Carmen Ejogo Talks ‘True Detective’
Carmen Ejogo’s performance in True Detective 3 could be described as a stealth weapon. Early on in the series, she could be misconstrued as simply the “love interest” for Mahershala Ali’s lead character. Slowly, perhaps sneakily, the weight of her performance and the significance of her character grows throughout the season, until it becomes clear that not only is her Amelia essential to the drama, but also the driving force and the beating heart that leads us to season 3’s remarkable conclusion.
Here, we discuss the slow, feminist burn of her role on what many have called a comeback season after the critical disappointment of the second installment of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s franchise.
How did you come to True Detective 3?
I found out that Mahershala was interested in the idea of me playing Amelia. That was the first time I heard about the project. Then I spoke to Nick quite a lot – trying to get the feel for what I could expect for Amelia for the full season. Because the first few episodes weren’t…some roles punch you in the face on the page, and it’s really obvious what you are going to do with it. Other roles, even though the writing is beautiful and eloquent, as the actress bringing that role to light, it can be more of a challenge. That was how I felt about this role. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be remarkable about what I could bring to it. I had to talk to Nic and understand his intention for the full season. When I did, I realized just how important Amelia was going to be. Nic called her the “secret weapon” of the show. That she was going to be a true detective in many regards, as well as the subconscious and poetic voice of the show. There were all these wonderful roles I was going to get to play (within the one role). She’s a slow burn of a character. You really have to experience her over eight episodes to fully appreciate her impact. I (then) realized it was going to be excited to get involved.
Over the course of the show, she really becomes the heartbeat of the season. She’s the ultimate truth-seeker. She does sneak up on you though.
I completely agree. You know, I often find myself playing the conscience of a show. Whether it be Roman J. Israel, opposite Denzel Washington last year, or Selma, I can think of several shows where that seems to be the thing embedded into the material that I seem to respond to. She’s a delightfully messy character though as well. As much as she’s the conscience, she’s got these very contradictory layers. She’s a nurturer, but as she comes into her own, as she gets older and becomes a mother, she’s also becomes highly ambitious herself as time moves on. She’s almost trying to find a space away from being the crutch to Wayne’s (Mahershala Ali) needy persona. There’s all kinds of things over the decades (that the story covers) I get to explore. But ultimately, she’s the core of the ideas (of the season). They definitely sort of channel through her.
It’s interesting, because Wayne and his partner (played by Stephen Dorff), their engagement with the case they are trying to solve ebbs and flows, whereas your character remains relentlessly – if quietly – consistent in seeking the truth throughout.
I’m so glad you picked up on that. I really had to trust the writing on this project. Maybe that’s why in some ways it’s one of the trickiest roles I’ve ever played. I had to really avoid the temptation to do something louder, bigger, to keep up with the other amazing performances that were happening in the show. I just had to trust that if I’m honest to the authenticity of Amelia’s “slow and steady wins the race” attitude, that even though it takes time to really appreciate what’s happening with my character, that she would connect. I feel grateful that I was given the space, the license, to take my time with the character, and allow her strategy to culminate in a way that drives the men. I think women do that a lot in real life. Amelia finds her voice as the show progresses. I think that’s the journey of women very often. They have to emerge into their full, articulated selves over a long period of time. Post-marriage. Post-children. Once they’ve passed those milestones.
In that way, the role seemed to me to be quite a feminist statement. Women must be perfect to get noticed, whereas men can just show up and get attention. It certainly seems to parallel modern times.
Oh, it parallels my entire career as well! (Laughs). I’ve been careful about my body of work. I recognize if I came out loud and big in one or two roles. I recognize that women who come out like that don’t always get to stick around. Whereas men that I can think of who are in their 50s now have been allowed to (reinvent themselves) and make their mark. I think maybe that’s why I’ve been comfortable in supporting roles to this point. Because I think you can say a lot more, do a lot more when you’re not at the helm. The thing that’s so great about this show – and so brilliant of Nic – it’s that in the end he has so subverted the expectations of what the woman will be in this sort of project, by giving her the reigns. I think Amelia has steered the ship when you observe the relationship between Wayne and her. That’s really what’s gone down. I thought that was very smart of Nic – to have explored the female role in that way.
She steers the ship even in death. She’s still on Wayne’s shoulder.
That’s exactly right. In life, there is a sense of emasculation that Wayne has to confront, that is born out of the fact that he’s watching his wife excel, and self-actualize, and become very much her own person. I think that’s an impact she has on him. Also, in death, I think there’s a contemplative space that Wayne inhabits in his older years, that again, is born out of the fact that he didn’t fully appreciate his wife while she was alive. She is on so many regards affecting the case and the main players in the show.
The series itself is known for exploring masculinity – whether toxic or otherwise. One of the criticisms I often read was in its depiction of female characters on the show. This year, while the show still dealt with those masculine themes, it seemed to bring forth a more pronounced female perspective more than in the past. Did you feel that was different than in the first two seasons?
