Carmen Ejogo: How to Play Coretta Scott King, Twice

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Photo by Eric Ray Davidson

Carmen Ejogo’s masterful performance in this year’s Selma made her one of Hollywood’s best new leading women.

“I’m not scared of tackling characters that are good or bad, that are light or dark. We are none of those things singularly anyway,” actress Carmen Ejogo says. “There isn’t much I wouldn’t explore.” Ejogo made her debut in 1986’s Absolute Beginners and began to work steadily in films after appearing opposite Eddie Murphy in 1997’s Metro. However, she’s best known for playing Coretta Scott King — first in Boycott (2001), a role she researched by actually meeting Mrs. King, and again more recently in Ava DuVernay’s Best Picture nominee, Selma. Although the film didn’t win the Oscar, it’s a timely reminder that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is something we, as a country, are still fighting to achieve. In real life and in the film, Dr. King relied on his wife, and Ejogo’s masterful performance conveys how much of his strength came from her.

The Dr. King biopic has put the actress in the spotlight and garnered her an Independent Spirit Award nomination, so it’s unsurprising that the film is turning out to be a stepping stone, helping her work “with better and better directors, consistently,” she says. Her next project, Born to Be Blue, a reimagined look at Chet Baker in the 1960s (from writer-director Robert Budreau) finds Ejogo playing opposite Ethan Hawke. In the complicated story of love and race, she ends up helping the jazz legend get control of his addictions and mount a comeback.

When Ejogo was growing up in London, she idolized actresses who were masters of the complicated woman, from Jessica Lange to Gena Rowlands. “I was definitely in love with the cinema siren,” she says. “I think the fact that it’s a short-term relationship and you’re only inhabiting the character for a certain amount of time definitely appeals to me.” Early on in her career, Ejogo says, she would go on auditions for “all kinds of nonsense,” but has since learned to be more discerning. She’ll only consider a role when she’s “absolutely sure it’s mine, and it should be mine.”