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20 Jan. 2014

Life of a King’s Lisagay Hamilton

Lisagay Hamilton 4

Hamilton in scene from Quentin Tarrantino's JACKIE BROWN, with Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro

Hamilton in scene from Quentin Tarrantino’s JACKIE BROWN, with Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro

Hamilton in Toni Morrison's novel turned film, BELOVED, with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton

Hamilton in Toni Morrison’s novel turned film, BELOVED, with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton

Hamilton on new film, future choices

As the story the goes, this film is based in truth. Eugene Brown’s truth and his often cited quote, “To teach the un-teachable, reach the un-reachable and always think before you move,” the core mission of the Big Chair Chess Club located in the nation’s capital.

The organization teaches chess to inner-city children and adults, not only as a board game, but also as an application to life skills, such as improving one’s concentration and self-discipline.

Brown uses chess to teach inner-city children a lesson of life he learned the hard way: he knows whereof he speaks.

Brown started playing chess while he was incarcerated in federal prison following a botched bank robbery. Chess was a good distraction from the dreary routine and depressing world around him.

Born in Washington, DC, Brown attended the inner city, District of Columbia Public Schools, where he was diagnosed as requiring social adjustment classes. His anti-social behavioral lead to early brushes with Juvenile Justice Law Enforcement, resulting in early incarceration at correctional youth institutions as a teen, and prison time as an adult.

Today, Brown, the Founder and CEO of The Big Chair Chess Club ( is a father, grandfather, real estate agent, and mentor to D.C. youths who stop by The Deanwood Chess House (located at 4322 Sheriff Road, NE), as a way to avoid the “Big House” later in life.

Brown’s story is told in LIFE OF A KING, directed by Jake Goldberger from Animus Films and Millennium Entertainment, starring Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr (The Butler, Red Tails, Jerry Maguire) in the lead role, supported by cast members Dennis Haysbert (Waiting to Exhale, TV’s The Unit and 24), Richard T. Jones (Why Did I Get Married 1 & 2), and Lisagay Hamilton (TV’s The Practice, Men Of A Certain Age).

I spoke with Hamilton about her role as school principal Sheila King and the indelible impression she makes as an actor–

Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Given the enormous temptations of peer pressure that school children face, you as a parent, do you ever feel vulnerable despite your best efforts that your child could choose the wrong path in life?

Lisagay Hamilton: Oh, of course.

Talk2SV: Elaborate please…

Hamilton: I have two young boys of my own and all my husband and I can do is our very best to expose them to all aspects of life…give them an exposure to music and food and history and people and a good education. Then you have to let them go and only hope that the struggles, the trials and the tribulations that we went through at home, serve as positive lessons learned and they take it from there. I mean, I would shudder to think that one of them would chose a way of life that’s more challenging than another but it does exist; there’s the yin and yang of everything.

Talk2SV: What are their ages?

Hamilton: Our littlest one will be three next month and our eldest is 11.

Talk2SV: Your role in this film is that of a disciplinarian, somewhat of a progenitor of authority in a challenged school. How closely aligned is “Sheila King” with Lisagay Hamilton?

Hamilton:  I think to the extent that she is a dedicated woman; I think she’s a principled woman, full of principles; and integrity. I’d like to think that I share those qualities with her, I mean; she wasn’t necessarily a far stretch for me. A disciplinarian, that’s probably my weakest aspect at home. I give in a lot but I would say we share some of those qualities.

Talk2SV: This film communicates as much through the dialogue as it does through the characters’ body language. Is this the result of directing, talent or a sense of familiarity and realism felt on the set?

Hamilton: I think that Jake put together a unique company of people coming from all sorts of socio and economic backgrounds, from training backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and I think to a large extent some of these kids come from a background where they might be able to relate more than others. Given the hip hop culture that sort of permeates the air; I think kids draw upon that. I think he put together a great group of young talent who were eager to tell the truth in their own way.

Talk2SV: This story is not a new one yet its importance and portability never seem to tire particularly depending on those charged with re-telling the struggles of inner city life. It’s in good, capable hands. For your vantage point, what responsibility do you think actors have in portraying a life that they may know nothing about?

Hamilton: I think it’s important no matter the story being told that it be told truthfully and that’s really all that matters.  If an actor has a role which is far from who they are, it behooves them to do whatever research it entails in order to give them the opportunity to portray the truth to the best of their ability. That is the ultimate obligation–to tell the truth.

Talk2SV: I’ve never seen you give a bad performance or shy away from portrayals of truth, this one is no different; you make it seem effortless. 

Hamilton: I always think of the great [late] Lloyd Richards (d. 2006, theatre director, actor, and dean of the Yale School of Drama from 1979 to 1991) when this comes into a discussion.  Lloyd would tell the story of the August Wilson play, Fences and James Earl Jones (who portrayed Wilson’s conflicted protagonist Troy Maxson) on Broadway. In one of several emotive scenes, Troy’s holding the baby that he has had with another woman; he’s bringing the baby home to his wife. Lloyd goes on to tell us that during that scene when Troy is standing on the stage with the baby in his arms, an audience member stands up and shouts, “That’s me, that’s me!” Letting the audience have their experience allows them to bring who they are to this artistic expression and if it moves them so much–whether it makes them laugh, makes them cry, makes them stand, makes them angry– the artist and all those involved in that production have achieved exactly what they were supposed to do: tell the truth.

Talk2SV: Let’s stay here briefly, I thoroughly appreciated the work of Lloyd Richards and love the response you just gave. Regarding Fences, I think it takes on a different meaning depending on the time in life that you experience it.  

