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Lemmons, Kasi 1961–

Kasi Lemmons 1961

Actress, writer, director

An Actress Since Childhood

Busy Acting Career

Directed Her Own Script

Sources

With the release of Eves Bayou in late 1997, Kasi Lemmons emerged as one of the American film industrys most talked about young filmmakers. A veteran actress with appearances in numerous films, including a small role in the Academy Award winning The Silence of the Lambs, Lemmons turned to writing and directing as a way of increasing her sense of artistic fulfillment. As an actress I couldnt empty my soul because the parts I was playing would not allow that sort of artistic relief: Black Girl Best Friend, Black Girl Next Door, Black Girl Cop. I was frustrated, Lemmons explained to Erika Muhammad of Ms Critics found Eves Bayou, which Lemmons wrote and directed, an impressive filmmaking debut. The film tells the story of a young girl from an affluent black family in Louisiana whose life is changed after she stumbles upon her father philandering with a party guest. Eves Bayou is an inspired achievement Lemmons command of cinematic style, her appreciation of the chimerical aspects of life and her ability to inspire actors to give remarkably faceted portrayals mark Eves Bayou a first film of exceptional promise, wrote Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times.

An Actress Since Childhood

Lemmons was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1961, the daughter of a poet/psychotherapist mother and a biology teacher father. When Lemmons was eight, her parents divorced. She and her two sisters moved with their mother to Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Though Lemmons did not grow up in the South, the setting of Eves Bayou, she gained familiarity with Southern ways from her Louisiana-born father, her Georgia-born mother, and from spending summers with her grandmother in Alabama. It doesnt matter where you are if your family is from the Deep South. They take it with them wherever they go, Lemmons told Steve Murray of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

To help Lemmons deal with the trauma of her parents divorce, her mother signed her up for acting classes. My mother put me in drama school to cheer me up. I am absolutely certain that she wasnt prepared for it to become a lifetime obsession, Lemmons told Laura Winters of the Washington Post. During her youth, Lemmons performed with the Boston Childrens Theatre. After completing high school, she enrolled at New York Universitys Tisch School for the Arts. Thinking her studies were too narrowly focused on the arts, Lemmons transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles where she majored in history. I already knew a lot about acting, so I wanted a more academic education, Lemmons explained to Audrey Edwards of Essence Lemmons left UCLA without graduating. She returned to New York, enrolling at the film program at the New School for Social Research. I needed something else to do with my energy. At the time I wanted to make documentary films, go to Nicaragua, Lemmons told

At a Glance

Born in 1961 in St. Louis, MO. Daughter of a poet/psychotherapist (mother) and a biology teacher (father). Married Vondie Half Curtis (an actor and director), C.1995; children: Henry Hunter Hall. Education: Attended New York University, New York, NY; University of California at Los Angeles; and the New School for Social Research, New York, NY.

Career: Writer and director of the feature film Eves Bayou, 1997; and the short films Dr. Hugo, c. 1996; Fait from Grace, c.1990. Film and television actress. Film appearances include School Daze, 1988; Vampires Kiss, 1989; The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (TV), 1990; The Five Heartbeats, 1991; The Silence of the Lambs, 1991; Spy Games (TV), 1991; Afterburn (TV), 1992; Candyman, 1992; Fear of a Black Hat, 1993; Hard Target, 1993; Drop Squad, 1994; Zooman (TV), 1995; Til There was You, 1997; Gridlockd, 1997; Liars Dice, 1998. Television appearances include regular role on series Under Cover, ABC, 1991; guest appearances on episodes of Murder, She Wrote, Walker: Texas Ranger, and The Equalizer. Theater appearances include Balm in Gilead, New York, NY, 1984; Boston Childrens Theatre, Boston, MA, c.1970s.

Awards: National Board of Review Directors Debut Award, 1998.

Addresses: HomeLos Angeles, CA. Office Director, Trimark Pictures, 2644 30th St., Santa Monica, Ca, 90405.

John Hartl of the Seattle Times. When she got out of film school Lemmons made a short documentary, Fall from Grace, about homeless people on the streets of New York City. She was pleased with the film but decided to go back to acting.