I appreciated all the seasons in different ways. What I think was really exciting in this season for me, is that I don’t think Nic was shying away from the full gamut of what the female experience can look like. On one hand, I think he was challenged by that criticism, on the other hand, I don’t think he could care less. He did approach the part in an honest and authentic way. Maybe this character is based on somebody in real life for him, that made it a more multi-dimensional portrayal on the page. I know for myself, what I picked up on, was this complex, nuanced truth about women. And even more specifically, truth about women in the 80s and in the 90s. It was so time specific. For example: as feminist in some ways as Amelia is and becomes, there are moments in the show where she does things that are quite anti-feminist. The flirting with the police is a scene I had real trouble with justifying. My 2018 head on my shoulders didn’t feel that would be appropriate to play. But Amelia in the 1980s would absolutely be expected to use the assets in her armor. I appreciated that Nic recognized there were certain vulnerabilities – you can be a feminist woman in the world and still have certain foibles, or insecurities, or (have the willingness to) play certain games that maybe you shouldn’t. I loved the fact that he was willing to go there, because given the critique of previous seasons, it would have been much easier – much safer – to keep her on a certain feminist track the whole way. I think she’s quite incomparable to the other seasons. I’m always attracted to women on the page that are complicated and messy and have this internal life that isn’t being realized and doesn’t match up to the external. That was something I got to play within this show a lot too. The costume and hair of the 80s was a much more provocative and seductive aesthetic, but it looks a bit uncomfortable – maybe she’s not owning her sexuality at that point in her life. Then we get into the 90s and I think there’s a certain swagger about her that suggests she’s more in control of her own energy and sexuality. I put weight on as I went through the show to try to look more like someone who has had kids and change the silhouette of the outfits. Likewise, with hair, I thought it was a much freer look in the 90s, relative to the more coiffed look in the 80s. All these sorts of choices I thought were there to be played with.
I think Amelia is so interesting because like most people she’s never one thing all the time.
I think in her self-discovery she’s trying on different hats. I think she knows she’s an artist, but she’s not sure quite what that looks like when we first meet her. But it’s still there. It’s still resides even if she hasn’t figured out how to harness it. How much each side of her gets revealed at certain points was something I was always conscious of. But also knowing those sides were all essentially bubbling under the surface simultaneously. One of the challenges was to be this incredibly complicated woman but have all these various energies simmering. But also, to make sure that it felt like a cohesive persona over the 20-30 years that I’m playing. How I got there, I’m not entirely sure. (Laughs). I think just allowing myself to accept that she was all of those things. Sometimes you feel like you have to pick and choose what your character is going to be upfront. To be honest to Amelia was to acknowledge she was all of those things all of the time, but you don’t necessarily see all of it all the time. Figuring out how to layer it that way was interesting and quite a challenge.
Her relationship with Wayne is incredibly complicated too. They are two very different people. From their life experience, politics, and education. What was the piece that you think connected the two of them?
That’s what makes them such a fascinating coupling. It’s a little jarring at times. I made a decision to feed into that mismatched energy. I enjoyed the prospect of playing with Mahershala in a way that we didn’t find sweet spots all the time. We actually allowed for it to feel at times, discordant. From an acting point of view, I feel like you are often trying figure out how to fix rhythm and try to make something feel like it has a perfect sort of arc within a scene. I love the fact that we didn’t try to fix a lot of that stuff. I was quite comfortable feeling that it didn’t fully resolve. The scene at dinner between he and I where it starts and stops, and it doesn’t quite hit the rhythm you’d expect that kind of scene to hit. That was exciting to me. I think for Mahershala too – definitely when we were playing it. It felt like something vibrational was happening. To speak to the idea that these are two people who don’t connect, I think what brings them together in the first place is that word “vibrational,” or chemical. There was something on a very base, animal level that they are picking up on each other. I feel that although Amelia is his intellectual superior, she probably had men in her family that were much like Wayne. Maybe it was an uncle who went to Vietnam, or her father. (Men) in a small town in Arkansas who never had the same ambition she had, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar to her. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel comfortable when she sees (Wayne) in front of her. Once she gets into it (married to Wayne), and she’s got kids, she finds it’s not quite satisfying, but then it’s too late. (Laughs). I think that’s what happens to Amelia with Wayne.
There are clues early on as to why Wayne and Amelia don’t work out in the long run. I think it’s too simple to say the case, which brought them together, is what broke them apart. I think in reality; it was their natures.
Absolutely. There are fundamental differences that could never be fixed. What I really think is quite beautiful about the show is…in the end… the notion of self-healing. The idea that you can fix yourself if you keep working at it. There’s a couple of scenes with me in my 50s with (Wayne) where I think we both come to the conclusion that there will always be things that don’t make us a great match, but now there is so much that we have shared along the way that there really isn’t anyone else that would make sense for us at that point. I don’t think it’s a negative space by the end. I think they come to a healthy perception of themselves, and acceptance. Just acceptance at the end. I think it’s an admirable place to get to. It’s so elusive for many.
The relationship between Amelia and Wayne reminded me of the one between Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener. Where the male character finds he loves and understands his wife more after she dies. The mystery of her becomes clearer to him and his appreciation is so much greater. I thought that was much the same for Wayne.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen that film, but I absolutely agree with the sentiment. It’s only in retrospect that he fully understands and appreciates what she brought, including essentially figuring out the case. Had he paid closer attention while she was alive, maybe he would have nurtured their relationship a little more. Had he been as mindful as she was over the years looking after him, his personal growth, and his needs, he may have read her book and figured out the case a lot sooner. When trying to find a coupling to compare to Amelia and Wayne, I really can’t come up with any.
I obviously had to dig to find one (The Constant Gardener)! (Laughs).
Yeah! That’s a deep dig! When I first read it, I was worried it was two people arguing too much. I had to think, “have I done this before?” But the fact that Mahershala and I figured out how to do this differently, in a way that was fresh and honored the writing – I’m really proud of that.
I can only imagine that working so closely with Mahershala was a great experience.
It was actually very complicated. I now truly believe that it was the way the writing was demanding complicated ups and downs out of us. I think we both wanted to go there and make that happen. The back and forth over seven months of playing a couple that connects and then disconnects throughout the season was really challenging. As actors, we start blurring what’s real and what isn’t at a certain point. I think Mahershala said somewhere, “It was intimate and difficult in the healthiest way.” I couldn’t agree more. (Laughs).