Opening November 8, director John Sayles’ latest indie feature stars Yolonda Ross and LisaGay Hamilton as childhood friends who were once so close they could “go for sisters.” After losing track of each other for two decades, the women are reunited by chance in a parole office, with Bernice (Hamilton) now a no-nonsense parole officer and Fontayne (Ross) an ex-convict trying to clean up her life.
When Bernice’s son goes missing, she enlists the help of Fontayne and a retired detective (Edward James Olmos) on a journey that takes them across the Mexican border and into a world of danger.
Hamilton and Ross made time to chat briefly in what started as an interview about the film and ended as a conversation about artistry in general, and the choices that actors and others make to sustain themselves creatively.
JAI TIGGETT: This film is rare in a lot of ways. Two black women leading a thriller, working together to solve a problem that’s not about anyone’s relationship drama, but about very adult issues of family, friendship. Can you talk about what resonated with you most about the script and the project in general?
LISAGAY HAMILTON: Employment was big on my list. When I got the call that John [Sayles] wanted me to be in his film, I was glad, but then as I’m reading the script I see my character name again and again. And I realize it’s actually in just about every scene. And so that itself was rare, to be in a film where I was telling a story from beginning to end. And then you had all of the other elements – two African-American women, a very diverse cast, as are all of John’s films. He gives the opportunity for all the characters to be full-fledged human beings with complexity. And so with all of that, it was impossible to walk away.
YOLONDA ROSS: It’s funny you bring that up about reading the script, because I went through the same exact thing, glancing through the pages and seeing my name keep popping up. And knowing how John writes, you know that the characters will be thorough. It’s not going to be just some generic part. And then to see that it’s LisaGay, who I’d never worked with, and just to be a black woman at the helm of a film that’s not a stereotypical story, was exciting for me.
JT: Your on-screen friendship seems easy and natural. Tell me about working together for the first time.
LH: For me, I automatically fell in love with Yolonda, so it was easy breezy. And then, you don’t have time really. We only had 19 days, so you’d better really love each other. Circumstances were so crazy – there’s no money, no trailer, no air conditioning. It’s boot camp, and you just go with it. So it was easy to establish a rapport because it just naturally happened. And as an artist I respect Yolonda’s work and I think while our training or background may be different, we have a very similar vocabulary. We weren’t speaking a different language. I understood exactly what her process was and where she was coming from, and it complemented mine.
YR: I thought the same thing. I really appreciate the differences in everyone’s acting process. So what LisaGay says about complementing, I really enjoy that a lot because we have two ways of processing things, but we trust each other. That comes through, that kind of give and take, and as far as friendship and character I felt it was real. We were Fontayne and Bernice.
LH: And you have to go back and give credit where it’s due, and that’s John’s script. With those characters on the page, there was no question. He’s the only director that I have worked with that actually sends you a 10-page bio of who your character is. He gives you everything and so you automatically come to the table with clarity. Because also, John doesn’t have time for questions. You’ve only got 19 days.
YR: And we don’t do rehearsal.
JT: No rehearsal. So you really didn’t spend much time together before you filmed?
LH: If we went to location together, maybe having a meal on set. But that’s it.
YR: Also with John, his directing is hiring the right actors. So we do our work and we come to set ready for him.
LH: Coming ready meant, for me, I went and found a parole officer on my own and shadowed her for a day. I wanted to get gun experience. I’d never shot a gun, so I went to a firing range. I mean, you come prepared. Because you don’t have a choice.
JT: Tell me more about this 10-page character bio.
LH: It’s amazing. This man is a writer. His latest book, I think is a thousand pages. He’s prolific. And as a result of most of this money coming out of John’s pocket, he also doesn’t have time to have questions or to worry about the shot. He has to know everything. And since he has to know everything, you have to know everything. There’s no time.
So he really gives you this background of where your character came from, what they were doing. It’s actually a very thorough and unusual template for an actor to jump off of because most of the time you’re writing your own bio, you’re imagining. But John doesn’t give you that imagination. He gives you, “This is what happened, this is who you are, this is where you came from.” And so for me, there’s really no question about who the person is.
