Carmen Ejogo is in London about to watch a show on the West End, but the busy actress found time to talk to Awards Daily about her latest role, Coretta Scott King in the film, Selma. This is not the first time Ejogo has played the role, so we chatted to her about playing the same person twice, working with female director – Ava DuVernay, and what it was like seeing the film for the first time.
Awards Daily: You’ve had the opportunity to play the same person twice. How did you approach the role of Coretta differently for Selma?
Carmen Ejogo: It was an absolute honor to play her twice. I got to meet her after the first time. She had seen my performance in Boycott and really liked it a lot. So, I felt going into Selma that I had her blessing. It gave me a little bit more confidence in playing her again. I was also intrigued in doing it again because it was such a different time in Coretta’s life and therefore a very different woman that I portrayed, which gave all kinds of interesting challenges. To be consistent in some ways to what I knew her to be as the woman in the 50’s, but also to embellish and add upon that with things which I knew would had evolved in her emotionally, psychologically and in all kinds of ways. Some of those things, were the fact she had to live as many, by 1965 she lived for many more years playing the wife and mother role, more so than she bought into when she married King. When we meet her in Boycott in 1955, at that point she was still very much the naive, young, optimistic wife who had all kinds of ambitions of her own. That she, in another era perhaps would have fulfilled, but being married to King and being part of the community, it meant being the progressive, being the feminist, being the singer she was trained to be, all of those things sort of got pushed to the way side.
A lot of who she really was not so revealed in 1965, so it was a lot of fun to figure out how to play someone who clearly had all this buoyancy and potential in them, but is also trapped by her own destiny, by her own image and by the role she had bought into and was willingly playing, so that was a big difference. There was also the fact that I feel strongly that at this point, the notion of death, and the movement surrounding her generally was very much something bearing down on her. Also the idea that her husband would be lost at some point, I think was feeling more inevitable, in my opinion by 1965, and that must have been an intensely difficult thing to grapple with on a daily basis. In some ways she was freer with the way she looked. In 1965, she’s very much stuck in a mould with the aesthetic. She’s like the Jackie O of the Civil Rights movement.
Many years ago, I watched an episode of Oprah in the UK, and it was a makeover of Coretta. Oprah’s whole agenda was to give her a make over. She looked the same in 2000 or whenever this episode was filmed as she did in 1965. When I met her, it was the same thing, like she was trapped in an era, a certain time frame. In some ways, to honor that and liberate her from that was my challenge.
AD: As a British actress, do you feel you had a different perspective coming into this film, as opposed to an American portraying the wife of Martin Luther King, because that whole movement is something we’re not really taught in our schools in the UK?
CE: No, I didn’t know who she was at all until I went to audition for Boycott. I think there are many ways of looking at how this is a benefit or detriment. I think mostly it’s a benefit, I don’t see much of a detriment in any way, that if you’re not from the culture. If you have the acumen or capacity to transform enough then that’s what acting is,isn’t it? (laughs). I don’t have a problem with other actresses coming in from other places. As an added benefit, What’s so genius about Ava as a black woman from Compton, LA who is so much seeped in the history, she still has the willingness and not be scared to portray these characters in all of their messiness and not feel as if she’s obligated to present perfectly wholesome healthy people. I understand there’s that impulse though because we so rarely get represented as black people on screen in all of our facets, in all of our dimensions, in all of our glory as it were. I remember David (Oyelowo) and I looking at each other, when we were decked out and we were like the King and Queen of the movement. David said to me, “How often do we see ourselves like this on screen?” It was like a moment of revelation. So, I understand that when you are given the opportunity to play really heroic and beautiful people , why wouldn’t you want to put something on screen so beautifully and heroically. I think by not being of the culture and not being quite as beholding to that as an idea, means that you can get a bit more human than your portrayal and a bit more under the skin. which is essential when you’re trying to bring these kind of characters who can very easily feel 2-dimensional very quickly or feel like a postage stamp version of King, or these really stale history book versions of Coretta. I think it’s an obligation on our part to find a way to flesh them out and that includes all the messiness. I think that being British, a really long way of answering the question (chuckles), and not being of the culture means I feel a little less inclined to not be scared to get under the skin perhaps.
AD: That confrontational scene is really powerful.
CE: That was a great piece of writing by Ava again. That was helpful to me, knowing that was in the script because so much of what I have to play before and after, is tapping into the newer, sad persona of Coretta, which was very much who she was. But knowing that essential scene was there, meant that even if I did portray her in a slightly less dynamic and more intimate and more quiet and reserved fashion in the rest of the film, that scene would allow me to reveal the undercurrent and emotional drama that was living within her constantly. Kudos to Ava.
AD: What was it like working with Ava and what did she bring to the film?
CE: She brings pretty much everything that any A-List male director would bring to a film. She has strong vision, she has commitment to that vision. She has capacity to lead, to see that the vision is actualized. She also has that other dimension, which is a female dimension, the capacity to really explore intimate relationships. This film is comprised of many two handed scenes and many set pieces. She is so good at both. I have a personal inkling that the female component lends itself well to those two-handed moments that she explores. She has a real ear and a feel for the authenticity of the rhythm of language and interaction between people. One of the things that worked for David and I, is she’s not scared to let us take our time, which sounds like the obvious thing.
When you watch films that come out of Hollywood, there’s a certain rhythm, a predictable beat that everyone starts hitting in the movie. There’s a certain structure the script has to take, a certain place where you have to reach a certain crescendo, and then you have to come down, and even within a scene there’s that expectation you have to follow. She’s very comfortable with breaking that expectation. She did that In The Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow. She capable of, and comfortable with doing that, and it brings a freshness to this material. I feel that it’s a female approach in my opinion.
AD: Coretta is such a great character in the film, in the way we see her contribution to the black women’s movement. What did you learn from playing her?
CE: That she was the definition of tolerance and dignity. That’s something that as a woman of this day and age, I don’t know if I would have the patience to handle with the obstruction with in really just being herself in the full way possible. That to me, in this moment in time, I would perhaps see the woman that wasn’t going to live up to her own potential, as being weak. I think that a woman of that time and a woman in her predicament, it was the ultimate power and ultimate strength that she made the choice to live that way with him. She chose it and lived by it, and was giving us a great lift in turn. That is a really powerfully and beautifully and oddly feminist thing to do. She’s a strange bag of contradictions to me. In the end I see her power, rather than any weaknesses. The more I investigate and look at how she managed to hold herself together given the enormity and the rate of the things that she was having to work against.
AD: What was it like seeing Selma in full for the first time?
CE: I got to see it in New York. It was pretty awesome because when I saw it, it was the same day the Mike Brown verdict came out. To come out into Times Square and to be surrounded by screens that were ticker taping the news, having gone through this incredibly visceral experience. There’s this sense of power that comes with seeing the film, and so to come out into the street and see that verdict was this bizarre mix of disappointment in the moment. Having come out feeling empowered, I felt as that, Selma and what it shows, and what it will continue to show, even in the face of that news, that there are options and there is a potential for real change on a policy level as the film clearly examines and demonstrates, so it was kind of a bittersweet day to see that movie.
The next time I got to see it and talk about it in any great length was at the junket on the day of the marches in New York. So, it felt like there was this ground swell that continues to be burdening and gaining momentum. Ultimately I’m excited by what this film has to offer, it has a universal message that goes beyond race and what is going on in the streets of America. It has resonance to all kinds of people that are trying to find their voice against oppression in whatever way it presents itself.
Divide and conquer is a tactic that has been used in forever, but we forget about the power of the collective if we remind ourselves of it. I think anything is truly possible, it sounds like a massive feat, but you see it so elegantly demonstrated in the people of that time in this film. You realized that people with nothing on their side, nothing that would suggest who had victory in their sight and or that there was any potential for that victory to be theirs, and yet it was achievable. I think it’s all possible.
Selma is in cinemas now.