Oprah Winfrey talks to the Selma star about their Oscar-nominated film and the life-changing
- Photography By
- GUY AROCH
- Written By
- EVELYN CROWLEY
- Hair By
- PETER BUTLER
- Makeup By
- JILLIAN DEMPSEY
- Styled By
- SAMANTHA TRAINA
- Nails By
- TRACEY SUTTER
The first day of filming Selma began with an impromptu prayer circle. “Everybody came together to celebrate what we were about to embark on,” recalls actress Carmen Ejogo, who plays Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr., in the acclaimed civil-rights drama. “There was this deep-seated desire to get it right, to honor the memory of what had happened.”
The 41-year-old British actress is on the phone with Oprah Winfrey, who helped produce Selma and plays a small part in the film. Although the two women never shared screen time, they clearly share a connection. “There is this very unique love between all the people involved in the film,” says Ejogo. “I think it stems from the importance of black artists getting the chance to tell our own story.” (Certainly, that Winfrey took time away from the business of being Oprah Winfrey to interview Ejogo for her VIOLET GREY cover story speaks to as much.)
Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma chronicles the three months in 1965 when Dr. King led a series of marches in Alabama to crusade for equal voting rights. Though fraught with violence and resistance from racist factions, the campaign ultimately led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, the film venerates King without glossing over his flaws, namely his alleged infidelities. As Scott King, Ejogo (whose previous films include Sparkle and The Purge: Anarchy) delivers a quiet yet gripping portrait of a loyal wife who must contend with both her husband’s public persona and extramarital dalliances. “I remember looking at the dailies and yours was the first face I saw on the first day of shooting,” Winfrey tells Ejogo, who has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female. “You did such a beautiful job in this film.”
Below, the two women enjoy a conversation that runs the topical gamut from Ejogo’s thoughts on beauty and aging to her current “obsession” with offbeat comedian Reggie Watts.
VIOLET GREY listens in on a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Carmen Ejogo.
OPRAH WINFREY: THESE VIOLET GREY PHOTO SHOOTS SEEM REALLY DRAMATIC AND WELL-THOUGHT-OUT. HAVE YOU HAD YOURS YET?
CARMEN EJOGO: Yes. We did it at this beautiful home in Bel Air. Cassandra had in mind that I was essentially the powerful owner of the home. She gave me certain film references like Brigitte Bardot in Contempt and Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface. It’s exciting when someone has very clear intentions for what they want to do.
OW: DO YOU ENJOY HAVING YOUR PICTURE TAKEN?
CE: I think I become too self-conscious. I also get nervous that I’m not quite getting the pose right! Given the medium, I often assume it’s best to try for something still, which is so different from acting to me, where you’re constantly in motion. I have to remind myself that the best models are very fluid and are playing out a scene in their head.
OW: LET’S DISCUSS SELMA. WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM THE EXPERIENCE? I MEAN ALL OF IT— CAST, CREW, WORKING WITH AVA?
CE: I think it was a reaffirmation of the importance of artists getting the chance to tell their own stories, their own history. The pure love from everyone involved on the set and their commitment to telling the story in a way that felt authentic to their experience truly transfers onto the screen in a way that is absent in some of the other work that I have done.
OW: YOU ALSO PLAYED CORETTA SCOTT KING IN THE HBO DRAMA BOYCOTT. FOR SELMA WERE YOU TRYING TO CAPTURE THE SAME THING YOU DID THE FIRST TIME? OR WERE YOU MORE CONCERNED ABOUT TRYING TO MAKE IT DIFFERENT?
CE: What Ava wrote for Coretta was so different from what I was working with the first time around that I inevitably had to portray her differently. But I didn’t ever feel anxious. I was excited by the challenge of getting somewhat messier with this portrayal. And by messy I mean not being scared to explore Martin Luther King Jr.’s alleged infidelity or exploring the fact that Coretta, who was a brilliant and dynamic woman, was, at times, frustrated in her iconic role of the first lady of the movement, being stuck at home and not necessarily having a platform to express herself fully.
OW: WHAT WAS IT LIKE KNOWING THERE WAS A WOMAN — A BLACK WOMAN — BEHIND THE CAMERA, MANAGING AND DIRECTING THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE?
CE: I have been in this business long enough to know that Ava had to exhibit some very special qualities — not to mention stamina — to get to a place where she was taken seriously. I ultimately felt that what she had undertaken was quite incredible and trailblazing, not to mention that she was doing it with such grace, vision and leadership.
OW: THAT’S WHAT I ADMIRE: HER ABILITY TO LEAD THAT GROUP REALLY. OKAY, SO LET’S DO SOME FUN ONES. WHAT’S THE BEST NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE AND WHY?
CE: Yikes! That’s really hard. What would yours be?
