Sparkle Scene Stealer Carmen Ejogo Talks Sad-Sexy Sister, Tyler Perry, And Zero Hour
Introducing Movieline's ARRIVALS series, spotlighting breakthrough performers enjoying a bit of a "moment." Today meet British actress Carmen Ejogo, whose scene-stealing performance in Sparkle kicks off a big year in film and TV.
As much as Sparkle is about well, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), the shy young singer who learns to come into her own in this weekend's R&B remake (not to mention Whitney Houston in what might have been her comeback), it's Carmen Ejogo's scene-stealing Sister — sultry, ambitious, and tragically doomed — who brings the film's cautionary lessons crashing home. Ejogo's offscreen story is even more intriguing: the MENSA member and one-time backing singer for Tricky (she does her own vocals in the film) got her start in the 1986 David Bowie musical Absolute Beginners and tried the leading lady route in her first crossover roles (Metro, What's the Worst That Could Happen), before earning notice in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, HBO's Boycott, Lackawanna Blues, and last year's Away We Go.
With Alex Cross and ABC's Zero Hour on the horizon ("It’s kind of like Da Vinci Code meets Mulder and Scully in The X-Files," she laughs), Ejogo, who lives in Brooklyn with husband Jeffrey Wright and their children, is poised for a breakthrough year stateside. She rang Movieline en route to the airport, still buzzing about the film's crowd-pleasing premiere.
How did the Sparkle premiere go?
Carmen Ejogo: It was fantastic. I’m still sort of trying to absorb the comments that came afterwards about my performance. I’ve been a mom at home mostly for the past ten years, trying to raise a family, and so to come back with a role like this and then to have an evening like last night, where the movie was received really well and my performance is really noted... you know, I’m kind of a little bit dumbfounded at this moment.
I have a soft spot for the original Sparkle so I was really interested to see how the film would differentiate itself from the original, and one element that really does set it apart is the performances.
CE: I’m most excited when people say that they’ve seen the original and they really responded to our version cause that was my big fear all along. I'd got a lot of questions along the way when people asked what I was doing next and I’d tell them I’m playing Sister in Sparkle. They were like, “What do you mean?” It’s like the untouchable role in so many people’s minds, so I’m most excited when somebody’s seen the original and they’re really into what we’ve done with this new version remake.
What’s interesting about Sparkle the story, in both the original and the remake, is that it’s really Sister’s story for so much of the film. Did you find when you were first considering the project and going for it that Sister was a deceptively needy and nuanced character to play?
CE: Oh absolutely. I’ve never, ever, if you look at my body of work - I’ve never played a sexy character, ever.
You mean a character that explicitly uses her sensuality?
CE: Absolutely, exactly. There’s many a career that’s been built on that in this industry and I’ve stayed away from it wholeheartedly, and the only thing that gave me permission in myself to play it in this role was because I understood that the journey. The arc is such that [Sister] is such a naïve personality and that neediness is so much who she is, and that becomes revealed. Where there’s this bravado and controlled sexuality and charisma that’s based on looks and something exterior, you also get an opportunity in this role to really explore and sort of put forth the inner workings of what often makes this kind of girl tick - and it’s usually and very often out of a real deep-seated neediness and insecurity and the need for validation from others. In Sister’s case, it’s from her mother in some kind of strangely complicated way, but it’s also from men, very evidently, throughout the movie. So that sort of complexity is what drew me to this role and I willingly played it, particularly in this sort of cult-celebrity kind of culture that we’re in trying to rope children into.
Right, Sister learns that playing into her sexuality for fame is ultimately her downfall.
CE: I have a daughter and I’m so conscious of the fact that she is bombarded with images of women who are celebrated purely because of their celebrity and their sexiness, and women who have sort of academic prowess or have great minds are not really looked upon in the same glory, so I really enjoyed the fact that we had [Tika Sumpter's character] Dolores in the movie, who I saw like comes out as one of the most awesome honest personalities in the movie who wanted to be a doctor. She has no interest in these silly games. Sparkle you respect because she has real talent, and in the end, Sister is really just pathetic. I thought that was an interesting thing to put forth, the idea of the sexiest girl in the movie being the most pathetic.
Do you feel that you’ve had to make that similar choice in your life in your work, to navigate the Sister-esque route in your career?
CE: Definitely, definitely. If I had been making certain choices earlier in my career that I actively avoided I probably would be a little up to speed with a lot of my contemporaries. A lot of girls I was coming up with have far exceed me in terms of focus within the business, but I’m still happy and proud and can stand by my body of work at this point and I don’t feel like I’ve compromised my values along the way.
One of my favorite tidbits about you is that you are a member of MENSA…
CE: [Laughs] I don’t know if I can still pass if I took the test! After having kids I’ve definitely lost a few brain cells along the way.
A high IQ isn't something that Hollywood tends to naturally exploit in actors, unfortunately.
CE: There was a point when I was very young where I remember talking with my mom about going to drama school and this was maybe when I was 8, 9, 10 years old – and she knew that I was also academically very capable, and she steered me in another direction. I ended up getting a scholarship to a really academically strong girls’ school that had produced people like Kate Beckinsale; she's actually another actress in the industry who I feel has really had to grapple with certain choices and I think has a similar take on this. She was in the year above me in the school that I went to. It’s interesting the kind of girl that that place has produced, that have recognized the complexity of being a woman in this industry and made choices out of that. There were definitely forks in the path where I could have gone one way or another, but the academics certainly were something that was more encouraged in my house.
