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The Original Big Mama: Actress Irma P. Hall reflects on 40+ years in drama

Chelsea Jones | 3/27/2014, 9:42 p.m. | Updated on 3/28/2014, 1:18 p.m.
“One finger pointing the blame don’t make no impact. But you ball up all them fingers into a fist, and ...
Irma P Hall, in the role of Mrs. Munson, plays a scene from the movie The Ladykillers with Tom Hanks, left, and Marlon Wayans, in this undated publicity photo. Touchstone/Associated Press

The Dallas Examiner

“One finger pointing the blame don’t make no impact. But you ball up all them fingers into a fist, and you can strike a mighty blow. This family got to be that fist.” – Big Mama in Soul Food

When people spot her in public, she’s immediately recognized as Big Mama from the film Soul Food (1997), or Mrs. Marva Munson from The Ladykillers (2004), or even Mildred from Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns (2008).

But her name is Irma P. Hall.

The 79-year-old actress has achieved wide acclaim during her highly successful acting career, which has spanned over four decades. She is known to portray various characters, many of which are caring matriarchs that offer sound advice, with grace and style.

Critics deem her such a natural on stage and screen that it’s hard to believe she started acting by accident. She began her journey as a teacher.

Born Irma Dolores Player Hall on June 3, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, she moved with her parents to Chicago where she attended elementary and high school. She spent two years at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, and graduated from Texas College in Tyler.

Since childhood she possessed a love for foreign languages and decided to major in French and minor in Spanish. Her plans were to become a store buyer and study dance. However, those plans were quickly thwarted after she received an epiphany during her first days of teaching.

For nearly 30 years, she either taught French, Spanish, Latin, English and/or theater arts at various schools in Texas, including Dallas schools Booker T. Washington High School (1962-1967), Sarah Zumwalt Jr. High School (1967-1971), T.W. Browne Jr. High School (1972-1976) and James Madison High School (1976-1984). Periodically, she also worked as a school publicist and contributing editor for The Dallas Express, the Elite News and The Dallas Weekly newspapers.

Introduction to Acting

In 1972, director and actor Raymond St. Jacques was in Texas to produce and star in the film Book of Numbers. Hall had been hired as the film’s interim publicist. One day on the set, St. Jacques heard her reciting a poem to a group of writers and artists.

Impressed, he asked her to audition for a role. Hall mentioned that she told him, “I don’t know anything about acting. I’ve been in school plays, but all kids have been in school plays.”

Nevertheless, she auditioned and got the small role of Sweet Georgia Brown. Hall, then a 36-year-old single mother of two, was shocked, yet excited.

“When I was in costume and makeup, I remember telling my daughter, ‘These people are going to really put me in this film,’” Hall said.

Hall recalled being extremely nervous because she had never acted before. However, D’Urville Martin, one of the film’s co-stars, took her under his wing and encouraged her to just do her best. She didn’t want to mess up, so she continuously practiced her lines and did a lot of praying.

She commented that St. Jacques, after reviewing the footage from daily tapings, pulled her aside and informed her that she had natural acting abilities that needed to be developed. He assured her that God had given her a gift, and she was obligated to use it.