Carmen Ejogo is back on the big screen today as she takes on the role of Coretta Scott King in Selma, which sees her work with actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay in a movie that has already been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Coretta is a figure that the actress knows well having played her before in a previous movie but got to explore a very different side to this iconic figure this time around. We caught up with the actress to chat about the role, returning to the role of Coretta and working with DuVernay for the first time.
- Selma is about to hit the big screen on Friday, can you tell me a bit about the movie?
This a film that focuses on the civil right efforts of Martin Luther King and other leaders and people of Selma at time, to bring attention to the fact that a voting right needed to a be implemented to that local states and local governments could not stop certain people from voting - it was mainly black people who were facing this prejudice and this problem.
It is a very critical moment in American history and American Civil Rights. If you are an American adult then you will definitely know about it, but if you are an American kid perhaps not. It is a moment in history - like so many from pivotal times in the sixties - that this generation often has to be educated on, which is what makes Selma as relevant as it is.
- The movie sees you take on the role of Coretta Scott King, so how did this project come about for you? And what was is about this story and this character that really drew you to the project?
I played Coretta in another project several years ago, so I knew who Coretta was and I knew her importance. The last time I got to play her, I didn't really get the scope to explore her as intimately as I would have liked - that sort of input from Coretta wasn't needed in that project. The chance to get to play her again and explore the inner workings, the psychological experiences of this woman, and how she related to Martin in a very intimate and human perspective is what was exciting to me with this chance to play her again.
She is at a very different age and a very different time in her life and I just… the contribution of women to this movement - and any movement - is often under the radar and not fully on the screen. Therefore, the opportunity to illuminate one of the most relevant women and her contribution was also part of the allure.
- I was actually going to ask you about the role of women. This is also a movie that celebrates the major role that women had to play in this revolution - something that is quite often overlooked - with the likes of Coretta, Annie Lee Cooper and Amelia Boynton. How much was that a draw for you when you read the script for the first time? It is not something that is regularly explored, as you say.
It was very exciting to me. Couple that with the knowledge that I knew that it was going to be a female director meant that I knew that it was really going to be explored fully - as much as the story would allow. There is still an overarching story that needs to be told with this story, but the fact that I knew that it was a woman at the helm, I knew that wherever the female influence could be captured and examined then she would make the best effort to do that.
The fact that Coretta is even in this film is down to Ava (DuVernay), because she made a very conscious effort to write in all of the women actually, as they weren't present in the original idea for the script. I was very exciting for me to get on board a movie that I knew was really going to explore women in all of their dimensions and their contribution to the movement. They are very different kinds of women; there is not just one victim type that needs to find their voice. There are some victims in the movie, but there are also some serious heroes and some serious rebels and pioneers.
These women are also from different generations; you have the Diane Nash character, who was a young, spirited, university educated agitator. Then you have an older version in Amelia Boynton - she may not be university educated, but she is definitely an agitator, expects activity on the ground, has a voice, and is willing to be rebellious and step out of the fray. The fact that there was such a variety of women represented in the film was something that was exciting to all of us.
- You have mentioned Ava DuVernay already and she is in the director's chair for the film, so how did you find working with her? So many members of the cast are saying that she had extraordinary attention to detail.
She had serious attention to detail. If you have seen any of her other work, one of her great strengths is relationships and behaviour and she really very masterfully gives space for the truth of a relationship between two people or between a group of people to really be allowed to flourish - that is not as easy said as done. I think that many directors have that ambition, but to actually find a way to find moments that are specific and detailed that yet reveal so much about character is a challenge - however, it is something that she rises to.
There is one scene in which I have a lot to say to Martin (laughs) - there is a monologue moment where I am really expressing the frustrations that I have been holding throughout the film - but throughout most of the film, I don't have a lot of dialogue instead, it is a lot of detail and behaviour that suggests what is on people's minds.
That is the way that I like to work as an actress and it was exciting that Ava was equally keen to explore subtext and behaviour as an indicator of what is going on psychologically with these people. It really is something that she does very well.
- You work mostly with David Oyelowo in the film, so how was that experience? The relationship between Martin and Coretta is not one that has really been explored in detail before.
I think on film, this is the first time that we really get the sense of who these people are - as opposed to what they represent and what they are symbolic for. That is what made it exciting and exploring that relationship was part of that excitement.
To get under the skin of two people that you really have very little information on, beyond the myths and the iconography, is an exciting territory to play in, because it is not fully grasped by the audience as to what they should expect. That is quite a powerful place to be because you are trying to bring to the fore a side of people that no one has a full concept of, and you are in charge of that, which is exciting.
David is incredibly generous… I am trying to think of a way to describe how he works and I can't really put my finger on it - I think there is something quite magical about it. I have had the opportunity to work with some wonderful actors and some wonderful directors, and when something really special is happening it is indefinable and not something that you can label very easily - that is the sense in which I use the word magic. He is very very giving and that is not necessarily a trait that all actors possess (laughs).
