and Julliard grad use her broad range of acting ability in more than two dozen films, including Beloved. Hamilton added director to her résumé with an HBO documentary based on the friendship that developed with the late, pioneering actress Beah Richards during the filming of that feature.

Olmos and Hamilton work together in the new independent feature, Go For Sisters, a project of Olmos' production company.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Independent films that deal with complex human interaction can often get lost in the relentless push of big-budget movies around here. One film that I hope is not overlooked in the mix is from two-time Oscar nominee writer and director John Sayles.

It’s called “Go For Sisters” and stars one Edward James Olmos and LisaGay Hamilton, and it deals with a mother’s search for her son in Tijuana. We’ll start our conversation first with a look at a clip from “Go For Sisters.”

[Clip]

Tavis: I had such a wonderful conversation on my radio show, Eddie, with LisaGay about this movie that I said to my staff, “We have got to talk about this on the PBS show.” I don’t often do that on both mediums.

But it’s such an important film and has such a powerful storyline to it, I thought we would do it for television. So since you are one of the producers on this project, alongside being one of the stars, I’ll let you tell me about “Go For Sisters.”

Edward James Olmos: All I can say is that Lisa and Yolanda do a brilliant job. Their work is exquisite. The story is very simple. It’s about the love of a mother for her son, and the love of friendships.

It’s really a very simple theme that people will be able to understand, but it’s never been done. I’ve never seen a movie like this in my life.

Tavis: When you say it’s never been done, what has never been done, to your mind?

Olmos: The fact that we have people of a cultural dynamic, of color, (laughter) that are in a position where they need to come together in a way that I’ve never seen it before.

I’ve never seen – John Sayles has written a masterful piece of work. Now will people see it? (Laughs) I don’t even think they’re going to know about it. If it wasn’t for you and a few people that have really saw it and said, “Wait a minute, this is very important,” it’s going to be very difficult.

All I can tell you is that the story deals with a mother looking for her son and needs help, so she goes to an old friend that when they were in high school they were, people would say, “Hey, you guys could go for sisters.”

Then the both of them head out to try to get to Tijuana and go into Mexico, and they need help and they come to me. But I happen to have – I’m blind. Did you know that?

Tavis: I did. Absolutely I knew that. Count the money. Yeah, yeah.

Olmos: You could tell.

Tavis: Yeah, we’ll come to -

Olmos: Looking at anything.

Tavis: Yeah, I don’t want to -

Olmos: Yeah, and macular degeneration, and it’s at the highest form. To make people who are looking right now understand it, everything where my frame is I cannot see. I cannot see anything. I can only see out of the side. I cannot see straight forward.

So I can see you right now, but I cannot see you now at all. I’m totally blind, except for a slight amount of peripheral vision. That makes my experience very difficult, and I feel – it’s got a lot of humor in it too.

Tavis: Right. I’m going to come to LisaGay in just a second here to talk about what is – why you said this is a simple film. The storyline is simple, but there’s a more complex relationship between these two sisters, which I’ll come to in just a second.

But I wanted to stay with you for one second, Eddie, only because you said something that struck me. One of the reasons for having this conversation here on PBS and for that matter on public radio is to make sure that people know about the film and they get out to see the film, so I want to make sure that we do our small part to help in that regard.

But what is it inside of an artist that allows him or her – you in this case – to do something that one believes in for whatever reason and produce it, in your case, even if one believes that it might not be broadly seen.

What’s the point of doing work if you think it’s not going to be broadly – you must really believe in this, in other words?

Olmos: Yeah, we do. I believe in it almost – passionately in almost everything I do, or else I could not do it.

Tavis: Right.

Olmos: Tavis, we’re going to die. Everybody’s going to die. Nobody gets out of this alive, and when you’re gone a hundred years from today they’re going to take a look and say, “Did you ever hear about this guy? He lived a hundred years ago. This is some of the things he did.”

They’ll be able to go into my body of work and they’ll be able to see the passion that I had, and it stands with everything. I’ve done very few pieces that I don’t passionately understand and love, and this is the one that I was surprised, I was shocked when I read it.

Because Lisa and I will both tell you and everybody, we didn’t ad-lib one word. It was all on the page. So you start to realize, my God, here’s 6’6″ Caucasian kid writing for us, and writing for us like I’ve never been written for.

It’s a very compelling story, and you talk about how complex life is, watch this story and tell me it isn’t complex.

Tavis: Speaking of complex, enter LisaGay into this conversation. This relationship between these two sisters, not blood sisters, but two sisters, is complex. Tell me the relationship, starting from early on, with these two young sisters.

LisaGay Hamilton: Fontayne, played by the brilliant Yolonda Ross. She and I are best friends when we were younger, coming from two very different backgrounds. She’s the very gregarious, outspoken, sexy, and I think my character was a little more nerdish and quiet.

