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Interview: Carmen Ejogo on 'Selma' and the myth that black films don't travel

The actress discusses playing Coretta Scott King for the second time, as well as how "12 Years a Slave" proved international audiences will see black films.

The junket for “Selma” — insanely enough, Hollywood’s first-ever full-on film about Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) — was held the day after major protests in the wake of the Eric Garner decision in New York City, D.C. and Chicago. It’s impossible not to see parallels between the two, especially as the film focuses exclusively on the activism, not King’s life. Not only is co-star Carmen Ejogo aware of this; “Selma” is the second time she’s played Coretta Scott King, following 2001’s HBO movie “Boycott,” opposite her husband, Jeffrey Wright.

This film is, almost needless to say, incredibly relevant.

It’s intensely relevant, and in a positive, inspiring way. I feel the message of “Selma” is that civil disobedience and hard work can really make change. It’s not just some hippie notion. It actually has worked, and policy has changed as a result, historically. I’m very encouraged when I see these protests have been staying relatively peaceful and that they clearly figured out some of the strategies of this era. It gives me hope that it might actually go somewhere, unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement. There’s something more galvanized and cohesive about the approach to this movement.

What convinced you to return to playing Coretta?

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To play her again it had to be revelatory in some way or it had to be different enough. The same thing for David: If it was just about creating the iconic monument in stone of Martin Luther King I don’t think we’d have been engaged. I’m always intrigued by the interior life being exposed — people who have an external operation that does not match their internal desires and essence. For me Coretta is the epitome of that. She became a master manipulator of her own image. She’d really bought into the iconography. She really understood the relevance of it. There was this other side to her: the intellect, the wasted academic, the artist who trained to be a singer. There were all these things that were never expressed until after Martin died. Then she became an advocate for LGBT rights, she was progressive.

She’s there throughout the film, but she really only gets heard during a scene late in where she confronts King over his infidelities.

That scene was the last one we filmed of all my work. The schedule did all the work for me. I was so disconnected from the rest of the cast. I would come in sporadically, so I became this disconnected, frustrated housewife, in Atlanta, in my hotel room. It was perfect for the film. In that scene there’s a stillness and a vulnerability and a power — all of these mixed emotions get to express themselves, finally. That gave me permission to do everything prior in a much smaller and more veneered way. She gives you this impression that you don’t know who you’re dealing with. That’s who she was. I got to meet her, and when she walked into a room she just had this regality and a stillness — but behind a wall. You didn’t know where to go with her until she let you in.

Though you’re playing her again, Coretta is at a very different place here than she was in “Boycott.”

I felt a little cocky; I felt I had done all my research the first time, so I didn’t have to read any books. But the Coretta you meet in 1965 is different relative to 1955. I had re-evaluate and redefine who she’d be this time. She was a much more weary, burdened, frustrated woman at that point. The burden of the threat of death had become a daily occurrence for them at this point. In 1955 they’d just been thrust into the position of leadership of the movement. They were still working it all out. There was a naivete and a hopefulness that is starting to ebb by 1965.

We talk about “Selma”’s connections to today, but it’s so different. Back then it was much more likely protesting racism could end in violence, even death.

It’s so easy to be apathetic in this day and age. There’s a comfort level that means you don’t quite get engaged or involved enough. This film made me want to do better. These are amazing people who made massive, real sacrifices. For me it was a big deal that I didn’t go shopping on Black Friday as a protest statement. And it’s not just the Corettas, the Martins — it’s the Annie Lee Coopers, who were willing to potentially lose the only job they have, earning a pittance, by trying to register. I wonder how many of us have that capacity for sacrifice these days.

What do you think Ava DuVernay — an independent filmmaker, who's also a black woman — brings to this that other directors wouldn't.

This comes from a woman whose mother still works in Selma. She has family down there. This is her territory, this is her world. She knows this stuff intimately. Ava made it part of her agenda to know the actors had the spirit for the movie. She spent time with each and every one of us. I’ve never had that experience in Hollywood, and maybe that’s why this film feels way more connected than anything else I’ve done.

It’s taken till 2014 for Hollywood to make a movie about King, and it’s still a relatively small one. And the Sony leaks revealed there’s still a certain hostility to films about black people. Do you have a sense that it’s at all getting better?

This movie’s about race, but it’s really about people. That’s when I think we’ve made real progress — when Hollywood recognizes that it’s the same kind of film as “Unbroken.” Both are about the human spirit. They’re not about the type of people in them. We’re dealing specifically with race here, but if you can have audiences show up to movies that have a black cast and they still come out feeling as inspired on a universal level as any other film, that’s exciting to me. I think Hollywood’s getting a little more savvy to that. Box office is everything, and luckily “12 Years a Slave” has had massive box office appeal all over the world, killing all ridiculous myths that black films don’t travel internationally. Traditionally that has been why a lot of films don’t get past the start mark in Hollywood: they think they won’t be able to sell outside of the States. That notion has been completely quashed. Hopefully this film will do the same. Then more films like this will get made.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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