YR: It makes complete sense because he’s a writer first. He gives you the background on the character, and that’s what it is.
JT: So there was no improvisation? The dialogue in the film is so sharp, from a white male writer originally voicing these characters.
YR: We didn’t go off script.
LH: Be truthful, you’re not allowed to go off [laughs].
YR: I feel there are people who are straight up writers and there’s no fudging of their words. Like playwrights, they don’t let you mess with their words. And that’s how I feel John is, like a playwright, a straight up writer.
LH: And John knows his words so well that without the script in front of him while shooting, if you didn’t get a line right, he’d shout it out to you. And he was never in another room. He believes in being in the room with you. So he knew what he was doing.
JT: Going back to something you both said earlier, about being surprised at the depth of these roles. You’re both veteran actresses, so to hear that is surprising.
LH: It’s a numbers game. We were hired by a white male director who chooses to write and direct his own films and specifically tell stories that he wants to see, and I love John for that. But the stories aren’t commercial. Any actors he works with are never commercial. That says a lot about not only him, but also about Yolonda and I. We could name other African-American actresses who could perhaps bring more money to the table.
This film is having a hard time before it even begins, and part of that is racism, part of that is sexism, part of that is the system and who runs it, what kind of stereotypical stories that people are interested in seeing, which films producers are more likely to participate in. It’s a combination of things, but the bottom line is always going to be green. I’m not poo-pooing our town and our capabilities by any means, but we know the numbers game. For me, we’re not A-list in the commercial market, so it’s going to be a struggle because it’s not going to have the support. For any person of color, it’s a numbers game and it’s real.
YR: That bottom line is killing creativity and making it hard for everybody. I’ve led a film before. My first project was as a lead in a film, so to go backwards and have to read for something that’s only three lines doesn’t make any sense. There are so many parts that I’d like to see, that women of color don’t get offered. Go For Sisters is conventional in a way because it’s dealing with friendship, but if it were at a major studio you’d have Jennifer Aniston, or any combination of women that’s not us.
LH: But I think what’s happening now, and Yolonda is a good example of this, is that you have more and more artists doing their own work on a smaller scale, and the internet is the place.
JT: And you’ve both created your own work – the short Breaking Night (directed by Yolonda), and Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (directed by LisaGay).
YR: You just want to make something that’s of quality. If you know that you’re a creative being and you’re not getting what you need to function, you have to make that happen. Because otherwise you’re going to be a really upset person, and this business can do that to you if you’re not getting the offers that you want or need to even grow. You learn and grow by doing. If you don’t get the offers to do them, you’re just sitting. You’re getting stale.
So with my short, that’s what I did. I figured I knew enough people to make something and I wanted to challenge myself and see what I could do. And the short is doing really well. VH1 Classics picked it up as the new music video for Blinded by the Light. The group really liked it, so I’m psyched about that. It’s just really wanting to broaden yourself and use the gifts and talents you have.
LH: I think part of that is the green issue. I’ll go back to Beah [Richards] who said, “You may not be a millionaire, but you can win.” I’m fortunate enough to have a life partner, my husband, who says, “You don’t have to take that job. Do what you want to do. Read, write, do what you want to do creatively.” And ultimately whatever the product may be, it’s not about the money that you make.
Now the trick is, how do you make a living as an artist? Whether you’re a visual artist, a ballet dancer, whatever kind of art you want to do. And the point is, you may not be able to. However, you can still make product that is meaningful to you and that ultimately has meaning and usefulness to the world. And that is what we have to begin to embrace, that the movie star stuff isn’t really relevant and tangible. We have to be more positive and proactive and not complain and wait for them to hire you, because they’re not. Not enough work, racism, sexism, all the isms. They’re just not. So the question always becomes, “What are you doing as an individual artist?”
YR: And I think people take notice when you’re doing your own thing. Because it’s not everybody else’s thing, it’s not the same thing. I think both of us have shown that. We’re still around, and I think that says a lot for what we do and how people see our work.
Go For Sisters opens in New York theaters this Friday, November 8, followed by LA theaters on November 15, and other cities following. Find details at Variance Films.