An audition for the 1980s television hit The Cosby Show led to Lemmons first writing credit. During the audition, Cosby mentioned that what he really needed was not an actress but a writer. And I said Im a writer. Now, I really wasnt, but he said Write me a scene, Lemmons told Emory Holmes II of the Los Angeles Times. Lemmons and two writing partners came up with a scene that was used on Cosbys program. In the 1980s, Lemmons appeared in New York theatrical productions such as Lanford Wilsons play Balm in Gilead in 1984. Many of the performers who would later appear in Eves Bayou were Lemmons friends from her early days in New York. Lemmons and Eves Bayou star Samuel L. Jackson acted together in the 1988 Spike Lee collegiate comedy School Daze. The black show business community was so small that I literally knew everyone I cast in my movie, Lemmons told Winters.

Busy Acting Career

Film offers led Lemmons to California. She appeared in numerous films such as the cult horror favorites Vampires Kiss with Nicolas Cage, and Candyman with Virginia Masden and Vanessa Williams. Other film appearances include The Five Heartbeats, Robert Townsends saga of a 1960s singing group; Fear of a Black Hat, a send-up of gangsta rap with Rusty Cundieff; Hard Target, a thriller with Jean-Claude Van Damme; and Drop Squad (1994), a satire on corporate racism with Eriq LaSalle and Lemmons husband, Vondie Curtis Hall. Lemmons highest profile screen role was her turn as Jodie Fosters FBI Academy roommate in The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. On television, Lemmons appeared in several made-for-TV movies and had a regular role on the short-lived 1991 espionage drama Under Cover.

Film and television acting assignments paid the bills but failed to provide Lemmons with the sense that her skills were being challenged and expanded. It was discouraging waiting for acting projects as a womannot just as a black woman, Lemmons explained to Winters. Following the advice of her therapist, Lemmons decided to turn down acting jobs, unplug the phone, and write out the story that was brewing inside her which eventually emerged as Eves Bayou. It took about three months and I cried the whole time. When I finished, I was drained and happy and thought that I could put the script into a drawer and never show it to anybody, Lemmons told Muhammad. Fortunately, she did show it to her husband. He was lying across the bed and I was sitting at my desk. I was very nervous. I kept asking him What page are you on? and he would say Go way. Finally, I came back in and he was finishing it, and he looked up and he had these tears in his eyes and he said, This is beautiful, this is beautiful. Vondie was the one who convinced me to show it to more people. He is so supportive and so proud of me and has been totally behind it the whole way, Lemmons told Holmes. The script was read by Lemmons agent, who showed it to a literary agent, who then took it to producer Caldecot Cotty Chubb. Chubb, producer of the highly regarded African-American themed film, To Sleep with Anger, agreed to produce Eves Bayou. Soon Lemmons old friend Samuel L. Jackson came on board to play the male lead and as a co-producer. Sams a very adventurous actor. He likes to do a big film, then a small film, and this gave him the opportunity to play a role he hadnt really played before. Hes this suave, smooth, sexy character people are drawn to, Lemmons told Hartl.

Directed Her Own Script

Lemmons did not plan to direct her own script but when a search for a director turned up no suitable applicants, Lemmons decided to take on the directorial duties herself. I woke up one day and thought, I went to film school, I wrote the script. Why shouldnt I direct it? I had the script. I never optioned it. I owned it, and I had Sam. It was like, if you want Sam and you want the script you have to take me. The script was not for sale without me attached, Lemmons told Renee Graham of the Boston Globe. Getting financial backing for a complex drama calling for an all-black, mostly female cast, to be helmed by an untested woman director, was not easy. To help things along, Lemmons made a short film, Dr. Hugo, based on a section of the Eves Bayou script. Finally, TriMark Pictures, seeking to change its B-movie image, agreed to underwrite the project with a modest $4 million. They needed a prestigious film and they really [wanted] to be in business with Sam Jackson, Lemmons told Rebecca Walsh-Ascher of Entertainment Weekly. To further complicate matters, Lemmons discovered she was pregnant just before the deal with TriMark was made. Lemmons son, Henry Hunter Hall, was three months old when shooting of Eves Bayou began. What was I going to do? Say no? I wanted to show that a woman could have a baby and direct a movie at the same time, Lemmons told Winters.

