Interview | Carmen Ejogo Discusses Selma
Though the focus of Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated Selma is rightfully on Martin Luther King, throughout there is a great emphasis on how a collective group can accomplish great change. Just as King was surrounded by a host of great men and women, so to is Selma’s star David Oyelowo aided by a terrific ensemble.
One of its members is Carmen Ejogo, who plays Coretta Scott King for the second time in Selma. Ahead of the film’s home entertainment release, I spoke to the actress about meeting Coretta King, black actresses in Hollywood, and much more.
AMONymous: With everything that was happening in America at the time of Selma’s US theatrical release, what is your biggest takeaway from that promotional circuit?
Carmen Ejogo: To have been part of something that had such perfect timing in terms of what was happening on the streets of America was quite a thing to be caught up in. Retrospectively I’m incredibly proud to talk to journalists and news outlets about a creative endeavour that has some sort of relevance to what was happening on the streets in real life and that’s a rare experience to be part of. I’m very grateful for that because it definitely makes me even more conscious of what I’m going to do next as an actress and what I want to do next and how I want to operate as an artist in the world.
AMONymous: This is the second time you’ve played Coretta King, and I know you got to meet her. How did you approach that meeting and what did you take away from that meeting?
Carmen Ejogo: I didn’t even know I was going to meet her! This was after I had made Boycott [released in 2001, the first time Ejogo played Coretta] and I was at an event where we were talking about social change and she happened to attend. I got to go and meet her and she’s really changed my life in so many ways. I met my then husband and had two children – at that time I only had one child. Through meeting him I had a family, so it was really overwhelming to finally meet the woman who had ushered in this new part of my life. To have read so much about her, to study someone so closely, and then to meet her face to face isn’t a situation I’ve ever been in before. I’ve played historical characters but only people who had been dead already. So I was moved to tears, it was quite overwhelming. On top of that, she was such a stoic character. Quite austere, quite cold when you first meet her. She had a really warm smile, but she’s so used to being self-preserving and presenting a certain side of herself that it was a little daunting. I used that knowledge and experience in my portrayal in Selma. I didn’t necessarily know that about her when I played her the first time round. I think I added a little bit of that energy instinctively but now I’ve been face to face with it and I knew that that was very much a part of who this woman was. She held court when she was in a room, and that was certainly something that I tried to bring to Selma.
AMONymous: Is there any other role you’d like to return to?
Carmen Ejogo: That’s a good question! We talked about this when we were excited about what was possible for Sparkle when it first came out. The idea of playing that character again after she left jail and had a washed up, faded girl who’s trying to reconcile how her life has slipped by her…I think that could be a really interesting role to play. And Sister is such a favourite among people who follow my work that I know that there would be an appetite for it. I do like to keep moving forward though. There are all types of characters that I think would be exciting to tackle that I haven’t tried yet.
AMONymous: One of the things I find most impressive about the film is that it’s not a typical birth-to-death biopic, but it’s a wonderful snapshot that is indicative of the whole. Is there any moment like that you can think of making this film that is indicative of what the production process was like for you?
Carmen Ejogo: My experience with Selma was very specific because I am very particular relative to the other actors. I really only worked with David and then occasionally with other actors. A lot of what the film is about is the collective experience, and how as a collective change was made. In terms of my work, every scene was indicative of Ava’s [Duvernay] style of working in that there was more of a focus on rehearsal than you typically get in filmmaking. We were certainly coming to the set with a sense of what we wanted to get out of it. But then Ava was open enough to let us physically improvise. The kitchen scene is a good example of that where we came in, myself and David hadn’t seen the house yet, and we had to very quickly get a feel for the room and a feel for a place that you’re meant to have lived in for a year. Ava had a particular idea in mind for that scene, but there was a willingness to let David and I organically work through the space. The whole bit of him trying to find a garbage bag to put the garbage out – that wasn’t part of the scene, but we realised that it was those domestic details that were going to be as revealing as anything that we said to each other. We didn’t have that many scenes to work with to tell a lot about these two people. It was a big relationship to try and capture in what is maybe four of five scenes between David and I. In terms of Ava’s process as a filmmaker, that was definitely a scene where we went in with one idea and came out with the idea intact but with embellishments that really focused on the details. Ava’s all about the details – that’s her specialty in my opinion.
AMONymous: One of the standout scenes of the film is when Coretta confronts Kind about his infedility. There’s a wonderful use of silence, and it felt like you and David were completely in sync even if your characters weren’t. How much of that was on the page and how much of that manifested as you were filming?
Carmen Ejogo: In terms of dialogue it was all on the page. Ava had written that scene from scratch and she had very clear intentions as to what the shape of the scene should be and what the words meant. There wasn’t deviation in that sense. In terms of the blocking and so on, it’s David sitting there watching me so any movement and emotional shifting was going to have to come from me. The reason that scene is so successful is that there is a respect for silence, for thought and the space between words. The unspoken speaks loudly in a scene like that. It’s about two people that know each other really well and that are going through something and that’s again one of Ava’s specialties – really respecting silence. It’s an underestimated tool in filmmaking. There are certain rhythms that we all expect to see when it comes to American movies, certain beats you have to hit, and as an actor you are always conscious of that. But when you realise that you’re working with a director like Ava and she isn’t beholden to that, it’s immediately liberating and that’s when you can start doing some interesting work. I’m always keen to find the honesty, truth and authenticity in a scene, but also perhaps the approach to the scene that is less considered just to see what might happen.
AMONymous: You talked a little bit about paying attention to details when you were playing Coretta. If someone were going to play Carmen Ejogo one day, what do you think is the hardest thing about you that an actress would have to nail down?
Carmen Ejogo: That’s such a great question! I’ve noticed about myself that as an actress I gravitate towards characters that have an external appearance that is somewhat different from their internal workings and what is going on emotionally for them. As much as I really try to express myself authentically always, I think there’s an awful lot going on internally that doesn’t always get its opportunity to be expressed fully which is maybe why I get excited by the idea of acting because in different ways different sides of myself can maybe reveal themselves a little bit. I think that would be the main challenge for an actress, to really be able to get inside my head [laughs]. To really know what that looks like would be a challenge for everyone, because it’s pretty complicated!
AMONymous: We’ve come a long way since the 1960’s but we still have a way to go. What are some things as a black actress that aren’t as far along as you’d like them to be?
Carmen Ejogo: As an actress what I enjoy and what I take pleasure in is transforming into someone other than myself. I find it limiting when I’m only perceived as a black actress, in that there are all kinds of women and all kinds of people who’s head I’d like to get into and whose being I’d like to express. What is most intriguing about them for me is not what race they are. There are other things that make them worth playing that I will never get the chance to play potentially until the industry makes a few more leaps and bounds. It’s getting there. But that’s what I look forward to because I wanna play anything and everything that intrigues me. I don’t want to be limited by obvious preconceptions about what I understand and what I don’t understand. There should be no limits to how I’m perceived and how I will be perceived by an audience. That’s what I’m working at, in my small way. Any choice I make I’m trying to push that perception in the industry, which is why a movie like The Purge: Anarchy was exciting to me. It’s a movie that was #40 on the top earning films of the year it was released. It’s a film about social and cultural issues on one level, but at the same time it’s a really good popcorn movie where you have someone like me in the female lead. That kind of potential is there for so many films that I don’t necessarily get considered for. Then when I’m given a shot, it brings home the audience and it brings home the money. There’s no argument against making that kind of thing happen more often.
Selma is out on DVD and Blu-Ray now. Read my review here.