But yet they were still very close friends, and as Eddie said, could go for sisters. Their lives separate drastically, and I think that’s what’s so wonderful about John’s writing, is that he really gives us stories you don’t really get to see artistically.

So one of the issues he’s dealing with is incarceration. What is it for a Black woman to fall on hard times? Perhaps drug addiction, perhaps getting involved in things that are illegal, and then to be in the system and then get out of the system.

That’s what happens to Fontayne, she’s getting out of the system. She’s a parolee. My character goes into being a security – well, a – what am I trying to say?

Olmos: Probation officer.

Hamilton: She’s a probation officer, but before that she came as a guard in the prisons. So their lives meet just by chance, that she, Fontayne, is a Bernice’s parolee.

Tavis: That is funny. (Laughter) You start out as kids growing up together.

Hamilton: Right, and then -

Tavis: One goes to prison.

Hamilton: Right.

Tavis: She gets out, and her parole officer ends up being her old friend, yeah.

Hamilton: Right. Right, right, right, right, right. My character asks Fontayne for a favor, and the favor is come help me find my son, knowing full well that she will probably be breaking the law as a parole officer and as the parolee. But Fontayne is willing to sacrifice quite a great deal to help my character.

Tavis: So Eddie talked earlier, LisaGay, about his passion for doing the project and what he saw on the paper. Give me your sense of what you saw and as an African American who happens to be an actress, what pulled you into really wanting to do this.

I should say – let me rephrase that. It’s not even pulling you into it. The great thing about Sayles is – I’ve read him say this; in a number of places I’ve read where he has said this, I should say – he has rarely written stuff where he had two or three actors in mind.

He knew he wanted Edward James Olmos for this. He knew he wanted LisaGay Hamilton for this, and that must feel really good, to have somebody of his stature, a two-time Academy Award nominee, write something for you.

Hamilton: It is. This is my second project with John, and I had to audition for my first job, and that was in “Honeydrippers,” I played opposite Danny Glover.

I worked for that job. I got into – I got a costume and went totally period and worked hard on that audition. I knew that there are those directors who let you in the family, and once you’re in, you’re in for good. So being a part of the John Sayles family was a goal.

So I couldn’t have been more honored. Then Yolonda and I always laughed that our agents said, “Oh, John wants you to be in this film.” You think oh, well, okay, it’s a couple of scenes, so you start reading the script – “My character’s on every page.” (Laughter)

I’m like (unintelligible). I don’t have those kinds of opportunities, and Yolonda certainly doesn’t have those kinds of opportunities. So just that in itself, of having the opportunity to not only work on a script that’s so interesting and so full and so full of humanity and the complexities of, to work with John Sayles, to work with Edward James Olmos, to work with Yolonda, knowing that it – I’m sorry – a two-dollar budget. (Laughter)

Olmos: Very (unintelligible).

Hamilton: Mr. Producer.

Olmos: Yeah.

Hamilton: But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really matter, because it is something that is important.

Tavis: When you mention opportunities, it’s rare for me to have on this couch an Hispanic American, an African American, who are working on a project that speaks to the humanity of all of the characters in the project. That’s a rare thing.

Talk to me about – and I’m not naïve in asking this question, Eddie – but talk to me about why that is so rare, that in 10-plus years now of doing this show that I have so rarely had a Black woman and an Hispanic American on this couch for a project that really does justice to the humanity of our being.

Olmos: It goes back to the simplicity of economics. It’s what drives show business, is how much money can you make. We really haven’t had a major, major film that’s come out and popped loose and become accessible, and everybody goes to see it that has had that combination.

So therefore, they don’t even look for it. Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, these kids have really gotten to a point where they can command their own films. Will always uses people of color in different aspects of his films.

Sometimes Jennifer does too, when she’s producing them. But they’re rare and few between, and the studios never do that, and they never will. It’s up to us to produce our own work, and it’s up to us to make this happen, so -

Tavis: Why do you say they never will, given that we now live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, number one, and given that that multiethnic America, those people of color spend a whole lot of money at the box office, why is it your sense that they never will?

Olmos: Because our, especially Latinos, go to see blockbusters, period. You could have Latino people in it or not in it, and they don’t really matter. They just go.

Fifty-two percent – well, I’ll say 37 percent of all the major motion pictures that come out on the first weekend are attended by Latinos. It’s one-third of the box office on any given day on any given major motion picture is a box office by Latinos.

We are more than 17 percent of the population, Latinos are. We make up less than 2 percent of the images that you see on film and television. Thank God that people like Will and people like Morgan Freeman and so many brilliant artists that we have that happen to be culturally diverse have come about to be able to sustain now.

Because the African American population is 12 percent, and they hold 17 percent of the images right now on film, and we need that. We need to keep them there, and we need to back them 1000 percent.

