It’s rare for an actor to portray the same historic character in more than one project, but Carmen Ejogo has taken a second shot at getting into the skin of Coretta Scott King. Beginning on Christmas Day, audiences can see her in director Ava DuVernay’s civil rights film “Selma,” 13 years after portraying Scott King in HBO’s miniseries “Boycott.”
The actress, who comes from a Scottish-Nigerian background, says she knew as soon as she read the “Selma” script that the part was worth fighting for, so she flew from New York to L.A. on her own dime to audition for the director.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said that Ejogo is married to Jeffrey Wright. The two are no longer married.
“I got myself fully prepared, made myself up to look like Coretta with pearls on and the right shade of lipstick,” she recalls. “I went the whole nine yards.”
A week after having dinner with DuVernay, she got an email, which was simply a photograph of herself pasted next to a photo of Scott King and the words “This is a dream come true” typed beneath them.
“I immediately burst into tears because I knew it was such a great privilege and responsibility to play this character,” she says of the film that also stars David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and concentrates on the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
So tell us how you approached this pivotal role, which you had played successfully more than a decade ago?
When I first played Coretta in “Boycott,” I did the traditional research work that you do for historical figures. There were lots of books to read and archival footage to watch. This time around, David and I were trying to read between the lines by looking at the raw footage from that time. It was quite telling to see how the Kings acted when they weren’t aware of being filmed, or how Coretta reacted when the cameras were turned on.
Coretta Scott King died in 2006, but she approved of your performance in “Boycott,” correct?
Yes, I was very fortunate to have been given the ultimate blessing. I took that with me into “Selma.” It made me feel more certain about revealing the stress of their married life, and I didn’t feel pressured about avoiding certain kinds of truth. She was a great manipulator of her own image and was very good at keeping certain things hidden to protect herself, her husband and his legacy. I felt like I was honoring her by fleshing her out and presenting a more human face.
Ava DuVernay has said that one of the most important scenes is when you and David are getting dressed before a speech and you’re helping him tie his ascot. Can you tell us a little more about that?
David has an entire movie to reveal this complete persona, and I had very few moments to try and build this complex relationship. What we discovered was that the more specific we got, we got a better sense of the bigger picture. So it was about capturing the details of the moment. There you see the intimacy of this couple and also the domestic role that she has to take on. While she’s dressed in this regal attire, she’s also expected to be representative of people who were struggling for dignity. David and I were also dumbstruck by how rare it was that you see black characters looking that sophisticated on-screen.
In addition to you and David, “Selma” stars Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson. Why are so many British actors in this movie about the American civil rights movement?
I know! It’s a curious thing, but Hollywood has had a long affair with the British actor. I will say there is something about being on the outside and having enough distance from the material and the actual history that frees you from the responsibility to tell the story as it was taught in school. It offers a certain liberation from the expected take on the material.
“Selma” arrives in theaters at a time when issues of race, equality and justice are on everyone’s minds. Do you think the movie will help change things for the better?
The first time that I saw the movie, I left the theater with a sense of empowerment. I feel there’s a sense of universality in the message. The idea of people finding their voice as a collective against the power structure is an idea that resonates in Iran, Hong Kong, Egypt, the Ukraine, and it’s a notion that resonates here.
Since the Patriot Act was implemented, there has been a quiet erosion of human rights. This concept of police states, overbearing authority and disrespect of the people is something that’s happening to all of us, regardless of race. We are all starting to feel that we need to take power back at some level. This film captures that zeitgeist, which is even beyond Ferguson and the New York chokehold case. “Selma” offers this incredibly timely and valuable reminder that civil disobedience is a real tool to make change happen.