- While this is a movie that depicts events back in 1965, this movie is incredibly relevant to what is going on today - particularly in America. So how have you been finding the response to Selma? And how has it been resonating with audiences?
I think the audiences have been responding very viscerally. I think that this is a remarkable film, in that without being sentimental and without using the standard trickery of Hollywood to get at your emotions, it somehow is an intensely emotional and visceral experience to see this film. I think that is because it is a universal experience and that is why I think it is a story that will resonate with audiences around the world.
It is not just about a moment in American civil rights history; it is something that is with us constantly as a people - that is how do you find your voice in the face of oppression? That is something that is going on everywhere and all of the time. It is really an incredible demonstration of the human spirit, tenacity, and resilience that you get to watch on the screen. I think that is the reason that this film is resonating so strongly, because it really is bigger than any experience that any of us may be having locally.
- As you said earlier, Coretta Scott King is a figure that you do know well having played her before, but I wondered what sort of research that you did into her life and the political unrest at that time?
I did a lot of traditional research that you do when you play a historical character - or at least the kind that I do. I think that Tom Wilkinson had a very different approach (laughs); I don't know what his approach was. Mine approach was very much about getting into the books to get a grasp on the history and understand the place of women at that time.
There is a lot that you can take for granted and you can overstep and overreach some times if you don't really understand the full context of women's rights and roles at the time, so I really tried to understand that as much as I could. There are some really great books out there to aid with that kind of research. There is also the benefit of footage when it comes to this period of time, however, not so much with Coretta. There is stuff of her publicly that is available but I don't think I found any footage of her in a private setting.
There was some amazing stuff that David and I got our hands on, which was raw footage of her being interviewed at home; but it was an interview setting so it was still her very poised and there was a certain façade that she would implement in those settings. What was so great about that footage, it that sometimes that camera would be rolling and she wouldn't know or be prepared. Capturing those few second before she knows that the cameras are about to roll was quite indicative of who she might have been, which was super in control, super self conscious, and yet there was a seriousness about her that I found quite melancholy.
We also had the privilege of speaking to people like Senator Andrew Young, who knew both Martin and Coretta very well and he had a lot of things to say about Coretta that I found fascinating. It was a combination of anecdotal evidence, researching from books and something that I employed but had never done before, and that was studying a lot of photos of Coretta at the time. Some of the pictures where useful - those of Coretta caught off guard were priceless.
I did find myself gravitating to all of the iconic images of Coretta, such as the cover of Life Magazine at Martin's funeral or the cover of Ebony Magazine at the Selma Bridge at the beginning of the bridge. In those images I knew that she was being self-aware but at this point her life - and for the rest of her life, in my opinion - that level of self-awareness, self-consciousness and the manipulation of her own image was now something she was doing all of the time.
It had become who she was in a way; it wasn't an act anymore and had become fully integrated into who she was, in my opinion. It felt utterly appropriate to examine those images to get a feel for who the real woman had become, which I wouldn't have done before. I have never been able to use images in that way before and that was very useful.
- Throughout your career, we have seen you move between TV and film and back again, so how do find that the two mediums compare?
It has changed a lot since I started; when I first began in this industry you didn't touch television, if you did, you can forget about being taken seriously as a film actress. Therefore, I have had such a snobbish attitude towards TV (laughs) and I am really having to get over myself because some of the best work now is on television. I still have major suspicions of network TV material as I think a lot of that tends to be formulaic and I tend not to be interested in formulaic work generally; I tend to try to find the stuff that is innovative and revelatory in some way.
Cable TV is some of the most addictive, brilliantly executed character work, and high production values that you will ever get to enjoy - I am excited and intrigued by that world. What I love about film and I will always love about film, is that you get to have this fling with somebody (laughs).
It is this short-term thing where you can get really hot and heavy and super into it, and then you move on (laughs). Whereas television is like a really long marriage, and I am not really looking for that at this point in my life (laughs). The allure of film really does remain for me and is definitely what is most appealing to me at this stage.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I have just done a film called Ethan Hawke called Born To Be Blue. The producer is going to be mad at me for describing it like this, but I came to the conclusion that we made this very interesting, quirky, pseudo-biopic. The movie is about the life of Chet Baker, who was a very famous American jazz trumpeter, who was a heroin addict for most of his life and career. We explore what happens when there is a conversion of art, drug addiction, and love.
It is Ethan and I essentially, and it is set in the sixties - I am forever in the sixties. My character is an actress who is Chet's muse in this film. That is coming out later this year. It was a treat to work with Ethan and to see his take on Chet. It is a fun film: fun and dark (laughs). I like that combination; it is a good combination for me.