Whitney Houston is such a tremendous presence onscreen just watching the movie. What it was like to be in those scenes and on set with her?
CE: I actually had to get up from the [premiere] screening after she performed her song. I was just in absolute tears, as were many of the people around me, but I had to go and fix my make up because I knew that the lights were coming up in twenty minutes. [Laughs] Her presence on the screen is just utterly mesmerizing, she’s luminescent. On the set, she was always a presence, but there was a humility about that presence, an approachability about her that is not always what you find in stars, and that’s what she embodied. I have to really thank her so much to some degree for the performance that I was able to give within this movie because knowing that the people at the helm, the biggest name in the movie, are willing to be vulnerable and to be honest in their performance and their work, and their willingness to work with the other actors, sort of set the tone and freed me up to so what I had to do. She was also very open about her life, her past, in whatever way she thought would be beneficial to my work because obviously there are very strong parallels at times between my character’s past and Whitney’s past and life. I thought that was very generous and not asked for but was really offered. You really don’t know who you’re going to be showing up to work with on a project, and you just hope that have really creative endeavors at heart, and that’s absolutely where she was coming from.
I read that you used to be in a band, is that true?
CE: Gosh, yeah! I mean a long time ago, and that was really just a brief moment in time. I went on tour with a recording artist in the UK around the States, actually. I dabbled a little bit in the whole music thing but I’ve always thought about Bernie Taupin, who is Elton John’s lyricist; Elton John is the great melody and song writer but Bernie Taupin is the one who writes all the lyrics. I don’t write lyrics, and I never wanted to be in the music business if I was just going to be a puppet in it. So I made that choice at some point but I have such a passion for music and I love that whole space – I just had to decide at some point to devote myself to acting. That kind of made Sparkle a bit of a dream job. I got to combine the two and play at being a pop star.
Which musician were you on tour with?
CE: His name is Tricky, he’s a trip-hop artist. In that moment in time he was definitely a force to be reckoned with musically. But one of the reasons I didn’t ever pursue a career – in the music world if you’re black or mixed, you need to be able to belt a song or else you’re not a singer, you know? Coming from the UK, I can think of so many great songs and musical moments that didn’t require a belter of a voice; my favorite singer is Kate Bush and she’s not a belter, or PJ Harvey… I’m definitely more of an alternative girl. So given the fact that I’m on a soundtrack with Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks and Cee-Lo, for goodness sake, a performance like mine is probably not going to get a lot of attention, and I’m okay with that. [Laughs] But that’s Sister singing those songs. The way I would approach those songs might be a little different – there’s a sassy, there’s a sultry, there’s a husky going on in that voice that’s not necessarily how I’d perform a song. It’s a performance!
I was pleasantly surprised to find that R. Kelly was involved in the music of Sparkle. Did you interact with him much?
CE: I learned a lot about R. Kelly from Whitney because they go back forever, and I didn’t know that. Whitney would talk about certain people in her life – she’s very reflective, I found, in lots of ways, and would talk about times with Michael Jackson who she really knew when she was a teen, and R. Kelly who she’s known forever. I never actually got to meet him. He remains in the shadows.
Your next film is Alex Cross...
CE: It is, and it’s a really small but pivotal role in the movie. It’s funny because it’s destined that it happened, because that’s how I got Sparkle – the make-up artist on Alex Cross said, “Do you sing?” And I said yeah, a little bit, and she said, “You really need to know about this movie that’s happening in Detroit, called Sparkle. And that’s when I decided to self-tape that night to go for the role of Sister. As small as the role is in Alex Cross, it’s a funny thing for that to come out after Sparkle. But I’m so thankful for that because really, one came from the other.
What was it like to work with Tyler Perry? He has this niche following but this promises to be a real crossover.
CE: I totally agree, and that’s what interested me about the project. Rob Cohen, who directed it, had been a fan of Sally Hemings which I did many, many years ago. So I was very excited to work with him for that reason as much as any, but this Tyler aspect was a bit of an unknown because I’ve never seen any of his movies. Of course I knew who he is, and I know the space he inhabits in terms of film, but I recognized that this was going to be a serious role and a departure for him from what he normally does. And he, I have to say, was as dedicated to the work as any actor I’ve ever seen. To the point that I don’t know if I ever actually experienced time with Tyler. I had never met him previously. I think he’s coming to the premiere so I might get a sense of who he really is, but I felt like I was constantly talking to Alex Cross. He was kind of method in his approach, and he was really full on!
Audiences will also get to see you on the small screen, in Zero Hour. What can we expect?
CE: I literally start as soon as I get back filming [Zero Hour] for ABC with Anthony Edwards, this is his return to network television. It’s really a two-hander; what excites me about the potential of this is it deals with subject matter that I think is going to be quite potentially controversial and titillating for the American audience, because it’s all about religion versus science and faith versus non-faith, and these topics that people don’t like to get into too much. It’s kind of like Da Vinci Code meets Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. [Laughs] It’s funny, I know where I’ve been coming from all these years and my background and I realized as I reflect, I’m a horror/sci-fi buff without realizing it. I was a big Stephen King book reader growing up, and I think I’ve made certain choices over the years based on that taste, and this is definitely one of those moments.
Sparkle is in theaters now.