Carmen Ejogo. She’s talented, gorgeous, and extremely smart. You may have seen her in some great films these past few years: Alien: Covenant, It Comes at Night, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and, of course, Selma, where she played Coretta Scott King. I got the chance to chat with Carmen about her role in the upcoming film Roman J. Israel, Esq. starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, and directed by Dan Gilroy. She had some great things to say. Check out our conversation below:
Cat Combs (CC): Tell us a little bit about your character in this new film.
Carmen: Oh, gosh. I haven’t been asked to do that. So, I play Maya. I’m a young activist who has in some ways lost her sense of direction, or has started to wonder if she can really make a change; if it’s really worth the energy, sacrifice, and burden that comes with being an activist. She is somebody that we, kind of, get the impression that she doesn’t have any life outside of her work, and in that sense, she is quite similar to Roman, who is played by Denzel Washington, who is an older-generation activist lawyer. And they make very interesting kindred spirits. They never really have a romantic journey. It’s a really wonderful happening to bring to the screen because of the absence of that. It’s rare that you get the opportunity just to explore what it is to be two people who happen to be a man and a woman who can have respect and be inspired by each other without it becoming a romantic liaison. But, there is still that kind of soulmate and closeness that I think is quite evident between these two people. So to get to play that kind of role opposite Denzel was really, really interesting, and something I haven’t gotten to do before.
The movie is really about…gosh, what is the movie really about? In a nutshell, what is it about. I mean, it’s about a man who goes through some sort of existential crisis,and goes against his own morals and principles at some point and has to go on his own journey of self-realization, as do many of the characters in the film. What it’s really about, most essentially, is about just being true to yourself. It’s really something that simple. It’s about really honoring your own convictions, your own sense of purpose and remaining true to that, and not letting any other kind of forces or influences take you away from that path. That, to me, is what this film is about.
CC: yeah, I mean, I can definitely see that in your character Maya. Even though she does, you know, go through that wavering, I think she is a strong female character, and I love that about this movie. And you are no stranger to playing strong female leads, so that’s great. Thank you.
Carmen: Here is the thing, I think it’s interesting that you describe the character I play as strong. And I love that that’s the word that you ultimately come to because I actually think that’s a really messy, very complicated, sometimes seemingly weak woman, but in that willingness to explore all sides of herself, that’s where strength lies for me. It’s not strength in the absence of weakness or strength as opposed to weakness, or strength as the opposite of weakness; I think its strength that comes out of embracing all aspects of yourself, including your weaknesses. That, for me, is what a strong person is.
CC: I agree, absolutely. So, what do you think people will love about this film?
Carmen: I think they’ll love they are being pulled into the psychology and the life of the unlucky painted human being in a way that you don’t always get to see on film. They are also characters that, in their own vulnerable and flawed way, are incredibly inspiring in a time and moment in time, in this country in particular, when divisiveness seems to be the rule of the day. I think it’s going to be very inspiring and aspirational, what is seen in these characters on screen. That perseverance in whatever one’s principles are, to remain to persevere in the pursuit of those principles and those ideas and ideals is something that is manageable and should be an effort that we all make. No matter what the powers that be make us feel otherwise.
CC: You mention inspiration and whatnot, and I think a lot of women in the industry are looking, especially women of color, are looking for that inspiration. They’re looking for the female leads who play strong characters. So, can you speak a little about your experience as a woman of color in the industry?
Carmen: In what way? That’s a broad request.
CC: In terms of the roles that come to you or that you seek out. How hard it is being a woman, not even just a woman, but a biracial woman and the roles that are offered to you.
Carmen: Yeah, yeah. I think I’ve learned the “power of no” and the conviction of saying no to work that felt like it was not worthy of my time and my artistry. As lofty as that may sound as an idea, I think that I completely relate to Maya in that sense, because there have been so many moments in my career where I have really thought, am I doing the right thing by not going down the obvious path like so many of my contemporaries, by not taking lunch with Harvey Weinstein, by not, whatever it might be. By making choices that I knew were not enhancing, pushing my career forward in a real sort of fast fashion. There’s many days or moments of wondering if that was the right judgement call but, in the end, sticking to my principles as an artist, if they were in the right place in the beginning, which I kind of think that they were, I think I came to this work as an actress recognizing it to be a craft and not some kind of celebrity pursuit or any other kind of material gain to be had. No, I think it made it much easier to be able to say no to the things I knew were beneath me that weren’t worth the time. And it made it feel a little more exciting, and there’s more passion behind it when I got to say “yes” to the things I wanted to do.
You have to honor the artist in you, and that’s all I can say, even if that means you don’t end up with the career you thought you’d have. Even if it means you don’t end up being a huge movie star if that’s what you think you are meant to be. If it means you don’t get to work with Denzel for 20 years, which is how long it’s taken me to get to work with him finally. You know, whatever the shape of the career ends up looking like, if there was artistry always at the core of the decisions and the choices you made along the way, then it’s the right path. It’s that simple. Whatever it looks like.
And frankly, you know, to speak of the racial aspect of it, there are doors that have not been open to me along the way from the start of my career. And that’s working, to get contemporary and to speak sort of to the present-day issues, that includes not getting to work with Miramax; you know, at times that I would have loved. Some of these doors I could have potentially found a way to open, or that just remain closed, and to be honest, I’m kind of okay with that at this point. At the time it may have felt like such an injustice, but in some ways it then forces you to create your own doorways, to recognize the career you don’t really need or that isn’t really valuable in the first place, that you thought was really important. You know, you just start re-evaluating what you really want when certain things aren’t made available to you, and you start looking for opportunity, and I think that is something that lends itself to sense of character, and then you ultimately become more desirable in the end, for everyone because, yeah, you didn’t compromise, you didn’t bend to the wind and make choices that went against who you know yourself to be. Know who you are. That’s all I can ever suggest that anyone work from. Know who you are and then honor that.
CC: Awesome. Well, with that…I think I’ll end with that. Thank you.
Carmen: Thank you so much.
This interview was conducted by Cat Combs.
Roman J. Israel, Esq is due for limited release in theaters November 17, 2017. Worldwide release will commence on November 22nd.
Check out the trailer below: