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Going Hollywood – Dr. Tommie Stewart, theatre director, Alabama State University

Looking calm and assured, Dr. Tommie “Toneo” Stewart settles into a chair in her office in Tullibody Hall at Alabama State University. Posters and awards line the walls in her office, where she has worked as director of theater for the last six years.


On this particular morning, however, she is not Stewart the director but Tonea the actress, fielding telephone calls from her agent and publicist and juggling interviews. All this after her appearance in A Time to Kill, the new movie based on the John Grisham novel of the same name.


Stewart is not new to acting or to the attention that comes with success in the business. Her credits include two television movies, four television series, ten equity theater performances, two touring company performances, 16 years of touring her one-woman “informance” show, and now films. Until now, however, her work — most recently in Matlock, In the Heat of the Night, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Livin’ Large — has always taken a back seat to her primary roles as teacher, wife and mother to three children, ages 16, 21 and 24.


But this movie has propelled her into a new level of attention. “Having the opportunity to be a part of A Time to Kill was a chance in a lifetime for me,” says Stewart. “It is the most meaningful role I’ve played on the giant screen.”


“I’m going against all odds — being in Montgomery and the South,” she says. “I’m out of the mainstream. To get in this league of performance, you have to be in Hollywood or New York.” Nonetheless, made it she has. She’s gotten good reviews in national trade journals and there’s been a whirlwind of interviews with the local press, autograph parties and book signings. The public’s image of movie making and all its trappings is very different from reality, says Dr. Stewart.


For her role as Gwen Hailey in A Time to Kill, she worked for more than three solid weeks on location in Canton, Miss. Each day began at 6 a.m. and lasted until the “segment” was finished — sometimes 10 p.m. or later. “It’s difficult to get these roles or to even be considered,” she says. “You have to have an agent and a union card to even audition for most major roles. It’s extremely hard to be seen.”


Roles are filled based on the mind of the director — his or her mental image of the character. Stewart, for example, never auditioned for the role of Gwen. “The director (Joel Schumacher) said he knew I was Gwen when he saw me,” she says.


“Tonea’s true talent is seen in the courtroom scene, through her facial expressions,” says director Joel Schumacher. “She has a true gift not just as an actress, but as a person.” With good roles comes star treatment — limos, first-class air and hotel accommodations, and airport layovers spent in the Crown Room or Royal Room.


“That’s the glamorous part,” says Stewart, “but what you go through to get to that point is not glamorous.” Before you make it in the business, you pay your own airfare for auditions and you make your own hotel accommodations (at a friend’s house, if possible). If you’re called back for an audition, you pay for that, too, she says.


Then, when the film comes out, there are the negative and insensitive comments from friends and loved ones. After having beaten hundreds of other actresses who were standing in the hallways competing for the role, after all the expense, after giving your all to the performance, when the film comes out, you might just be in a couple of scenes and you might not say a word. And those around you can be very hurtful without meaning to, she says. “Is that all you’re gonna do?” they’ll say. “I thought you were gonna be a movie star.”


“That’s the hardest part,” says Stewart, “the rejection and lack of support from the people you love when they don’t show any pride or express any genuine joy for what you do. It’s why so many actors end Lip on drugs and alcohol. These crutches become a way of coping with the hurt.”


Stewart says her safety net in dealing with the ups and downs of the movie business is her faith in God and helping young people through her work at ASU. “I give so I don’t have to receive anything,” she says. “Helping young people, that’s my high.”


“Only God knows where this will lead. I might end up directing a movie. I might end Lip with my own show. One day,” she admits. “I would like to smile and say that I received a $1 million-plus contract. Until then, she’s content to work her other job — making ASU’s theater the best.


Stewart, who was born in Greenwood, Miss., holds a master of theater arts from the University of California Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. She has taught in higher education for 26 years, the last six as professor and director of theater at Alabama State University. “There’s no business like show business,” she says with a sigh.


– Julie DeBardelaben

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