Scottish-Nigerian sensation Carmen Ejogo breaks out big time Stateside as Coretta Scott King in Selma.
She had a dream: Carmen Ejogo had to fight for the part of Coretta Scott King in the new movie Selma, even going so far as to wear Scott King’s signature shade of lipstick to the audition.
This holiday season, Carmen Ejogo is set to tackle one of her most complicated and intense roles to date: The Brit-born beauty will be playing Coretta Scott King in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma (with fellow Brit David Oyelowo as Dr. King). Luckily for Ejogo, she’s had a little practice with the taxing part: The actress also played Scott King in the 2001 HBO miniseries Boycott. “I can’t think of many actors who have had the chance to play the same historical character twice at different stages in their life,” Ejogo says. “That felt really interesting to me.”
And while there’s no doubt that she was primed to play the character, her casting experience was far from easy. “I was among many other actresses whom [director] Ava [DuVernay] had considered, but I was certainly not at the top of that list,” Ejogo says. “I had to fly myself in [to the audition]. This was one of those projects that I knew I just had to fight for because it was going to be worth the fight.” After wowing the casting team with her dedication to the project (“I went as far as getting my hair done like Coretta and wore the right shade of red lipstick,” says the actress, who was able to meet the civil rights figure years earlier while shooting Boycott), the choice was clear, and the role was hers. “I was just overwhelmed to know it was mine,” she recollects. “It’s an incredibly special role for me.”
Her costar, Oyelowo, is also enamored of her. “She was the perfect partner for me in this endeavor because she simply would not rest until the scene and situation felt grounded and real,” he says. “Carmen’s secret weapon as an actress is that she has a unique blindness toward her own devastating beauty. She is first and foremost a truth-seeker and a truthteller, so she unwittingly draws you in.”
When the film premieres on Christmas Day, it will be Ejogo’s most high-profile piece yet, but the half-Nigerian, half-Scottish actress has been in the limelight steadily since her teens. “I was working fairly young after I was spotted by a modeling agent, which led to a little bit of film work,” she says of her London childhood. While neither of her parents was a performer, Ejogo describes them as artists. “I definitely come from two parents that didn’t really have rules for themselves,” she says. “They were young go-getters in a very honest and authentic way.” And although she is a singer as well as a proficient saxophone player, Ejogo made the decision early in her career to focus on acting and cross the pond for better opportunities. Some plum film roles followed, including Sam Mendes’s Away We Go and the musical Sparkle alongside Whitney Houston.
“Now there are a gazillion British actors who come over and work here,” she says. “It wasn’t quite like that when I was first stepping out—and certainly not if you weren’t white. So I feel I was part of that original pioneering group of girls that kind of broke into the American market. And I kept going here and never looked back.”