With the release of the critically acclaimed film Selma, which, tells the true story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, historic struggle to secure voting rights for all people which was a dangerous and terrifying campaign that culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights act of 1965, on DVD and Blu Ray we got to speak to one of the stars of the film.
Carmen Ejogo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr wife, Coretta Scott King, in the film Selma and one of four British actors to appear in the film, sat down to talk to us about all things Selma and Coretta Scott King.
We’ve recently seen you in Selma playing Martin Luther King’s wife, Activist and Civil Rights leader Coretta Scott King. I can imagine this was a massive honour to play such an important and iconic figure?
Yeah for sure, I had not heard of Mrs King until I got to play her the first time around, she wasn’t someone who was held in as much esteem as her husband in Europe, but in America she is very much seen as really the first lady of the civil rights movement. So I knew it was certainly an honour. Whenever you’re playing someone historical who is still with you, still alive, which was the case when I played her the first time round, it’s another reason I wanted to get it right. Even though she wasn’t alive when I played her in Selma, her family, her children were going to be seeing this, so you want to do it right every time.
Did you have any feedback from the family about your performance?
Yes, the first time I played her I got feedback from her and she really liked my performance, the second time I got feedback from the family via Oprah. Oprah had met with the family, they were all very moved and touched by my portrayal and they felt like I had really nailed it, so that was very encouraging to hear.
How and why did you get involved with Selma?
There had been talk about an MLK biopic for years, but nothing had quite caught grip, then I heard last summer, or just a little before that, last spring, that Oprah was coming on board and Plan B Production, which is Brad Pitt’s production company. Then when I heard that combination, I knew it was going to get made. I just had a feeling it was going to happen. Oliver Stone had one attempt, throughout the years something happened but I just had a feeling this one would go all the way. I made enquiries to try and figure out if there might be a role appropriate for me in it, and since I had played Coretta before I was most interested in if there was a Coretta that was now at the right age. When I first played her it was 1955, time period, so I was in my twenties, So if I was going to have to play her again she would have to be later in life, and sure enough that was the time period they were looking at, 1965, so it worked perfectly. That’s when I got on board and auditioned for Eva (The Director of Selma) and met David at that audition and it worked out. I was moved to tears when I found out that I had the job.
I was going to mention that you also played her in Boycott back in 2001; do you think already playing the role helped you in Selma?
It helped in the sense that I had a strong sense of what she had come from because I had done all the research for the 10 years prior. I might not have done such in-depth research if I had only had played her in Selma. My research might have only focused on the years surrounding Selma. But because I had done all that additional homework as it were, I really felt very comfortable in understanding the landscape, the attitudes of the time, what she had come from emotionally and historically and that just gave me a degree of confidence to both explore her further and also out of bounds, explore her in ways that maybe I might not have felt as sure of doing if I hadn’t of lived with her in my history for so many years. It just gave me a slightly different perception of her than maybe other different actors coming in would have because I had already tried her on once. The look, the make-up, the walk, and the talk you know I had already given that a go. It’s a different woman in 1965 in many ways, there is maybe a little less of the optimism in her, there is more of a realist about her, and she’s a little more jaded. There is also a lot more strength about her, she’s had resilience built up over the years which I think lends itself to being someone who could really stay the course and put up with all kinds of issues that would have been testing on a woman in that era. It would have been testing on a woman in anytime, whether it’s the infidelity, the fact that she was a woman and was expected to be at home with the kids as opposed to being more active on the ground which she wanted to be. She could have been as she was smart enough, she was able enough, she had ideas of her own which would have been valuable, but all of these things had to be sacrificed and tolerated by her because she was a woman in 1965. It was a little pre women’s rights in America.
Do you think it’s about time they made a film on Coretta Scott King’s life seeming as she is just as much an important figure with everything she stood for? Would you be willing to play her again if they did?
I think there are so many amazing women, there are so many women that end up where you don’t necessarily get to see the story just about them you tend to see them just in relation to their husbands story, I feel like if there had been a Jackie O biopic that’s been on film, I don’t think there has, she’s always seen as sidekick to the husband and, in fact, all of these woman, and I can think of others who are even more prominent in terms of civil rights and in terms of their impact on real policy change, there are other characters just like Coretta that absolutely deserve their own story. I can only tell so much with the scenes I had as to who this woman was, but I know I still haven’t done her full service. There is still so much to be illuminated and magnified about who she was. So yes I think it could still be a story worth bringing to the screen. I’m not sure I would be doing it for a third time (laughs), she is definitely fascinating enough. It’s funny as there was a project that I was talking about with someone that was working on the movie with me had this really out there idea for a potential reincarnation or another version/time frame which would show Coretta later in her life, after Martin had died which I thought could have been a really interesting timeframe to look at. Who is the woman without Martin by her side, that’s a fascinating person to and I know the Coretta I met in 2000 was a different woman again from the one I played in 1965. as with all of us we are forever evolving hopefully and shifting and changing and when you have someone who has had that such a life, such an impactful incredible life, but in a way that was so guarded, where so much of what was being felt or thought or emotionally lived was actually kept to herself, that makes for a really fascinating portrayal not matter who we are talking about. If that was the angle then maybe I could be talked into (laughs), but there are so many other things to be played. The reason I enjoy acting and wat I have done with my career so far is that I keep changing it up. I don’t do ten years of television on the same character, what excites me typically is the transformation. So to keep playing the same person over and over is just a little less appealing at this point. Playing her twice, from what I can gather, is a unique situation, I can’t think of another actor playing the same character on a film twice as different times in their life with exception of Helen Mirren who played the Queen.
Your just one of four British actors playing in the main roles in Selma, why do you think British Actors are so good at playing important historical American roles?
I grew up watching American television and watching American films, so I know there is a whole generation of actors like me who grew up fascinated by all things American, as a result I have been listening to the accent my whole life on television, I’ve been studying the culture through television and film and as a result I think there is a generation of filmmakers behind the camera and in front of the camera who have a very innate sense of what it is to be American. I was a teenager when I first visited so I think that might have something to do with it. I also think British actors, the reason we are held in such high esteem is because we really treat acting as a craft, and we come from it, not from a celebrity perspective, which I think is culturally we are all starting to buy into the celebrity approach to everything. I still come from a generation of actors that come from I think a country where acting is held in high regard. The idea of really studying and really grasping fully, a character, is part of the job. I think that’s why British actors can pretty much do anything in my opinion. If they are at the top of their game, British actors have an edge over many other actors for that reason. There is just a long history in this country of it being a real craft.
Selma is such an important film in giving us a history lesson in Martin Luther King’s 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, Do you think this is the right time to address these ideals what with all the trouble in America we have seen lately?
I think Selma is a film that has resonance and importance for audiences for decades, I am very proud that this film will be around for the long haul. I think right here and now yes what’s happening in my opinion is a sort of…. a second wind of an attempt at a real kind of social revolution happening in America. I think the first attempt was around the Iraq war invasion under the Bush years when occupy Wall Street was trying to get a splitting. I think all of that was an attempt at, in recent history I’m talking about, but I really think there is a continuous push in the direction of social change, whether it LBGT rights, whether it’s women’s rights, workers rights and I think civil rights and rights amongst minorities in this country when it comes to police brutality, is very much at the helm and at the fore of conversation. Voting rights has become an issue again in this country because of court decisions in recent years and with an election coming up, we know of the disenfranchisement of the vote happens historically, as recently as Al Gore, George Bush election. I think it’s an ongoing issue in this country and I think Selma could off come out five years ago or five years from now and still be relevant but at this very moment in time it just seems to be very zeitgeist, there’s something in the air where people collectively and more on mass and more mainstream are starting to realise things have to shift.
You’re not only an extremely talented actress but you’re also a singer, in the 90’s you collaborated with numerous artists and you appeared on four songs on the Sparkle soundtrack.
That’s right yeah I was the lead singer, it’s kind of ridiculous given I was in a movie with Whitney Houston and Jordan Sparks but yeah I was the lead singer of the group (laughs). I love both singing and acting, I have somewhat neglected the music in an attempt to really take my acting career seriously, but I am very keen to find ways to let the music start to unfold more so than I have been able to. I’ve actually been in the studio recently, I’m always playing with the idea of it and I’m looking forward to the idea of making something very concrete happen in the near future. They are both my passions, they are very different to me. My acting I feel like I am definitely transforming into somebody else, and there is something protecting about that. Singing, I feel is it’s entirely me that I am putting out there every time and that’s a much more vulnerable space for me. So I suppose I hold it more preciously, I sort of keep it closer to my chest, I keep it closer to my heart than maybe the acting. I’m less willing to share it but I’m getting more and more willing to put it out there more than I have in the past.
What can we expect to see you in next?
I’m definitely working on music which I’m really so thrilled that I’m able to do it at this point in time because it’s something I’ve always really longed to do and I feel like the time is now to really find the right space for me. Then I’ve also got a film hopefully coming out later this year or early next year probably with Ethan Hawk which is about the Jazz Musician, Chet Baker. It’s all about music going forward.
Selma is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 15th June