THERE IS AN URGE, when speaking to Irma P. Hall, to find a place in each sentence to insert a respectful “ma’am.” Not because she gives a sense of expecting such treatment. Hall is downright humble, making it clear that she feels her many talents are gifts from above. Of her role as Ella in the movie version of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which is a joint production of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and Jonathan Demme’s Clinica Estetico and will be released this month, she says only, “I have a small part.”
In fact, the character named Ella, a community leader who belonged to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, is integral to the movie’s plot—Sethe, who has killed her child Beloved to protect her from a cruel slave owner, enlists Ella’s help in exorcising the dead girl’s vengeful spirit. And besides, no part played by Hall is ever really small. A Dallas schoolteacher turned award-winning stage and screen actress, she has a presence—thanks to her rich contralto and her imposing stature—that makes an impact on co-workers and audiences alike, and lasts long after a production wraps, long after the credits roll. The first impressions Hall makes are equally powerful. “Even though Beah Richards had already been cast as Baby Suggs in Beloved,” says Demme, its director, “a tape showed up in our office with a ‘Chicago actress’ doing Baby Suggs’s monologue. I wasn’t familiar with Irma’s work yet, so when I watched the tape, I experienced that unique joy you get from seeing a great for the very first time. We called Irma’s agent immediately and offered her the part of Ella.
“It was so delightful, inspiring, and rewarding to work with her,” Demme continues. “After we finished shooting one day, Irma said she had made ‘a little doodle’ for me as a gift. She handed me an exceptionally beautiful pastel group portrait called The Women of Beloved. I thought it was outrageous that someone as creative as Irma in one way—acting—could be so gifted in this other way too. I told her that, and she just shook her head and chuckled.”
The 63-year-old Hall attributes the development of her many gifts—drawing, writing, acting—to her parents’ insistence on a broad cultural upbringing. Born in Beaumont, the actress spent her first seven years there and in Tyler. “I had a shockingly beautiful childhood,” she recalls. “I was surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and grandparents. We grew everything we ate. We had smokehouses and fruit trees and gardens. I was a princess. There was so much love. As long as I can remember, people were always teaching me poems and quoting Shakespeare.”
In the early forties Hall’s musician father, Samuel Player, was offered a steady gig in Chicago, playing in the house band of Joe Louis’ famous night spot, the Rhumboogie Club. Player and his wife, Josephine, a hospital admissions clerk, took their only child north. “My father wanted to raise me in Chicago so I could take advantage of the educational and artistic opportunities,” Hall says. Once she got over her initial shock—“I found out you had to buy chickens and eggs in the store and vegetables and fruits were no longer free”—Hall was thrilled by the theatrical productions she saw, the opera, the museums, and the showgirls at the Rhumboogie, who doted on her during rehearsal breaks.
But Texas was always on her mind. After spending her first two years of college in Iowa, Hall transferred to Texas College in Tyler, where she majored in French and Spanish and studied voice and piano. “It was a teaching college,” she says. “I fought against being a teacher. I wanted to be a buyer for Marshall Field’s. But I had to do student teaching as part of my program, and that’s when I fell in love with teaching.”
For 27 years she taught, first in Plainview and then in Dallas. It was there that, in 1971, Hall—who admits she has always done two things at once—wrote an article for a local newspaper about director-actor Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem; Come Back, Charleston Blue), who was in town scouting locations and auditioning for his movie The Book of Numbers. Impressed, he asked her to work as a publicist for the film, then invited her to audition for a supporting role. After winning the part, and with St. Jacques as her mentor, she went on to co-found the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre while continuing to teach.
“I didn’t really think of acting as a career; I thought of it as a sideline,” she says. “I thought it was something God had sent for me to help my students. I used my knowledge to expose them to different career choices—I had kids working as interns ushering and working in box offices to learn how to apply business skills they learned in school and working on building sets to apply what they were learning in wood shop and electric shop. And I used it to enhance their ability to read.” It was only when her son and daughter had reached adulthood and both become self-sufficient, her daughter starting her own teaching career, that Hall, by then long divorced, told herself, “Okay, I have replaced myself as a teacher.” In 1987 she moved back to Chicago to be with her mother, who was dying. She then decided to make acting her sole occupation and began pursuing film and stage roles there.
It was the right decision. She received the Joseph Jefferson Award for Supporting Actress 1988 for a part she played in a Chicago Theatre Company production, the Chicago Film Critics’ award for best supporting actress for her work in A Family Thing in 1997, and this year the Women in Film and Television Achievement Award for general excellence and the NAACP Image Awards Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Soul Food. Her honors going back to 1975 number nearly three dozen.
