Carmen Ejogo‘s life has changed quite a bit since she last played Coretta Scott King, the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. She played the role in the 2001 HBO telefilm “Boycott,” about the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and again this year in “Selma,” about the 1965 voting rights marches in the titular Alabama city. Ejogo became a mother in the intervening years, which helped her relate to Scott King, whose own life changed dramatically in-between the events of the two films.
“I think the Coretta I got to play in ‘Selma’ is a much wearier, burdened personality,” says Ejogo (watch our interview below). “She was an intellect, an academic, she was a singer, she was a progressive, a feminist, and in some ways by 1965 she had really kind of been reduced to a mother and wife and someone that’s a figurehead, and who has to maintain a certain self-image.
“Something that’s really palpable in my opinion, something I think she was living with as well, was the idea that she might not have Martin around for long,” Ejogo added. “I think she knew by 1965 that it was inevitably a matter of time … and sure enough it was only three years later that he was assassinated.”
Ejogo never experienced the peril that Scott King and her family endured, but the actress could relate to the conflict of a woman balancing her personal ambitions with the demands of family. “I definitely had gone through a lot of the same woes and anxieties … Becoming a mom is its own trauma in many ways,” says Ejogo. “It’s a great experience, but particularly in this industry where women are not so readily welcomed back into the fold when they’ve had kids, you’re made to feel at times that you’re past your sell-by date and you haven’t got a lot to offer anymore … but I’m still here. I’m doing some of the best work I’ve ever done.”
That work has now been recognized with individual nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards and the Image Awards, and the film itself has been nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. She’s honored to be recognized for her work, but more importantly, she hopes the awards attention will lead to “bums on seats and will turn into box office, and that’s relevant because that’s ultimately what determines whether a film like this gets made again in this way, with a black female director like Ava DuVernay at the helm, with so many people of color behind the camera.
“That was a completely unique experience for me,” she adds. “I’ve never been in that situation where so many people of color were inhabiting and telling their own story.”
She feels that that story will resonate “globally” because beyond the racial struggle at the heart of the film’s conflict is “essentially a story about people finding their voice against whoever the oppressor might be, whether it’s corporate power taking away workers’ rights, whether it’s people on the streets of Hong Kong trying to find their space. There are so many examples: Ukraine, Iran, Egypt … This movie has so much potential to inspire and to encourage people to find their voice and to know that as a collective, people-power is massive … It can actually change the world. It really can, it happened.”
Do you think Ejogo will be nominated for an Oscar for her performance? Watch our complete interview below, then use our drag-and-drop menu to make your predictions, or click here to enter your picks in all Oscar categories, as well as Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit Awards, and more.