Lemmons assembled an impressive cast for Eves Bayou. In addition to Jackson as the womanizing Dr. Louis Batiste, the film featured Lynn Whitfield as Batistes elegant wife Roz, Debbi Morgan as his psychic sister Mozelle, and Diahann Carroll as a voodoo priestess. Lemmons met Carroll when they both worked on The Five Heartbeats Im a huge fan of Diahann Carroll. When I was a young actress in New York, Agnes of God was my favorite play. Id seen several wonderful actresses in that role, but she was my favorite as the psychiatrist. I wanted this character to be a pseudo-voodoo person, and I wanted her to be beautiful, Lemmons told Hartl. One casting difficulty was the part of Eve, the ten-year old girl through whose point of view the story is told. Originally Megan Good was set to play Eve but as time passed without a go ahead on production, Good grew too old for the part. Lemmons recast her as Eves older sister, Cisely. A widespread talent search uncovered children too slickly professional for what Lemmons wanted, and authentic-seeming children without sufficient acting ability. Three weeks before production was to begin, Lemmons found Jurnee Smollett, a Los Angeles-based child actress with only one feature film, Jack with Robin Williams, to her credit. As soon as I saw her, it was the spiritual connection. I knew instantly she was the kid. She was like the omen that blessed the film, Lemmons told Murray.

In Eves Bayou, Lemmons depicted affluent Southern blacks living in an elegant and almost magical style in rural Louisiana of the early 1960s. These proud old black families with their cotillions, and all that. And you just dont see that in films, and I wanted to show that Dorothy Dandridge dreamy beauty thats out there, Lemmons told Graham. She thought it especially important that Louis Batiste, the philandering doctor, was not portrayed as an ogre. You shouldnt hate Louis. You should feel compassion for him. Its easy to make everything black and white. But I am interested in the gray areas. Most people are not bad or good people, they are in between, Lemmons told Muhammad. Lemmons did not necessarily consider African Americans as the primary audience for Eves Bayou Sometimes youre aiming for a very specific audience, and sometimes youre trying to tell a universal story. In my case, Im trying to tell a universal story with African-American characters, Lemmons told Winters.

Reaching screens in November of 1997, Eves Bayou drew mostly excellent reviews. Every element of the filmfrom the turbulent, stormy performances to the rich cinematography (which included black-and-white computer-enhanced dream sequences) to the setting itself, in which the thick layers of hanging moss over muddy water seem to drip with sexual intrigue and secrecymerges to create an atmosphere of extraordinary erotic tension and anxiety, wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times. Desson Howe of the Washington Post called Eves Bayou a straightforward, highly entertaining depiction of African Americans a rousing, original yarn about family life that includes everyone, whether theyre from Louisiana or miles away.

Although she has not abandoned acting entirely, Lemmons intends to focus her attention on writing and directing. She was commissioned by Michelle Pfeiffer to write Privacy, a tale of tabloid journalism, that is in development at Paramount Pictures. Another Lemmons script, a mystery titled Eight Pieces for Josette, is planned as a project for Whitney Houston. Lemmons explained to HolmesMy dream is that I will either find material or create material that I feel as deeply about as I did Eves Bayou. I have a lot of stories to tell.

Sources

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 14, 1997, p. Q8.

Boston Globe, November 2, 1997, p. P1.

Entertainment Weekly, November 14, 1997, p. 60; March 6, 1998, p. 86.

Essence, September 1997, p. 108.

Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1997, California sect, p. 12; November 7, 1997, p. F16.

Ms., March-April 1998, p. 7475.

New York Times, November 7, 1997, p. E14.

Seattle Times, November 2, 1997.

Washington Post, November 2, 1997, p. G1, 8; November 7, 1997, Weekend section p. 48.

Mary Kalfatovic

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