In Soul Food, Hall played Big Mama, a matriarch whose family’s world falls apart when, in the middle of the film, she dies. Told through the eyes and voice of nine-year-old Ahmad, played by Brandon Hammond, the story examines the complicated relationships Big Mama’s three adult daughters have with one another, their spouses, and their children. That her character disappears yet remains central to the movie is a tribute to Hall’s craft. “I didn’t have to do a lot of preparation for the role,” she says. “I knew I was Brandon’s grandmother. I knew I was the mother to these three daughters. When I first saw Brandon, I fell in love with him. He was my grandson. And the other actresses were my daughters.” It’s this sort of immersion that makes Hall thoroughly believable in all her roles—even to herself. “When I saw Soul Food, I cried when my character died,” she admits.
The list of characters Hall has brought to life is as long as a July afternoon in Texas. People will stop her on the street and in the subway and call out “Big Mama” or “Aunt T,” a reference to the part she played in A Family Thing, with Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. “The ironic aspect of Irma P. Hall playing Aunt T is that she was not the first choice,” says Jones. “But fate brought her to us anyway, and she overwhelmed us with her ability to sustain those long narratives and transform herself physically and chronologically into the character. She was Aunt T.” Adds Duvall simply: “Irma is a joy to work with.”
Similar to Big Mama, the character of Aunt T also called for Hall to play a feisty older woman who makes sure that a fragile family holds together. Though blind and 88 years old, Aunt T misses nothing as she works hard to soothe the tensions between Duvall’s and Jones’s characters after the one played by Duvall discovers that they are half brothers who were separated sixty years before.
While those roles were easy fits for Hall, others have required serious research. The image of Hall as Minerva, the voodoo priestess, bookends Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, appearing in the film’s opening and closing shots. “With Minerva, I got books on voodoo,” Hall says. “I had been interested in it since I was a teenager. I knew it was the American version of the African Yoruba religion, that it wasn’t witchcraft, and it always annoyed me that whenever I saw anything that had to do with voodoo, it was portrayed as spooky, as devil worship. I wanted to make a clear distinction between when Minerva was practicing good and when she was practicing evil.”
Hall also found out as much as she could about the real Minerva. “I don’t want to do anything to embarrass a person when I’m playing a character who is real,” she says. Both Minerva and Aunt T were cited as scene-stealers by critics. “Actually, that really disconcerted me with A Family Thing,” Hall says, laughing. “I apologized to Robert Duvall when he told me, saying I didn’t mean to upstage anyone. I’m a theater person, and in theater, upstaging is a negative thing.
“Raymond St. Jacques asked me what I wanted from this business when I started,” she explains. “I said I want to be a female Lon Chaney, Sr. You don’t think of him—of what he really looked like. When people say ‘Irma P. Hall,’ I want one of my characters to pop into their minds. I want my characters to be that real. Acting is all about telling the truth. I want to tell the absolute truth when I’m doing a character.”
In Beloved Hall’s portrayal of Ella tells the truth. “I was so thrilled to get the part,” she says. “I can’t wait to see the film.” After that, she’ll appear as Clotelia, the housekeeper, in the film adaptation of Anne Tyler’s A Slipping-Down Life, shot this past summer in Austin and due to be released next year. In Patch Adams, a Christmas-release comedy-drama starring Robin Williams as an unconventional doctor whose methods are questioned by his colleagues and admired by his patients, she plays the head nurse in a hospital.
Talking about her role in Patch Adams prompts a discussion of Hall’s thoughts on race and the continuing lack of steady, solid black female characters in the movies. “It just takes a while for things to change,” she says, no anger in her voice. “Black people do not control the purse strings in Hollywood, and blacks make up twelve percent of the population, so they think that black people’s stories won’t sell. But Soul Food crossed over the day it came out. I’m just happy to be the voice of the older woman. A lot of women can identify with me as the caretaker of some kind—there are certain roles that transcend race. I think the industry will see that one day and say color doesn’t matter. Everyone has grandmothers or mothers. And nurses come in all colors.”
Which is not to say that Hall isn’t eager to play black-specific roles. It’s her dream to one day play Mary McLeod Bethune. “It’s amazing to me that people don’t know who she is,” she says. “Bethune was the founder of Bethune-Cookman College [in Daytona Beach, Florida]. Her parents were slaves. She was the first one in her family to get any education. She built this school and had nine teenagers as students at first. She went on to advise presidents. She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was my idol. I even got to meet her when I was a child.”
Hall sounds awed; she sounds, in fact, like her many fans when they speak about her. But again, when told how much she is admired, this great actress laughs off the praise. “Whatever this phenomenon is,” she says, “I just hope God guides me and keeps it going.” Yes, ma’am.