Because our truths lie, really, on how well we project who we are, and right now it’s been pretty flimsy. “Argo,” one of the greatest films of last year and won the best feature, I love Ben Affleck for doing it, creating it, and the whole thing, but he lost when he didn’t make his character Latino.

It was Tony Mendez, and you could say – I haven’t heard him say it, but I’m sure that Ben would probably say well, Tony doesn’t read at all like a Latino. But I’d say excuse me – he comes from El Paso, and if you look at him, he looks more Mexican than I do.

So at least if you’re not going to look like the person, then culturally at least bring about the understanding that this person happened to be an American of Latino ancestry, descent.

So please just give me that inkling, but he didn’t. I think they mentioned Mendez’s name twice in passing, and then even in the end when they gave the credits, he showed the real characters against the real actors, the actor against the real person, how well he cast.

But when it came to his character, it was a long shot of Carter putting the thing around his head, and it was a profile shot of Tony. You never saw Tony Mendez’s face on the screen. It made me angry, because I’m sorry, that’s one of the great stories.

Tavis: It is.

Olmos: So why did you make him not what – who did that story? It happened to be a person of Latin descent, so give him the credit.

Tavis: Yeah. To the point that Edward is addressing now, LisaGay, I don’t know if you saw this or are aware of it, but recently, of course, “Saturday Night Live” took it on – the late-night show on NBC.

Olmos: Boy, did they ever.

Tavis: “SNL” took it on the chin, as they should have, for not having any African American women in their cast, and they haven’t done it for quite some time now. So that Kenan, we all know Kenan, Kenan Thompson’s been playing a number of female characters.

He’s decided he doesn’t want to play characters in drag anymore. So when Kenan says, “I’m not going to play women in drag, I’m not going to play characters in drag anymore,” who plays the African American characters?

There are so many Black women now who are part of our culture, from Beyoncé to Michelle Obama – you run the list. Who’s going to play these characters on “SNL?”

So the way that “SNL” chose to deal with the crisis that has now been brought to the fore in “The New York Times” and everywhere else, the way they chose to deal with it, LisaGay, was to try to spoof the subject when Kerry Washington of “Scandal” fame was on the show last week.

They made a – I won’t go into it. You can Google it and see it for yourself, but they made a joke of it, to my mind; made a mockery of a very real issue. Now everybody has their own opinion, and “SNL” is comedy and they’re entitled to do – Lorne Michaels can do what he wants to do.

But there are a bunch of people, including yours truly, who were very disappointed in the way that they chose to make a joke out of what is a very real issue about the lack of opportunities for African American women in this business.

That’s a long way of asking why it is and how it is that you stay so dedicated to the craft, remain in this business, when it seems to be an uphill battle.

That’s true, I think, for most actors. Let’s be honest about it now – the average actor in this town, no matter what color he or she is, I want to be clear about this, doesn’t just roll into work every day.

There are only a handful of people who can greenlight what they want and pick their scripts. Most actors are working actors. But for women of color, for Black women, that’s an even more uphill struggle.

When you see a show like “SNL” making a mockery, making a joke about that, what do you make of that?

Hamilton: I don’t really care, to tell you the truth. I think as I get older, more and more, if our focus is on Will Smith or is on Jennifer Lopez, we’re really missing the boat, because the community is much larger than commercialism, it’s much larger than the green.

That’s why someone like a John Sayles, who is specific about casting – this couldn’t have been a movie about two white women, because it wasn’t. This was a film about two Black women.

This was a film about a Black – about a Hispanic detective. The cultural makeup of the movie was specific, because John wants to talk about all of humanity. This came out of John’s pocket, period.

John doesn’t make films because he thinks he’s going to make money. John makes films because he wants to see what he wants to see, and that’s literally what he says. “I write films that I want to see, and I want to work with who I want to work with.”

Not to disparage myself or anything, but he’s not going to make a lot of money with me starring in his film. But he wanted to work with me, and I think that that’s significant, which says to me I think that the big grand scale of a million people seeing the film, I don’t know how tangible and how practical that is.

But with the Internet and with all these other mediums, I think it is possible in one small way to get your piece out, be you a filmmaker or a screenwriter or a poet – whoever you are artistically, I think it is possible.

You may not make a living, you may not be a millionaire, you may not make a living at this thing you call your craft, but the opportunity to work is there, and the hope is that you know what? Maybe if I do a little something, it’ll make a difference.

Maybe if I do this project, it’ll fulfill that creative thing I have inside of me. But I don’t really care what “Saturday Night Live” is doing. I understand politically that we should pay attention to things like that.

But in the grand scheme of things there’s so much other stuff going on that they don’t really matter. For me they don’t.

Tavis: I guess what I’m getting at – and I take that point and I respect that, and I don’t think “SNL” has any sort of monopoly on the cultural conversation anyway. They aren’t a harbinger of anything.

