For a long while, especially in the entertainment industry, there was this archaic notion that women could not be complicated and messy, that we could not have angles and layers and been seen in various lights. Thankfully, in the recent years, various stories and characters are shifting the tide. For Carmen Ejogo — ho has been dazzling recently in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and It Comes at Night —
these are the roles that speak to her soul.
For Ejogo, starring alongside Denzel Washington as Civil Rights attorney/activist Maya Alston — a woman who is both burdened and enchanted by activism — in Roman J. Israel, Esq. was a no-brainer. “What I find most frustrating is when people operate from a place of clear delineations that you’re either good or bad,” Ejogo explained to me over the phone a few weeks before the film was set to premiere. “I really don’t like people that think in that way. I think it’s very destructive because I’ve not yet met a human being that operates in one of those zones to a degree of perfection. It means we are all going to be losers if that is somehow the definition of what is to be a valuable human being in the world. So I’m excited to bring to the screen people that are messy, that are weak as well as strong, that are nuanced, that are complex, that have complexity about them because that’s when you see yourself on screen.”
Set in Los Angeles, Roman J. Israel, Esq follows an idealistic lawyer (Washington) whose life is shifted drastically when his law partner dies and he’s thrust into the courtroom. Earning the attention of a hotshot attorney (Collin Farell) and a Civil Rights activist (Ejogo), Roman tries to cling to his morals while getting seduced by the trophies of greed. “I’ve never seen Denzel in a role like this,” Ejogo explained. “And I’ve never actually seen a film like this. There’s something about it that is super-mesmerizing and idiosyncratic and it really had its own signature. And that’s a testament to Dan [Gilroy] as a really interesting filmmaker. He’s a dream to work with.”
Written and directed by Gilroy, the film is a massive tale driven by character. It’s a story that came together in a way Ejogo never expected. “I’ve gotten used to the idea that you can hope that a film is going to reach its potential,” she reflected. “What’s really gonna make me sign on is believing that this film has that potential, but most importantly, ‘What can I then bring to it individually?’ ‘Who am I gonna get to play with?’ ‘Will the components in place allow me to rise to the challenge at hand?’ If it then emerges that we’ve got a much bigger piece of art that starts to emerge, because you realize that all of the components that you’d hoped might be in place actually are in place, then it becomes like the golden goose. That’s when it becomes quite special. There are so many things that can happen during the making of a movie that people end up wavering from that vision. But you’ve got to know that what you can contribute individually is gonna be worth the time and the effort and the process. I just got very lucky on this that it all came together in a way that makes for a really timeless and relevant movie.”
When it came to working with Denzel Washington, Ejogo felt that after two decades in the industry she was finally ready to stand alongside the titan. “You know, he’s not such an intimidating character when he’s dressed as Roman,” she explained laughing, “He was so generous from the start in terms of what he had to offer as an actor in the room. The writing on the page was so truthful that I felt in my gut that there was an authenticity there. There wasn’t anything forced in what was expected of me. He demands premium respect for the work. He has no tolerance for anyone that’s coming onto the set that isn’t there to really work as hard as is necessary. You rise to the challenge hopefully. I took great pleasure in rising to the challenge. I’ve wanted to work with him for many years. Societally, we are at a place collectively where this is a film that is worth bringing to the screen. And so I think we brought our best selves as artists to the set every day as a result.”
Still, there was one aspect of working with Washington that Ejojo had not prepared for. The Academy Award winner’s character Roman is on the autism spectrum which means he interacts with other people differently. “I think you would describe the character as maybe a savant of some kind,” Ejogo explained. “So there was a lack of eye contact at times which was very interesting. I’ve never had to deal with that working against someone. It’s a really interesting dynamic, so it suddenly becomes about navigating the rest of the body language and the other behaviors. So that was a bit unsettling and a bit intriguing and unusual, but mostly it felt good.”
Some audience members might mistake Roman and Maya’s relationship for romance, but their connection is much deeper than that. “I think they change each other throughout the film, ” Ejogo expressed. “There is a soulmateness, that is more of the intention of the delivery on the screen. I think we’ve all thought about going certain routes or we’ve gone a certain route that we regret. I think some people have compassion for the fact that our journeys are messy and complicated, and I think Maya is that kind of person.”
Ejogo is currently on a roll. Having just snagged the lead role opposite Mahershala Ali in the third season of HBO’s serial drama True Detective, filming a Fantastic Beasts sequel, and a starring role on Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, the London native is determined to give all types of women visibility and a voice on screen. “I think an audience realizes that we’re all in this together, “ she expressed thoughtfully. “The idea of seeing somebody that actually rises and meets challenges, despite themselves, that’s the person I wanna watch on screen ’cause then I can aspire to something. I can recognize that there’s greatness in all of us. Those are the kind of women I wanna keep playing. Wherever you’re at is enough. I think essentially that’s what I always look for in characters, that it’s honest in that sense.”
Roman J. Israel, Esq. premieres Wednesday, Nov. 22.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami