Actress Carmen Ejogo was born in London on New Year’s Day 1974 to Elizabeth Douglas and Charles Ejogo, a couple of Scottish and Nigerian extraction, respectively. She made her U.S. film debut opposite Eddie Murphy playing Veronica “Ronnie” Tate in the 1997 comedy “Metro.”
Carmen went on to star in films such as Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost;” “What’s the Worst that Could Happen?” opposite Martin Lawrence; Gavin O’Connor’s “Pride and Glory” with Ed Norton; and in Sam Mendes’ 2009 indie hit “Away We Go.”
Additionally, Ejogo garnered the attention of television critics and audiences alike for her portrayal of Sally Hemmings, the title character in the 2000 CBS miniseries “Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal.”
Later, Ejogo earned a 2001 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in a TV film or miniseries for her portrayal of Coretta Scott King in HBO’s critically acclaimed film “Boycott”opposite Jeffrey Wright and Terrence Howard.
In 2005, Ejogo returned to HBO in the Emmy nominated “Lackawanna Blues.” Her role as Aalen grabbed her a second Image Award nomination.
Carmen, her husband, actor Jeffrey Wright and their two children live in Brooklyn. Ejogo is staying busy with roles in the feature “I, Alex Cross,” a psychological thriller based on the James Patterson novels about Washington, DC detective Alex Cross and as FBI agent Baca Sunjata in the highly anticipated ABC television series “Zero Hour” opposite Anthony Edwards. Here she talks about her latest role as Sister in “Sparkle” opposite Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston.
What interested you in “Sparkle?”
This role is to die for. It’s such a great role. The highs and lows of the character’s sister [Sparkle, played by Jordin Sparks] are so dramatic and nuanced and layered that you’d be a fool to turn this role down.
Did you watch Lonette McKee’s performance in the original version of “Sparkle” in preparing to do this role?
No. No, I don’t know how you make a role your own if you do that. So, watching another actress play the same character in preparation for my own performance is the last thing I would ever do, particularly with Sister, since Lonette made it so iconic that it would be a crazy idea to watch her. I think our movie pays homage to the original, but it’s definitely different in numerous ways.
What message do you think people will take away from the movie?
It’s essentially about not letting your light be dimmed by anybody who doesn’t appreciate the dream that you’re trying to pursue. It’s about knowing who you are, and following your path even if you’re not given support by those around you. And it’s also about family.
Do you enjoy being a member of Mensa?
[Laughs] That is hilarious! Oh my God! I had no idea until recently that my being in Mensa was even on Wikipedia or somewhere else. It is true, but it’s funny that it should come up as interview question.
So, how high is your I.Q.?
156, for anyone that’s interested. But I probably wouldn’t be able to get as high a score after raising two kids and losing a lot of brain cells in the process.
I loved your role in “Lackawanna Blues.”
What’s interesting is that that role was actually Halle Berry’s. She had to pull out at the very last minute, which meant I literally had only a couple of days to prepare for that role. Honestly, it was like baptism by fire, because I was so underprepared that I had to work on instinct. I was feeding off the energy of those excellent actors while trying to find my place which made it a really exciting experience for me.
What was it like working with Whitney Houston?
Amazing! She is an icon, and she brought a passion from the heart for telling Sparkle’s story that made her an inspiration to watch every day. It also made it a pleasure to perform opposite her.
Do you have any advice for aspiring actresses/singers?
Yes, go back and watch the great performances in your business so that you can understand the heights that should be aspired to. There are many mediocre entertainers who don’t aspire to much more than fame and glory. It’s very easy to have them as your role models because there aren’t as many greats. Go back, discover the greats, and take it from there.
I read that your director, Salim Akil, worked with schizophrenics before he started working with actors. Did that make him a more patient director than others you have worked with?
Oh my God! I had no idea. But that makes sense. He is literally the calmest director I’ve ever worked with. He was so willing to step back and let us do our work without feeling that he had to interfere and tell us what to do just for the sake of looking like a director. He had such confidence in himself.
So, it wouldn’t surprise me, if he’s had experience outside of the business, because he has a much deeper soul than that. Working with people troubled in that way could be great training for working with actors who themselves can be a little schizophrenic at times. [Laughs]
Are you ever afraid?
Oh yeah. A lot. The great fear I’ve had to overcome, particularly this past year, is the fear of failure. It can be safer to stay in a comfort zone that’s not stretching yourself. I tried to overcome that fear playing Sister. You have to be willing to be afraid, if you’re going to be an artist.
Are you happy?
Yes. I’m happier than I’ve been for a very long time, for all kinds of reasons. I’m glad my kids are happy. I’m grateful that my work is going well. I’m happy that this moment in my career arrived at this age, because I’m ready for it in a way that I might not have been at 20.
What was the last book you read?
Darwin’s Cathedral. It’s about evolution and religion and it’s gonna serve me well for “Zero Hour,” my new TV show that I start filming soon
What is your favorite dish to cook?
I make a really delicious eggplant and squash curry that’s inspired by Vij of Vij’s Restaurant, a great chef and restaurateur in Vancouver. I like to cook that dish because it’s really simple but the flavor is so pungent and intense that I feel like I’m a real chef whenever I create it.
You’ve portrayed Coretta Scott King and Sally Hemmings. Is there another historical figure you’d like to play in a biopic?
I’d love to play Betty Davis, one of Miles Davis’ wives. She was sort of like Madonna before there was a Madonna. I’d love to play a full-out rocking chick.
What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
Leaving my first agent was both my best business decision and my worst business decision. It depends on how I want to look at my career because of opportunities that may have come had I stayed with him and because of the opportunities that did come because I had to fight harder for roles.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Oh, my goodness me! [Chuckles] A mommy.
How hard is it to balance working and parenting, since you and Jeffrey are both actors?
It explains why I haven’t been onscreen very much the last ten years. [Laughs] It’s very hard. It’s been getting easier as I give myself permission to work again. It’s all about my guilt level.
What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
That depends on how you define success. Success for me will be where the body of work I’ve done afforded me the opportunity to be as good as I can be, and to explore myself and to see what I’m capable of. People like that share a willingness to be scared and to take chances.
Who’s at the top of your hero list?
Oh man, it’s so hard to answer that. In terms of dignitaries, Nelson Mandela is up there. In terms of artists, this will change, but I’m really into a performance artist named Marina Abramovi´c right now.
What excites you?
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