She's every woman.
Irma P. Hall founded her award-winning career on the same tenet she holds true today as she comes close upon her 82nd year. Rather than cling to vanity or any illusion of youth, she made a conscious and well-measured decision that's come to define her long career.
"I would like to play older women," Hall told director Raymond St. Jacques.
This was after he discovered her and cast her in Book of Numbers (1973) after hearing her read poetry. "I want to tell their stories so profoundly that no one will ever forget those characters. I don't care if they don't know who Irma P. Hall is."
And then there was the work. She says she took 13 takes to shoot an ad early in her career.
"I said, 'I'm wasting these people's time and money. I will never do that again. I based my career on being a one- or two-take actress."
Those decisions have led her into people's hearts.
Watch and love her as "Big Mama" in Soul Food, Marva Munson in The Ladykillers, even standing in the middle of a graveyard as Minerva in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
She gets to tell another story when she plays MeMaw in the second season of Hap and Leonard that debuts Wednesday, March 15, at 9 on Sundance TV.
"I have played all kinds of old women," she says, noting that MeMaw is a caretaker. "I keep finding them. There are more different old women than young women. Because young women try to imitate each other. They dress alike. They look alike. They smell alike.
"It's when they get older that they become individuals." It's then that they have stories, she says, explaining patiently and with examples, just as the best teachers do.
Hap and Leonard: Mucho Mojo, based on the book by East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale, follows the trials and tribulations of two unlikely friends. Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Michael Kenneth Williams) get into one scrape after another but dig themselves out by luck, ingenuity and just plain being scrappy.
This season, an innocent Leonard is arrested for a murder. But there's always a piece of MeMaw's pie to help ease the pain. Hall is almost perfectly cast, as she has been in most of her roles.
That's because this career beckoned her, even as she tried to steer clear.
She had been teaching for more than a decade when she got her first film role at the age of 36, she says. She taught foreign languages, with her first job coincidentally at the school that's now for the performing and visual arts, Booker T. Washington. By the time she had her last teaching job at Madison, she was teaching theater.
"I would say, 'I can't take off from school'," she says. "I still didn't think they were serious. I didn't believe they were serious until I was standing there in costume and lights."
She thought that would be it, and she could return to her first love of teaching.
"I did a movie," she says. "That was by accident."
"It was so beautiful to see that look come into their eyes. I said, 'I wanna do that.' That's what I want to do."
She claps her hands and laughs, saying she just kept getting roles. She played a maid in Dallas, original flavor, and had roles in TV movie Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and its sequel, II.
"I said, 'God, just when I was getting the hang of this teaching thing, you stopped me'."
God may have ordered her steps, but there's something to be said about intent and purpose after the order is given. She planned her work and worked her plan. She became a teacher of another sort.
"One day it occurred to me that I am still teaching," she says, clearly smitten. "In everything I've done, I have been teaching something."
She's used her celebrity for other things.
She co-founded Dallas Minority Repertory Theater, even though, at the time, "I didn't know upstairs from outdoors." Though she has stopped doing stage work because of mobility issues, Chicago and Dallas stages -- she smiles when she says, "Theatre Three" -- are haunted by her presence.
"The first thing I did was Pearly," she says. "Norman Young cast me in Member of the Wedding."
This memory comes easy even though she says, "names of people, places and things elude me now. I can remember scripts and that's about it."
She speaks on occasion. And when she does, her entire life sings cinematic.
Born in Beaumont and spending her formative years in Chicago, Dallas became her home when she accepted a teaching position after graduating Texas College.
Her father was a jazz musician and she lived around stages all her life. Everything before led her to the transition to acting for which she's been well-awarded. She won a couple of Jeff awards in Chicago, where she had returned to care for her ailing parents, and had eventually turned to the stage; the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury, Women Film Critics Circle and Black Reel awards for The Ladykillers; an NAACP Image Award for Soul Food; Chicago Film Critics and Kansas City Film Critics Circle awards for A Family Thing; and she's in the Texas Film Hall of Fame.
She films everywhere, including Atlanta for Hap and Leonard, but she still lives in South Oak Cliff. She never wanted to move again or be a star or famous and rich. She just wanted to make living. But not too much of one.
Hall firmly believes that more money=more problems.
"Being rich carries a lot of responsibility that I didn't want," she says. "Money, to me, is to use. I didn't want to be worried with it. I just want enough to do what I want to do. And I have enough for that.
"I live inside, I have food to eat. I have insurance. I have everything I need. My guardian angel has had so much work to do. If there's a mistake, I've made it."
She may be past wanting the money or even the fame, but there's one thing she doesn't mind.
She tells one of her stories: A man saw her from across the street and yelled, "Big Momma." She looked up and he had made his way over to embrace her.
Hall is where and what she was meant to be all along, teaching, making an impact and telling her story and others' on the screen.
And giving hugs.