It was just another way into a conversation about the fact that if, to Eddie’s point, the humanity of Latinos, if the humanity of African Americans is not synonymous with box office, how do you change the narrative? Now that you might not care about, but that’s real.

Hamilton: Well, I think that we have to, in your own local community, make that difference. Whether it’s a 15-year-old Asian kid who wants to do a film about his grandfather, and wherever he lives, then he needs to show that film at the local school.

He needs to put that film on YouTube. He needs to hope that he’s making a difference, and that his story, which it is, being told, and he has put his voice out there for the cosmos.

Once again, with the Internet, everybody sees everything at this point. So I can’t convince Denzel, I can’t convince Sam, I can’t convince these that come with a lot of money and cache at this point to do different kinds of films, because I can’t, and they choose not to, and that’s okay. That’s their choice.

I think a lot of us are saying, “Ooh, but if I had that money.” (Laughter) “Ooh, if I had that money, what would I do?” I would be supporting this young filmmaker and I would be doing this and I would be doing that, because you have the opportunity to give back and to do that, and I think that’s what our responsibility is.

Tavis: I was reading just the other day, Eddie, about – and I don’t want to screw the name up, so you tell me – but I saw an animation project.

Olmos: “Americano.”

Tavis: Yeah, the work that you’re behind, tell me about this animation project.

Olmos: Oh, boy. It’s a wonderful film. It’s the first co-production, animated co-production between Mexico and the United States.

It’s a film done for children, but grownups will go see it and they’ll love it. It’s not like in the Pixar, they’re made for grownups and the kids can see it.

Tavis: Adults go see it, yeah, exactly.

Olmos: Yeah, you can take your kid to go see it.

Tavis: Right.

Olmos: This is really a wonderful just simple, beautiful animated film, the first one of its kind that’s being produced. It’ll come out in probably I would say around March of this coming next year. Thank you for mentioning it.

Tavis: No, I’m glad – I was fascinated to see it, that’s all. (Laughter) When I saw the names of all the players in it, I mean -

Olmos: Yeah, it’s great. They’re great.

Tavis: You’re putting into practice what you said earlier – you’re using people who deserve to be used -

Olmos: Big time.

Tavis: – in a (unintelligible).

Olmos: I’ve got to tell you, Lisa’s correct – we can’t change it, but we can share, augment it, really quickly if people go see this movie. This film is a priceless piece of artistic work, and it’s got a great story and it’s entertaining.

But man, you talk about a powerful character study of people in situations that just make you want to go “whoa,” and it’s all real. It’s all true. John is an amazing, amazing writer and filmmaker, and people who have seen his movies, some people dismiss them, some people don’t.

But all in all, people who really have caught on to what he’s doing with his movies truly have been very thankful that John Sayles is alive and well and doing these kind of movies. And he did finance the whole movie himself.

Tavis: As I see this movie, LisaGay, it really is about love for me.

Olmos: Oh, this movie, big time. Big time. Love for her son.

Tavis: Yeah.

Olmos: I’ve never seen – it’s emotional. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, because it’ll tear your heart out, because this woman is – she’s not going to give up, no matter what.

Hamilton: I think it’s so wonderful – pardon me – to also see two Black women -

Olmos: Oh, yeah.

Hamilton: – love in this way, that it’s very, you can touch it, you can see it, you can feel it.

Tavis: It’s tangible, yeah.

Hamilton: Very, very much so. I love the ending of the film, that they find their way back together. I’m appreciative of John giving the platform for these characters to breathe and live and interact and not tear each other down, but yet actually support one another, even though there are so many different feelings and emotions, so it’s wonderful.

Tavis: My time is just about up. I say this all the time whenever your name comes up in conversation, your Beah documentary – she did a wonderful piece on Beah Richards, great actress – and your documentary on her was so powerful for me I have it in my possession, watch it from time to time. Are you going to do some more documentary work?

Hamilton: I hope so. I need to, don’t I? (Laughter)

Tavis: You should. That was a brilliant piece on Beah Richards.

Hamilton: Thank you. Thank you very -

Tavis: You should do more of that.

Hamilton: I will. I will.

Tavis: You really should.

Hamilton: Thank you.

Tavis: Eddie, good to have you here.

Olmos: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Lisa, good to – LisaGay, good to have you here as well.

Hamilton: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Tavis: Give my best to your brilliant husband, Robin DG Kelley, when you get home. (Laughter) The movie is called “Go For Sisters,” starring Edward James Olmos and LisaGay Hamilton. A wonderful cast. Thank you, John Sayles, for writing it, thank you for putting it together, and thank you for casting it so beautifully.

That’s our show for tonight. Thank you for joining us, and as always, keep the faith.

[Clip]

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • Shawndria Jackson

    Great interview. I like both actors.

Last modified: December 9, 2013 at 11:55 am