OW: WELL, THE BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE WAS ACTUALLY RECENTLY. IT WAS POURING RAIN. I HAD A FIRE AND THE DOGS WERE HERE AND STEDMAN WAS IN HIS OFFICE AND I WAS CURLED UP ON A SOFA READING THE MOST EXQUISITE BOOK. I HAD 120-SOME PAGES TO GO AND I JUST LOOKED AROUND THE ROOM AND THOUGHT, “I AM SO HAPPY. I MEAN, GOD, I AM SO HAPPY! I HOPE IT RAINS ALL NIGHT OR AT LEAST UNTIL I FINISH THIS BOOK!”
CE: What was the book?
OW: YOU MUST GET IT! IT’S CALLED RUBY. IT’S BY A FIRST-TIME AFRICAN-AMERICAN NOVELIST NAMED CYNTHIA BOND. IT NOW GOES ON MY LIST OF TOP FIVE ALL-TIME GREAT BOOKS, WHICH INCLUDES ROOTS AND TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. IT’S A LOVE STORY, AND THE LANGUAGE IS JUST ASTOUNDING. SO ANYWAY, IT WAS THE COMBINATION OF RAIN, A CHILL IN THE AIR, DOGS AND A GOOD BOOK. THAT’S IT.
CE: One of my most enjoyable evenings was around a campfire in the mountains of Colorado. I was with my mom and two kids and we spent the entire night singing songs and telling stories about each other. It was just one of those really wonderful family moments.
OW: WHERE DO YOU FEEL MOST ALIVE? AND BY ALIVE I MEAN THE MOST YOURSELF.
CE: When I’m swimming. It can be in a pool or, even better, a lake or the sea. But there is something about being underwater that gives you space to think and meditate. It makes me feel very connected to myself somehow. I also come alive when I’m painting. I like to work in oils and acrylics, and the full sensory engagement and self-expression is very stimulating to me.
OW: WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITIES IN A ROMANTIC PARTNER?
CE: Kindness, empathy, compassion, passion and a sense of humor. And intelligence. I’m a sucker for somebody that’s got serious brain power.
OW: I WAS IN PROVENCE LAST SUMMER, ANTIQUING, AND FOUND THIS PURE OIL THAT THEY HARVEST [FROM] THE LAVENDER FIELDS. I HAVE A GALLON OF IT THAT I TRANSFER TO DIFFERENT BOTTLES BY MY BATHTUB. IT’S AN ART FORM FOR ME, BATHING. SO YOU’RE A WOMAN AFTER MY OWN HEART.
CE: I’ve had as many as maybe three, maybe four baths in a day. Is that really excessive?
OW: OH, YOU BEAT ME. I THINK ONE EVERY NIGHT IS ENOUGH. BUT I WILL NOT TAKE A BATH WITHOUT SOME KIND OF BUBBLES. AS A KID I WOULD USE IVORY LIQUID SOAP AND JOY DISHWASHING DETERGENT BECAUSE I DIDN’T WANT TO CLEAN THE TUB. OKAY, I LOVE THIS GAME: IF YOU COULD INVITE THREE PEOPLE, DEAD OR ALIVE, TO YOUR HOME FOR A DINNER PARTY, WHO WOULD THEY BE AND WHAT WOULD YOU SERVE?
CE: I’d invite Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife. I want to know more about what made that woman tick. She was quite a fascinating creature. I would also invite Gandhi. Now, let me lighten the whole scene up with Reggie Watts. He’s this awesome, out-of-his-mind comedian who I’m a little bit obsessed with. As far as the menu, it would be a potluck dinner. Gandhi could bring some Indian food, Josephine would bring a French dish, and I would make my three favorite desserts: banoffee pie, crème brulée and panna cotta.
OW: HOW IMPORTANT IS BEING BEAUTIFUL TO YOU?
CE: I think my definition of beautiful has shifted over time. It means something different than it did when I was 15 and aware that how I looked had power. Now it’s more about character and having something to say. When I see those things in someone, I find that very attractive, particularly in women. It’s important for me to set an example for my daughter, so I actively try to stay away from projects or situations that make me too hung up on the exterior. To be honest, that’s always been a criteria for choosing work, avoiding the vanity trap.
OW: ALL RIGHT, CARMEN, I KNOW YOU HAVE TO GO, BUT I JUST WANTED TO SAY AGAIN WHAT A BEAUTIFUL JOB YOU DID IN THIS FILM.
CE: Thank you. I think everyone involved was clearly motivated by a deep-seated love for the project and its message.
- PHOTOGRAPHER:Guy Aroch @ Jed Root
- CREATIVE DIRECTOR:Cassandra Huysentruyt Grey
- SUBJECT:Carmen Ejogo
- MAKEUP ARTIST:Jillian Dempsey @ The Wall Group
- HAIR STYLIST:Peter Butler @ ABTP
- NAIL ARTIST:Tracey Sutter @ Cloutier
- STYLIST:Samantha Traina @ Streeters
- LOCATION:Bel Air, Los Angeles
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