Hamilton: I mean…you could take the story of Bambi; it’s the wonderful thing about work that can withstand time. A classical piece in the best sense, no matter who you are: your age, race, gender–anyone can see a given piece of work, even a painting–it means something to you at a different time in your life. You come back to it a week later and it could mean something different.

That’s the beauty of art, I think. It is an essential part of us as human beings. It’s also tragic that we have altered our public school system and taken away many of the things that we know enrich a child’s life such as the arts that goes straight to your soul and you don’t need words necessarily for art. It’s sad the way things have changed and there’s not enough artistic exposure for kids anymore, especially kids of color.

Talk2SV: We share the love of live dramatic performances. Are you returning to the stage any time soon?

Hamilton: I sure hope so. It’s the one place I feel most comfortable, it’s the one place that I get most excited whether it’s directing or acting, I positively love theatre.

Talk2SV: By comparison to this particular movie that we’ve said tells a familiar story, to your credit, your acting portfolio reflects a number of diverse choices. Is this by design on your part?

Hamilton: Oh I wish it were. The choices are limited; it couldn’t be by design in that there have been few roles that I have the opportunity to choose from; there are some that I chose not to do or there are some that I feel it’s a contribution of some sort. I wish I actually had the opportunity to do a wider range of roles.

I think for black women, in particular and at every age, we end up playing the principal, the social worker, the lieutenant and become sort of the moral ground. The sexless being that everyone looks up to and it gets to be kind of boring after a while; such roles are not particularly interesting and not challenging for the artist, but, it certainly is employment.  So to some degree, happily, I’ll take a role like this and be appreciative of it. Then I can also say in that same breath that I look forward to being able to stretch and grow as an artist.

Talk2SV: Well your role in REDEMPTION TRAIL was anything but …

Hamilton: You saw that?

Talk2SV: Yes, during the Mill Valley Film Festival. I was quite surprised by the character you portrayed, Tess, who is anything but what you’ve described …

Hamilton: Isn’t it fabulous?

Talk2SV: Yes, completely. So REDEMPTION TRAIL (written and directed by Brita Sjogren) was a unique opportunity for you as an actor…why?

Hamilton: In this instance, the film was made on a shoe string budget and we had so little time. Everyone was doing the movie out of love so you had to come ready to the set.  This story provided many different opportunities; when I was a child I rode horses.   It was an awesome opportunity to revisit that–the cowboy thing was really something fun. The saddle felt very comfortable to me.

Because I had never played a role like that before, let alone the lead in the film, I really appreciated Brita’s respect for me as an artist, allowing me to give my input.  We didn’t have a lot of takes and I never had to simulate lovemaking scenes on screen let alone expose my breasts.  That was all very, very challenging for me. Initially, those scenes were not in the script at all, it wasn’t even mentioned.  Then Brita said, “oh yeah, I would like that scene to be in the nude.”

What? I had already signed the contract, wait a minute…! It’s quite funny when I reflect.  If I ever have that opportunity again, next time I can definitely be more relaxed. I was appreciative of Jake’s professionalism (Lisagay’s costar was Jake Weber) because he had experienced that kind of thing before.  He was very comfortable and made it quite easy; I was very appreciative of that. But the whole experience was really, really great. It hasn’t received much commercial success yet but I am pleased for Brita that it’s making good at the festival tours and that’s a good thing.


Talk2SV: Indeed. Now the industry has the opportunity to go in many directions; Netflix is an example.

Hamilton: Isn’t it amazing? It behooves folk, and I throw myself in there, to write stuff because the opportunity is there and with a little money you could do it.

Talk2SV: Lastly, we’ll end with a question of aesthetics.  Are you going to keep your hair short?

Hamilton: I continue to keep it short out of necessity. I don’t have time to twist. Keeping it short is the only way for me to keep some semblance of being groomed; I’m very lazy about that anyway.  Sometimes I go through phases of growing my hair thinking ‘oh, I’m going to lock it,’ but I never follow through.  I think my days of having any sort of long mane, let alone a long natural mane…those days are really over. It’s hard as I get older especially with the three year old.

Talk2SV: As with your acting choices, all looks work well on you.

Hamilton: Oh, thank you; it’s very nice of you.


A graduate of the Juilliard School’s drama division, Hamilton’s extensive theatre credits include “Isabella” in “Measure For Measure” at the New York Shakespeare Theatre Festival opposite Kevin Kline and Andre Braugher.

She also starred as Grace in the original Broadway company of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” Hamilton earned the Ovation nomination for best actress for her work as Veronica in Athol Fugard’s play “Valley Strong” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Mr. Fugard also directed this production.

Additionally, she earned an Obie Award, the Clarence Derwent Award and a Drama Desk nomination for the role as the play toured to the Manhattan Theatre Club and the McCarter Theatre. Recently, she starred on Broadway in August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean.”

Hamilton’s film credits include: Clint Eastwood’s True Crime; the independents Palookaville, Drunks, The Sum of All Fears; as “Ophelia” in director Campbell Scott’s film of Hamlet; and the Jonathan Demme films Beloved and The Truth About Charlie, where LisaGay starred opposite Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton; Nine Lives directed by Rodrigo Garcia; Honeydripper directed by John Sayles; The Tourist opposite Hugh Jackman and Ewan MacGregor; The Soloist directed by Joe Wright; and Mother And Child again directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

REDEMPTION TRAIL is part of the Portland Women’s Film Festival, March 6 – 9, 2014, visit


About the author

Sandra Varner has had her hands on the pulse of the entertainment industry and lifestyles coverage for decades, staying current, always.


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